Not Sacred Music, but Sounds of Attack?

Will those more knowledgable read the March 30 column of Sandro Magister and tell us what’s going on in the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music and in the Sistine Chapel Choir?


  1. Was the tag “Humor” inadvertently or purposely left off of this thread?

    I never have been a fan of the Sistine Chapel Choir. I thought their performance was abysmal under Bertolucci, especially when they were singing B’s own pseudo-Palestrina compositions; and apparently they have only gotten worse in these post-Bertolucci years.

    From the sound of it, Magister seems to be saying that no one should look to the Vatican for any leadership in liturgical music for the foreseeable future. But can the situation be as he makes it sound? Contemporary folk-jazz-rock music is coming to St. Peter’s Basilica? Really?

  2. Charlemagne recruited no less than the great Englishman, Alcuin, to oversee his schools and their singing. Perhaps today the Vatican Choir could use some more sound advice from an English Cathedral Choirmaster on what a Sistine Chapel Choir should sound like! No one in Italy seems to have the proverbial clue. They do, as they always have, sound like a gaggle of peasant boys rounded up from the cabbage waggons on some country road. Screechy, blendless, throaty, toneless. nuanceless, …less, and always, somehow, with an overtone of schmaltz,……………….. A few years ago I recall reading that a new choirmaster was being appointed and that we should be expectant of great changes which would make them into the respectable choir they should be. This hasn’t happened. Will it ever???

    Perhaps cultural exchanges with English cathedral choirs would seed their minds for the better.

  3. This has been going on for years…back to the time of Blessed John Paul II. The politics with the choir have been ferocious. Magister is in the fray and from time to time predicts his party will emerge triumphant and great music will once again (????) be restored. He was sure the present Pope would pull this off. The latest column is an act of despair.
    I thought the whole thing has been funny and comforting. Not even the Pope can control his music ministers and choir. The average pastor , then, does not stand a chance.

    1. Interesting, Halbert – but in my experience I think that the average pastor (parish priest) has much more power and direct control over his liturgical and other “minions” than a pope or bishop ever would have.

      Popes and bishops delegate their authority to people who act in their name and who control things ecclesiastical — look at the papal curia or average diocesan chancery. Parish priests very seldom delegate their authority in reality, even if they appoint directors of parish works.

      Your experience may (happily?) be different, of course. 🙂

  4. Is it REALLY not possible for the Pope to appoint a given person of given qualifications who will do what he wants done to bring his Sistine choir into the company of fine English, American, German and French Choirs of men and boys – into the world of actually fine cathedral and dom choirs that are Europe’s and the world’s choral treasures? Does he really lack the authority and will to clean house and make of Papal Music a pradigm for all? If he were really determined to to this why could he not do it? (Perhaps he doesn’t realise how bad it is, or, is not aware of other choirs that it ought to sound like???!)

  5. An eye-opener would be for an English cathedral choir (Catholic or not) to do a week or two of summer residency at the Vatican. Also, The Sistine choir could, um, at least try out for a residency at an English cathedral. Residencies such as this are common fare, especially in the summer months when (mostly) American choirs who pass muster sing at English cathedrals while their choirs are in recess or touring.
    There really does have to be some way to solve this disappointing and totally unworthy and undeserving state of affairs. I have known very few priests and bishops who didn’t get something if they really wanted it. They just do. It can’t be all that different with the Holy Father.

  6. The problem with the Cappella Sistina is no longer with directors of music, it is with the men themselves. They should all be fired and replaced with competent singers not operatic wannabes.

    Under Bartolucci, things were grim for many years, and the Sistine Chapel Choir was a laughing stock around the world. We all used to be amazed at the twenty or so competing vibrati, quite apart from the dire repertoire that was sung….

    Eventually they managed to ease Bartolucci out. The prime mover behind this was Papal MC Marini — no, not the present one but his predecessor Piero — who took advice and brought in Liberto in the late 1990s. Mgr Liberto was an excellent man, who had all the right ideas about music in the liturgy and about appropriate vocal production and tone. He was also Sicilian, and it was thought would be tough enough to take on the problem.

    Unfortunately this did not prove to be the case. The men proved resistant and unco-operative, and basically refused to change. Liberto struggled with them, but they made his life hell. Although he stuck it out over a period of years, eventually he resigned, not having been able to make any real headway with them. The major changes that he had wanted to introduce never happened. I would surmise that he was simply too nice to them, and they ran rings around him.

    It remains to be seen whether Palombella can do any better.

    I was also amused at the references to Bartolucci’s preference for manly, warrior-like chant, given that the Roman form of plainchant is pretty much lacking in cojones (regardless of how it is performed) when compared with chant manifestations in other parts of Europe.

    It is not clear whether Sandro Magister is in favour of Mgr Marco Frisina or not. I know nothing of his qualities as a choir trainer, but the composed music of his that I have seen is second-rate and badly crafted. When well performed, however, it sounds nice enough for those who are not cognoscenti to be deceived.

    Magister’s insults toward Fr Antonio Parisi are unwarranted. You cannot compare a national repertoire designed for use at simple parish level with music for a papal choir. The two have quite different functions.

    1. Um, why can’t these ‘vibrati’ be replaced? It is difficult to believe that there is not somewhere in the Vatican heirachy a wedding of authority and will and scholarship with the determined and iron will of the Holy Father that would correct this embarassment. Without the least disrespect to the Holy Father, I can only assume that if this isn’t fixed it is because he isn’t determined that it will be.

      1. Ah, you need to think like a Roman. It’s all about avoiding the brutta figura in Roman culture. Anglophones don’t care nearly as much about that.

  7. Are you really suggesting truly that eschewance of brutta figura is charactertistic of Roman culture?

    1. Yes. I also really suggest that the earth rotates on its axis as it revolves on its elliptical orbit around the sun.

      To go into a group of folks like the veterans of the Sistina, and deliver an ultimatum (most likely indirectly, as directly would simply be unimaginable in this culture) that they either sing like Englishmen or leave is about as likely as Mitch McConnell openly directly Republican voters to ignore everything that Rush Limbaugh says. Possible in a theoretical sense, and with a highly desirable result in practical terms, but taboo in practical cultural terms.

      Pope Gregory I may have loved the sound of English boys singing, but modern Romans don’t generally cotton to being lecture on music by Englishmen, Frenchmen, Germans or Americans.

  8. I notice in the linked article that the music at Westminster Cathedral and Glasgow gets an honourable mention in regard to the Papal visit to the UK – but not the music at Blessed John Henry Newman’s Beatification. What did I do wrong? (Director of Music for the Beatification)

    1. You were saddled with two changes of venue, and a congregation-unfriendly Mass setting by a “foreign” composer that was foisted on you by a “foreign” bishop at a late stage, just for a start. I’m sure other hazards (not too strong a word) under which you worked will readily spring to mind, and I don’t think anyone blamed you that the end result was not quite what you and many others would have wished for.

      In the circumstances, it all came off surprisingly well, once the rain stopped as the pope arrived.

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