Clash of Choirs: Pugnacious about Palestrina

It all started out solemnly… and then there were fireworks. A report from the PIMS conference in Rome.

Diego Fasolis is one of three people who received an honorary doctorate from the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music on Saturday, May 28th, along with renowned composer Arvo Pärt and renowned interpreter of early Italian organ music Luigi Ferdinando Tagliavini. Cardinal Zenon Grocholewski, Prefect of the Congregation of Catholic Education and Grand Chancellor of the Institute, delivered an allocution.

On Sunday, Diego Fasolis held a seminar on interpretation of Palestrina’s choral works. The demonstration choir under his leadership was the Coro della Radiotelevisione Svizzera Italiana (RSI). In attendance was Cardinal Domenico Bartolucci, famed long-time conductor of the Sistine Chapel, now 94 years old. In 1956 Pope Pius XII named Bartolucci permanent director of the Sistine choir. But in 1997, at age 80, he was replaced by Guiseppe Liberto. Cardinal Ratzinger was opposed to this move, and as Pope Benedict XVI he named Bartolucci a cardinal in 2010.

A quick look at the biographies of Fasolis and Bartolucci shows very different educational and professional paths. Hence the differences in their interpretation of Palestrina – differences which clashed during the interpretation seminar. To my ear, the RSI choir sounded almost British, with a pure, straight timbre and a continuity of sound carrying through the phrase.

Recent research gives new insights, it was said. And then a shout from the audience: there are no new insights, it is tradition which instructs us. Attention to the text must influence the phrasing. No, attention to the practice of the Roman Church is the best influence. And so forth.

And then the temperature in Rome, until then quite pleasant for late May, rose dramatically. How many choir members are Italian? Two-thirds of the hands went up. Which goes to show we’re not a bunch of Germans up here singing this way. Then this: There shouldn’t be women in a sacred choir. With a signal to the altos, the conductor instructed his singers to walk out. He would give his honorary doctorate right back to the Pontifical Institute.

And then, mercifully, the administration of the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music intervened. Things calmed down, no apologies were demanded but regrets were expressed for the things said. The doctorate will be kept.

The RSI choir sang at Sunday Mass that evening, Church of San Carlo ai Catinari, Cardinal Grocholewski presiding. For the so-called Ordinary of the Mass, Palestrina’s “Missal Papae Marcelli” was sung in its entirety. Chant propers (introit, offertory, communio) by all-male choir of the Pontifical Institute, nice semiological interpretation but rather sloooooow. Female reader, female ushers. Congregational singing of psalm and alleluia from Graduale Simplex.

Surprise, surprise, after Mass the participants expressed varied opinions about the liturgy. Too little, some thought – why no incense? Too much, some thought – were we worshiping Jesus Christ or Palestrina? Why distribute from the tabernacle, why no Communion under both forms for all?

I’m not one to have opinions about things liturgical or musical. If I were, I suppose you’d hear me saying that it’s the finest choral music I’ve ever heard at a liturgy in Italy. But I’m not one to state my opinions. It only causes clashes.

awr

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18 comments

  1. Hilarious!

    As a footnote, Liberto was eventually moved out by the “restorationists”. He had had an unhappy time, being blocked at every turn as he tried to bring the Cappella Sistina to a point where it would no longer be considered the laughing-stock of the world. He is a liturgist as well as a respected choral director, but the Sistine singers and their supporters would have none of it, and manoeuvered away in the background, culminating in Liberto’s departure in October 2010. So sad.

    Incidentally, the Wikipedia page still thinks Liberto is the director, and does not know that he is a Monsignor. The current director is Fr Massimo Palombella, a Salesian priest.

    1. “Fr Massimo Palombella, a Salesian priest”

      What a rarity. I thought all Salesians had been made bishops in the current pontificate.

      Incidentally, this posting of Anthony’s is veering very close to the “things overheard in a Roman trattoria” which were outlawed yesterday by some.

      1. As one who apparently now has the power to outlaw classes of blog posts, I’d just clarify that my particular irritation was with names of people and places being strategically left out so that only those in-the-know could readily participate in the conversation.

        Here, Fr. Anthony has provided plenty of background information (and links as well). I don’t consider his post anything at all like the others about you-know-who doing you-know-what at you-know-where because of you-know-why, wink wink!

  2. ‘I’m not one to have opinions about things liturgical or musical.’

    Now come on, Dom Anthony, that I don’t believe! OK, you might be shy about publishing them, but that’s a different matter.

    How did your participation in a ‘colloquium’ go? Much more fun than fielding questions about a certain translation, I bet.

    1. John,

      Apparently you didn’t see my tongue in cheek, though it clearly was when I hit “submit.”

      The conference is wonderful! Very wide range of speakers from around the world.

      When asked to submit the title of my presentation, I considered “The cultivation of the treasury of sacred music in the U.S. against the backdrop of a failed translation,” but thought better of it and left the last part out.
      awr

      1. Anthony did you and your companions make it to that little place in the via Cavour for pranzo?

  3. So much hubub over interpretation. Now I understand better the “Palestrina via Puccini” approach to polyphony by Italian choirs. What a complete breakdown in manners. It makes town hall meetings in the United States seem calm.

  4. “the finest choral music I’ve ever heard at a liturgy in Italy”

    Oh dear!

    I remember being told many years ago that the people who provided the, er, “singing” (the word “choir” would never suffice!) at the Sunday Solemn Mass at Santa Maria Maggiore (not technically Italy, I know, but I digress) were mostly retired minor opera singers who more competed against, rather than sang with each other at that principal liturgy each Sunday morning.

    I put such “unkind” remarks down to the customary bitterness of the infamous Welsh monsignor who was the source of the information – until I got there and heard them: he was being FAR TOO KIND in his description.

    Measured against THAT choir (and others I’ve heard in the Eternal City, not least in the cathedral and on the Vatican Hill) “the finest choral music I’ve ever heard at a liturgy in Italy” might not be all that glorious a tribute!

    (In those days it was the custom for the Liberian Basilica canons to take turns singing the principal Mass, the Cardinal Archpriest “presiding” in choir dress on the odd occasion he was there on a Sunday. Now that the Archpriest is resident in the basilica, I believe he’s the principal celebrant most Sundays – the noise that “choir” used to make could not have happened to a nicer person.)

  5. My first reaction was, “who cares?” I’ve reconsidered. Just as the architecture and statuary in major cathedrals influences that of the most humble parish, the ceremony and song does as well.

    As hinted in Chris Grady’s comment, Mass isn’t a concert hall. We want to bring good technique to Mass, but more important is that we use the music to pray together. When the music becomes an alternate battle field in theological or personality wars, we have drifted far from the original purpose.

    Whether it’s a Clown Mass or Palestrina, we who are in the choir or directing the liturgy need to remember the story of the Jongleur de Norte Dame. What we have to offer is not so important than it is the best we can offer, and that we offer it in humility rather than self-aggrandizement!

    1. Brigid, that’s exactly the problem with the translation in the Pell-Moroney-Ward Missal: it might be better than other things, and it might be coming no matter what and it might be what the powers-that-be insist on, but it’s NOT “the best we can offer.”

      (Funnily enough, I’ve not been in there, but) I bet there isn’t a tablet over the door of the Vox Clara office in the Congregation for Divine Mercy and Use of the Discipline at Piazza Pio XII, 10 Roma 00193 quoting Brigid:

      “What we have to offer is not so important than it is the best we can offer, and that we offer it in humility rather than self-aggrandizement.”

      1. It is my impression that there is an agenda behind the Pell-Moroney-Ward Missal, and it certainly isn’t to offer the best we can in all humility!

  6. Singing good music well is why I sing in a non-Roman Catholic choir. Quality and authentic spirituality are not diametrically opposed to each other.

    1. I suspect that sometimes the music does accurately reflect a spirituality that some might find shallow, trite or sentimental. Those are the times we need to remember that we are all pilgrims at different stages of our journey! When we encounter what we think is trite or irritating, we should examine whether the fault is in the music or in ourselves. If we decide that change is needed, I think gently leading people into new pastures is far better than trying to force them.

    2. Mr Praigg, don’t you know the best way to unite us catholics of all persuasions and none, is to say something as denigratory as that.

  7. BRIGID M RAUCH :

    Whether it’s a Clown Mass or Palestrina, we who are in the choir or directing the liturgy need to remember the story of the Jongleur de Norte Dame. What we have to offer is not so important than it is the best we can offer, and that we offer it in humility rather than self-aggrandizement!

    I must disagree.

    The best that we have to offer is a standard which professionalizes the liturgy instead of treating it as the prayer of the people.

    It is exactly that misleading goal which leads to the sort of scandalous behavior reported above. It is about two opinionated “artists” disagreeing over what is best rather than anyone involved being concerned with the assembly at prayer.

    1. Who sets the standard? When the objective becomes to be the most artistic or to follow the rules the most strictly, then we’ve lost sight of the objective. If we are indeed a universal Church, we can’t expect every liturgy to be based in European high art. If we applaud such expressions as an African congregation dancing at liturgy, then I think we also have to make room for a suburban parish with an affinity for Christian rock. It’s not my cup of tea, but if we were all the same it’d be a pretty boring Creation!

  8. Jeffrey Pinyan :
    As one who apparently now has the power to outlaw classes of blog posts … I don’t consider his post anything at all like the others about you-know-who doing you-know-what at you-know-where because of you-know-why, wink wink!

    Oh Jeffrey, it was never like that, and anyway, Jeffrey, as a certain American Jesuit in a certain Roman restaurant once told a certain Italian Archbishop to tell a certain Pope: it’s not all about you.

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