Prince, priest, patron

5 July 2016

Cardinal Henry Benedict Stuart
Cardinal Henry Benedict Stuart (1725-1807)

New research by Dr Peter Leech is helping to uncover the history and influence of Cardinal Henry Benedict Stuart (1725-1807), an important Italian patron of music who has, until now, passed under the radar of modern musicology.

Prince Henry Benedict Stuart was made a cardinal in 1747 by Pope Benedict XIV, the first in a series of prestigious appointments which led ultimately to his becoming one of the most influential churchmen in eighteenth-century Rome.

One of the most valuable, yet neglected, primary sources of biographical information about Cardinal Henry is a vast diary kept by his chaplain Giovanni Landò from 1758-1805, now owned by the British Library, which reveals a wealth of new information about important musical figures associated with him.

One of these figures is composer Sebastiano Bolis. Until recently there was no significant references to Bolis in English-speaking musicology and, apart from a short entry on the Treccani website and a few brief references in Italian organ journals, scarcely any references to him in Italian music literature.

Landò’s diary revealed that Bolis was maestro di cappella at S Lorenzo in Damaso from 1778 until the early 1790s, and also maestro at Frascati Cathedral during the same period. Dr Leech’s research, some of which featured in a landmark article for the 2015 edition of The Consort, has now revealed a substantial, yet forgotten sacred repertory by Bolis for both these venues.

Another musician mentioned with increasing frequency in diary entries from 1770s and 1780s was Lazaro Venanzio Belli, appointed master of plainsong at the Frascati seminary in 1768. Dr Leech noted: “That Henry had recruited Belli was typical of the former’s reforming zeal, insisting upon the highest standards of sacred music at a time when this was generally perceived to have been in decline. Belli was the author of a two-part treatise on Gregorian chant, published in 1788, considered by Pietro Lichenthal to have been an important contribution to western music theory, yet it seems not to have been noticed by English-speaking musicologists.

“At Frascati Cathedral in particular, the dual combination of Bolis’s music and Belli’s academically refined plainsong instruction, makes it clear that church music, wherever Cardinal Henry officiated, was fresh, vibrant, modern and consummate. Bolis and Belli join the ever-growing list of church musicians directly or indirectly employed by Cardinal Henry during his long career, demonstrating his importance and influence as a musical patron.”

Dr Leech is musical director of Harmonia Sacra, a successful choir he formed specifically for the performance of late-Renaissance and early-Baroque music. The choir’s second CD, ‘Princely Splendour’ released by Nimbus Alliance, includes the first recordings of works by composers working in the circle of patronage around Cardinal Henry, including Giovani Battista Costanzi, Sebastiano Bolis and Giuseppe Ottavio Pitoni.