The Vatican announced the death today, November 11, of composer and choir director Domenico Bartolucci, director of the Sistine Chapel Choir from 1956 to 1997. He was 96.

Bartolucci was born on May 7, 1917. His long career included being choir director at the cathedral in Florence, deputy choir director at the basilica of St John Lateran, Rome, choir director at Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome, and deputy choir director of the Sistine Chapel Choir, before assuming the role in which he would become best known.

Bartolucci composed much choral music and organ music, but was not above writing secular music such as chamber music, madrigals and symphonic music, and even an opera (which has never been publicly performed). In some quarters he was celebrated as an expert interpreter of the music of Palestrina, but in reality his performances showed a wayward romanticism at odds with an authentic performance of the works of the great master.

During his 40+ years as director of the Sistine Chapel Choir, he rebuilt the choir from the sorry state into which it had sunk under his predecessor Lorenzo Perosi, who had himself held the position of Maestro Perpetuo for the best part of 60 years (including some absences due to mental breakdown). However, Bartolucci did nothing to effect improvements in the Choir’s choral tone and blend. The Choir broadcast regularly from St Peter’s from the end of World War II onwards and was notorious for the way in which all the singers seemed to be competing with each other, their tone operatic and full of vibrato, a soloistic style inimical to good choral singing.

Bartolucci was replaced as director in 1997 at the age of 80 amidst some controversy. Some thought that he should be named Maestro Perpetuo and continue until he died; others hoped that his successor, Giuseppe Liberto, would be able to salvage the choir’s reputation. In the event the men of the choir refused to co-operate and Liberto eventually resigned. The current director, Massimo Palombella, is having greater success in this regard, though there is still a long way to go.

In recognition of his long service, Bartolucci was made a cardinal by Pope Benedict XVI in October 2010, a singular honour for a liturgical musician. The announcement was made just four days after Liberto had been replaced by Palombella — the timing seems more than a coincidence. Bartolucci’s funeral Mass will take place at the main altar in St Peter’s Basilica this Wednesday afternoon, November 13, at 3:30pm.

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