​Artists - Song as prayer

2017-06-01 L’Osservatore Romano

A perennial thirst for experimentation in all the fields of contemporary music and a desire to travel on arduous existential roads are the two motivations which best define the artistic and spiritual path taken by Giuni Russo (Palermo 1951-Milan 2004). Made famous to the wider public by lyrics, such as Un’estate al mare [summer by the sea]and Mediterranea, the singer worked very hard in order not to be stuck with the label of “commercial artist”, seeking instead to propose first and foremost to the record companies the artistic results of a life experience profoundly rooted in the movements of a soul in touch with the Absolute.

Giuni Russo, the stage name of Giuseppa Romeo, was born in Palermo in 1951, the ninth of ten children. Her father Pietro was a fisherman while her mother Rosa had a very beautiful “natural” operatic soprano voice and sang the most heart-rending Neapolitan songs while breast-feeding her. Determined since she was small to become a singer, in order to pay for singing lessons with a teacher at the Palermo Conservatory she started work in an orangeade factory for two hours a day after school. Her powerful and unusual voice, combined with an exceptional gift for interpretation, led her in a short time to chalk up one success after another, affirming herself to critics and to the general public at the most important Italian song contests. And yet music for Giuni was always a matter of constant searching, restlessness and experimentation: her artistic career proceeded parallel to a spiritual development which left the various producers speechless, absolutely determined in the name of profit to cage her in a precise style, recognizable at the first listening: thus her life was continuously blighted by these arguments which culminated in her outright ostracism by the record companies, which labelled her as an unmanageable and moody artist.

In 1969 Giuni moved to Milan, in those years the music capital, and her future adopted city. Here she met Maria Antonietta Sisini, with whom she formed an inseparable association which was to last for 36 years. Giuni had read Ignatius of Loyola and did the spiritual exercises together with the Sisters of the Cenacle in Milan, orienting her soul to Carmelite spirituality. Many of her songs gradually began to be inspired by the sacred text, by an analysis and by artistic reinterpretation of the biblical text. La Sposa [The bride] was born from a reinterpretation of the passage Wisdom will praise herself, contained in the Old Testament Book of Sirach(24:1; 13-21). Its verses “Tell me, my soul, where have you hidden yourself? / Where is the water that will quench my thirst?” celebrate the soul’s search for the Spouse: these are cultured texts but never pedantic, indeed they are overflowing with passionate and authentic spirituality. The same can be said for the moving song entitled La sua figura [His face], inspired by the canticle Adonde te escondiste? [Where have you hidden yourself], [Spiritual Canticle] by St John of the Cross, collaborator of St Teresa of Avila in the reform of the Carmelite Order, whose complete works Giuni Russo possessed. In this song the anguished search for a loving haven in the arms of the Absolute (“You know that the suffering of love cannot be healed / Except by the presence of his figure”), is followed immediately by a perception of the uprooting, exhaustion and suffering experienced in earthly life (“Like a tired child I now want to rest / And I leave my life to you”). Present in Giuni’s life was the desire for a divine Love which would be reconciling, capable of placating restlessness fatigue and the mystery of being in this world.

The song Moro perché non moro [I die because I do not die] was conceived during Lent in 1955 on her journey home after Vespers in the Sardinian church of Valledoria. Giuni, who had endeavoured for some time without success to set St Teresa’s words to music, suddenly began to sing in the car a clear melody inspired by the verses of this great mystic. For fear of forgetting these words and music which were “dictated” to her “from within”, Giuni was forced to sing for the whole of the journey. Home at last, she recorded this marvellous song which seemed to her to have literally “rained down from heaven” and was later entitled Moro perché non moro. Once again the verses tell of a life that followed a tortuous course. “How long to the exile is / This laborious life, / How hard the constraints that have by now worn me out”. Yet in the moment of extreme prostration the possibility gleamed of putting her existence into greater hands, abandoning herself to God: “For what I have in my soul / What can I do, O life, / Other than lose you / And myself get lost in him”? Before its publication Giuni chose to submit this song to the Discalced Carmelites, an order founded by St Teresa: after an initial moment of stupefaction the Sisters of the Milanese convent were enthusiastic about it and a deep friendship with the singer developed from this episode.

In 1999 Giuni Russo was diagnosed with cancer. She bore her illness with no self-pity and was even often ironical about it. In 2003, although she had been weakened by a heavy cycle of chemotherapy, she mounted the stage of Sanremo to sing the most beautiful Morirò d’amore [I will die of love], without concealing the signs of her disease and showing exceptional serenity of soul, despite the fact that every hope of a cure had vanished. About this heart-breaking song Giuni declared: “You think that I sing it for a man, for a mother or for a son; instead I sing this song because of the lofty love which is in these words: I will die of love, I will die for you, in you”. Giuni Russo died at her home in Milan during the night between 13 and 14 September 2004. She was 53. The Discalced Carmelites held her funeral in their church and her body rests in the part of the cemetery reserved for them. Mother Emanuela, the Order’s Superior, announced at the funeral that Giuni had been a true Carmelite, since with her song (carmen) she had deeply gladdened the souls of all the brothers and sisters.

Today, thanks to the tireless work of Maria Antonietta Sisini, Giuni Russo’s music is not forgotten; rather it has been revived and is appreciated at last. In 2013 the Jesuit Claudio Zonta wrote in Civiltà Cattolica a long monograph on the Sicilian singer in which he emphasized that “her songs have been able to explore the different dimensions of beauty and suffering as if they were companions of equal dignity and equal respect; indeed, it seems to have been in suffering that she found that ‘drop of splendour’ for which she had always yearned”. 

Elena Buia Rutt