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Treading with a light step, Father Giuseppe Baldi left the Piazza San Marco
As was his custom, he walked along the canal to the Riva degli Schiavoni,
where he took the first vaporetto headed to San Giorgio Maggiore. The island
that appeared on every postcard of Venice was once upon a time the property
of his religious order, and the old priest always regarded it with nostalgia.
Time had brought many changes. Omnia mutantur. Everything was subject
to change these days. Even a faith with two thousand years of history behind
Baldi consulted his wristwatch, undid the last button of his habit, and,
while scanning the boat for a seat close to the window, took the opportunity
to clean the lenses of his tiny, wire-rimmed glasses. "Pater noster qui es
in caelis...," he murmured in Latin.
With his glasses on, the Benedictine watched as the city of four hundred
bridges stretched out before him, tinged a deep orange.
"...sanctificetur nomen tuum..."
Without interrupting his prayer, the priest admired the evening as he glanced
discreetly to either side.
"Everything as it should be," he thought to himself.
The vaporetto, the familiar water bus used by Venetians to get from place to
place, was almost empty at this hour. Only a few Japanese and three
scholarship students whom Baldi recognized as being from the Giorgio Cini
Foundation seemed interested in the ride.
"Why am I still doing this?" he asked himself. "Why am I still watching the
other six-o'clock passengers out of the corners of my eyes, as if I was going
to find that one of them was carrying a journalist's camera? Haven't I
already spent enough years holed up on this island, far from them?"
Fourteen minutes later, the water bus dropped him off on an ugly concrete
dock. A gust of cold air burst in as he opened the cabin door, and everyone
braced against the night air. No one paid any attention as he disembarked.
In his heart of hearts, Baldi cherished his undisturbed life on the island.
When he arrived at his cell, he would wash, change his shoes, eat dinner with
the community, and then bury himself in reading or correcting exams. He had
followed that daily ritual since he had arrived at the abbey nineteen years
before. Nineteen years of peace and tranquillity, certainly. But he was
always on guard, waiting for a call, a letter, or an unannounced visit. That
was his punishment. The kind of load that is never lifted from one's
Baldi restrained himself from giving in to his obsession.
Was there a more agreeable life than the one his studies afforded him? He
knew the answer was no. His various duties as professor of pre-polyphony at
the Benedetto Marcello Conservatory allowed him the peace of mind that had
always eluded him as a young man. His students were hardworking. They
attended his lectures with moderate enthusiasm and listened as he explained
the music of the first millennium, spicing his lectures with interesting
anecdotes. In short, they respected him. The faculty admired him as well,
even though he sometimes missed classes because he was absorbed in his
And yet, such a stress-free environment never managed to distract him from
his other pursuits. They were so "confidential" and long-standing that he had
rarely even mentioned them to anyone.
Baldi had come to San Giorgio in 1972, exiled for crimes owing to music. The
Cini Foundation offered him more than he would have dared to request from his
superior: one of the best libraries in Europe; a convention center that on
more than one occasion had hosted UNESCO conferences; and two scholarly
institutions dedicated to Venetian music and ethnomusicology that so
intoxicated him. To a certain extent, it was logical that the Benedictines
had made the effort to create that paradise of musicology at San Giorgio. Who
if not the brothers of the Order of Saint Benedict would busy themselves with
such devotion to that ancient art? Was it not Saint Benedict himself who,
once he had established the rules for his order in the sixth century, went on
to create the fundamentals of modern musical science?
Baldi had studied the subject thoroughly. He was the first, for example, to
appreciate that Saint Benedict's decree, which required all members of his
order to attend eight religious services a day, was based entirely on music.
A fascinating secret. In fact, the prayers that he and his brothers recited
daily were inspired by the "modes" still employed in the composition of
melodies. Baldi proved that matins (the prayers said at two in the morning
during wintertime) corresponded to the note do, and lauds, recited at dawn,
corresponded to re. The offices of the first, the third, and the sixth
hours, performed at six, nine, and twelve noon, corresponded to mi, fa, and
sol. And the hour of strongest light, none, at three in the afternoon,
corresponded to la, while the prayers recited at dusk, during the setting of
the sun, corresponded to ti.
That was the class that had made him famous among his students. "Notes and
hours are related!" he would boom from his podium. "To pray and to compose
are parallel activities! Music is the true language of God!"
And yet Baldi the old soldier had still other discoveries hidden in his
study. His thesis was astounding. He believed, for example, that the ancients
not only knew harmony and applied it, via mathematics, to music, but that
harmony was capable of provoking altered states of consciousness that
permitted priests and initiates in the classical world to gain access to
"superior" realms of reality. He defended his idea over the course of decades,
doing battle with those who asserted that such sensations of spiritual
elevation were always brought about by means of hallucinatory drugs, sacred
mushrooms, or other psychotropic substances.
"And how exactly did they 'use' music?" Baldi would ask rhetorically,
becoming more animated. He admitted that for the wise men of history it was
enough to develop a mental "wavelength" adequate for the reception of
information from "far away." It was said that in this state, those adept in
magic could reawaken any moment in the past, no matter how remote. Put
another way, according to Baldi, music modulated the frequency of our brain
waves, stimulating centers of perception capable of navigating through time.
But these techniques, he explained with great resignation, had been lost.
While many questioned Baldi's outlandish ideas, even the fiercest polemics
had in no way soured his jovial and friendly outlook. His silver hair,
athletic deportment, and honest face gave him the look of an irresistible
conqueror. No one seriously believed he was seventy-five years old. In fact,
had it not been for his vow of chastity, Baldi would have broken the hearts
of many of his female students.
That day, serenely unaware of the events that were about to unfold, Baldi
smiled as he entered the Benedictine residence, walking at his usual lively
pace. He hardly even noticed Brother Roberto waiting for him in the doorway,
looking as if he had something urgent to tell him.
Copyright © 2007 by Javier Sierra
Translation copyright © 2007 by Simon & Schuster, Inc.