Cardinal Bartolucci dies

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 The announcement was made just four days after Liberto had been replaced by Palombella — the timing seems more than a coincidence.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.


  1. 1. “In the event the men of the choir refused to co-operate and Liberto eventually resigned.”

    Why did the men of the choir refuse to cooperate?

    2. “…the timing seems more than a coincidence.”

    How so?

    I swear, there always seems to be so much more drama, mystery and intrigue inside the Vatican walls than a soap opera.

    1. @Elisabeth Ahn – comment #1:

      1. Because they were all prima donnas.

      2. Benedict appeared to be endorsing/favouring a prior form of music-making in preference to the one that had superseded it. One would have thought that, having had his eyes (and ears) well and truly opened by the Westminster Abbey choir during his visit to the UK just a month prevously, he would have hesitated to endorse anything that Bartolucci had done, but perhaps it was already in the pipeline by then.

      Yes, the Vatican is a hotbed of intrigue, but Francis is trying to do something about that.

  2. Mr. Inwood,

    Do you think think he needed to hear the Westminster Abbey Choir to know a good choral sound? His own brother’s choir at Regensburg was very good. I heard them during their U.S. tour in the mid-80’s. There were splendid. I think that Benedict XVI made him a cardinal for his long service and as an atonement of sorts for how he was ousted. (Incidentally, I heard that they offered to make him a bishop as well, but he refused.)

    1. @Christopher Uhl – comment #5:

      No, I’m sure Benedict appreciated what his brother did in Regensburg (as did I), but he also seemed to prefer more operatic church music (e.g. Mozart) and had certainly been accustomed to the operatic style of the Sistina for many years. That said, I think it’s not an exaggeration to say that he was knocked sideways by what he encountered at Westminster Abbey, and certainly that was the first choir to be invited to collaborate with the Cappella Sistina in that particular way.

      I’m quite sure Benedict’s act was also, as you state, a gesture of recompense and was surely perceived as such, coming as it did so hot on the heels of Bartolucci’s successor leaving in despair 13 years after he had been appointed; but the “official” reason given was length and devotion of service. Benedict was taking quite a gamble that Bartolucci would actually live that long…

      1. @Paul Inwood – comment #8:
        Yes, I think you’re right. I saw the video of the Abbey. He did indeed seem to be beaming at the sound of the Choir. And your point about ‘operatic’ I think is true as well. I had never thought of it in that light. And at the Abbey the Magnificat was Stanford in A!

    2. @Christopher Uhl – comment #5:

      Re: Cardinal Bartolucci and being made a bishop:

      Under the current norms, whenever a priest is named a Cardinal, he is to also be ordained to the Episcopate. It is not uncommon, however, for Cardinals named who are beyond voting age to ask to be dispensed from this requirement (Cardinal Dulles would be another example that comes to mind immediately).

  3. An oft-told tale (truth) I’ll again share. IIRC, then Msgr. Bartolucci and Capella Sixtini were dispatched upon a performance tour in the US during the season of Lent, 1988. They performed in my relatively unknown little city in California. My rector (a musician) my wife and I sat front row, again IIRC on a weeknight in our theatre the week before Passion Sunday. That timeline was critical.
    As having just finished my Masters in Choral Lit/Dir. I was quite familiar with their recordings, they served in many seminars as examples of how NOT to sing polyphony or classical repertoire. As a known RC among my peers, it was an ongoing embarrassment of no small magnitude. To confirm this I’ll simply mention the whole concert was comprised of Palestrina’s “Song of Songs” motets.
    The huge problem regarding Bartolucci was not his inabilitiy to measure up to the consensus standards in a then world wide base of choral typologies. I see Bartolucci’s almost combative attitude regarding the emphasis upon his perception of the feminazation of choral culture that persisted through his receiving of the palium and the screeds he uttered surrounding his tribute charitably offered by B16. That affection was in stark contrast with the presumed mandate of JPII to get the choir out of “Dodge” during that Lenten season in 88.
    I presume Cdl. Bartolucci’s antognism towards the “maleness” as necessary to the Roman practice of unbridled operatic vocal production along with whatever he perceived as testosterone-imbued compositional attribute (whatever they may be?!) persisted as his standard up to his passing.
    May he and his notions of the state of sacred music practicum and philosophy finally rest in peace. And may he now really understand and behold the nature of heavenly choirs that transcend all our understandings and prejudices.

  4. Studying in the 1960s in Rome, a group of us went once a week to sing under Bartolucci’s tuition. It was my introduction to singing polyphony, and it enriched my appreciation for the music. He had very set ideas about how Palestrina should be sung, but that did not worry me.
    I admit to a soft spot for his “Crux Fidelis” as heard (you can ignore the visuals) on

  5. The musical event of the UK tour that Pope Benedict was still speaking of a month afterwards was the Mass at Westminster CATHEDRAL!

    I once visited Maestro Bartolucci with the late Dr Mary Berry – we were seeking his support in arranging for the Schola Gregoriana of Cambridge to record in the Sistine Chapel under Dr Berry’s direction. He was charming and very helpful. Sitting in his office, I was curious as to why the large cupboards were labelled with roman numerals X – XX. When I asked him why this was, he explained that the cupboards contained manuscripts and the numbers indicated centuries!

    In his last public performance as a choral conductor, only a few years ago, Cardinal Bartolucci directed a small young mixed choir in the Missa Papae Marcelli – it was an excellent reading of this masterpiece and a remarkable link in the unbroken musical tradition of which he was heir. Requiescat in pace!

    1. @Msgr Andrew Wadsworth – comment #10:

      Andrew, I fear you are mistaken. The Sistine Chapel Choir did indeed sing at Westminster Cathedral when it came to England, but the choir which rendered Benedict gobsmacked was the Abbey Choir at Evensong during his visit — hence the invitation for them to sing with the Sistine Chapel Choir in Rome.

      See, for example,

  6. It is a matter of public record that Pope Benedict spoke of the music at Mass in Westminster Cathedral in the first General Audience after his trip (September 22). In this address, he gives an account of the whole trip. He mentions Evensong at the Abbey without reference to its music but of the Cathedral he say: “On Saturday morning, my Appointment with the Prime Minister introduced the series of my Meetings with the most important spokespeople of the British political world. It was followed by the Eucharistic celebration in Westminster Cathedral, dedicated to the Most Precious Blood of Our Lord. This was an extraordinary moment of faith and prayer that also highlighted the rich and precious tradition of “Roman” and “English” liturgical music in which the various ecclesial dignitaries took part, spiritually united to the multitude of believers in the course of the long Christian history of this land.” This is no slight to the excellence of the music at the Abbey but makes clear that it was the Cathedral’s music that he chose to mention.

  7. I take issue with the word “superceded”. Perhaps the late Cardinal’s own words might elucidate matters.

    As for the lack of cooperation of the gentlemen of the choir, as I understand it there was not a little shock at the treatment Bartolucci received at the hands of certain prelates in the curia and perhaps this might have had something with their discontent. It is worth noting that his sacking was an explicit disobedience to Pius XII who had appointed him for life.

    The concept of “authentic performance” is dealt with uncritically here, without consideration of how problematic a concept it is. Whilst this is not an appropriate place to discuss such issues, Stanley Boorman’s account in “Rethinking Music” (pp 417-8) might demonstrate just how misplaced reference to the concept is in this obituary.

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