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.