Vatican Music Conference: Full Report

The third international conference on sacred music organized by the Pontifical Council for Culture took place on November 7 – 9 in the Old Synod Hall inside the Vatican. About 150 participants from over 50 different countries took part. The first conference in the series, at which the present writer gave a presentation, had focused on 50 years since Musicam Sacram under the banner “Music and Church — Cult and Culture”, while the second one had as its theme “Church and Composers, Words and Sounds”. This latest conference took the theme “Church — Music — Interpreters”.

After a welcome from Archbishop Carlos Azavedo, number two at the Pontifical Council, aided and abetted by Richard Rouse, one of the secretaries who shouldered much of the organizational work of the conference, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, the prefect of the Pontifical Council, opened the proceedings with a fine wide-ranging reflection on the absolute need for theological hermeneutics, which provide the relationship between text and tradition, art and interpretation, artist and user, and between “source and river”, an image that would return at intervals in his talk. That relationship is always a dialogue. He reminded us that the very word “hermeneutics” evokes the Greek God Hermes, the “messenger” or “interpreter” of the gods. Quoting from Luigi Pareyson’s Verità e Interpretazione, the existence of a musical work lies not in the score but in its performance, which is always a unique event, not a repetition but an “echo” of the score. Rabbinical midrashes tell us that Shivim Panim LaTorah — each verse of the Torah has 70 different facets. Heidegger said that the test of interpretation is saying what is not said by the text. The basis for theological hermeneutics lies in incarnation: enfleshing the letter, the transcendent Logos, the divine element v. the transitory-ness of the words. Dante’s use of allegory and analogy is another means of deciphering the text.

In Verbum Domini (cf. 2008 Synod), as a Synod Father rather than as the Pope, Benedict XVI said that critical, historical and theological methods must intersect. Not only philological, archaeological or theological but all of these. The pendulum has swung in different directions; modern hermeneutics is different (cf. Bultmann, Gadamer, Ricoeur, leading to Heidegger). There is a difference between centrifugal and centripetal hermeneutics. The source of the river that led from Sacrosanctum Concilium to Dei Verbum is revelation. We need both to go back to the origins and go out to the peripheries. Technical knowledge and formation needed, but then true interpretation enables the music to gush forth, to bloom. There is a difference between a piano pupil being shown off by his or her parents, and a true “exegete”. Ravasi also spent some times looking at the different tonalities of the psalms (he is, after all, a biblical scholar), including the evocations of different instruments and voices. We need to be ever-listening, not passive (he reminded us that the word “absurd” comes from ab-surdum, unheard, like death). Liturgy is not just in the temple but in the cosmos (cf. Ps 148). In the Jewish tradition the name of God is not pronounced, “the supreme word is silent”. Elijah heard God in a “still, small voice” or the sound of a gentle breeze, according to your preferred translation. He ended by saying “The musician’s task is to make explicit the silence of God. Man’s role is to be the hymn of God.”


The next presentation was by Chiara Bertoglio, a pianist/musicologist/theologian from Turin. Prefacing her remarks with the statement that Christian performances are challenged by many questions, and “We played for you but you would not dance, we sang dirges for you but you did not mourn…” (cf. Matthew 11:17 or Luke 7:32), she looked at the who-what-how of musical performance. The composer is only the tip of the iceberg. In the Middle Ages, most music was anonymously written. It is only later that music has become the expression of the composer. Relationships between composers and performers are often difficult. Who is in charge? The listeners should in fact be the primary function, in the triad of composer-performer-audience.

The object of musical interpretation is not merely the interpretation of the musical score. Composers may not be aware of al the implications of their work. What looks like a misinterpretation can be an increase in meaning. The written score is not a sacred text: performers are like presiders at liturgy, who vary what they do according to the context, which is all-important.

She quoted C.P.E. Bach and Busoni on symbolic interpretation. “You cannot move others without being moved yourself” — but Busoni was worried that this leads to a loss of control! Is there such a thing as artificial emotions? The question of fidelity to the text v. originality in interpretation is a difficult one, and even more difficult with sacred or liturgical music. In Pergolesi, Handel’s Messiah or Bach’s St Matthew Passion, the music is paramount. In a Victoria Mass setting, the text is paramount. Interpretation should no longer be a power-game but a collaboration in dialogue with the divine. Tolkien is The Silmarillion described creativity as a gift entrusted by the Creator to intelligent beings. Jacapone da Todi talked about music as the logos, a musical score given to humankind, “written on lambskin”. It’s a foretaste of the “place beyond time”.


Next up was James O’Donnell, Organist of Westminster Abbey in London. He had been given the topic of the organ as an interpreter. He began with the fact that it is a machine that has a celestial dimension. It “brings joy to the sorrowful soul” (Crüger in Psalmodia Sacra, 1662) and incorporates a kaleidoscope of images and cultural references. It has strong links with theology, liturgy and sacred architecture, and is unlike any other instrument in its various roles. A reflector of the power and majesty of God, it is a metaphor for the eternal (with its capacity for the infinite prolongation of notes) and superhuman in its extremes of pitch. Comprehensive, it produces a world of music. O’Donnell wanted to emphasize the organ as being an integral part of the building; we talk about organ builders, rather than organ makers/manufacturers (at least for pipe organs).

Looking at some examples of past practice, in the French tradition of alternatim playing the organ is “singing” the missing texts. It produces dialogue by substituting for the voices. A Couperin Mass only really makes sense when the chants are interspersed with the organ movements.

For O’Donnell, improvisation is “in the moment”, reactive, interactive. Olivier Latry talks about improvising “in the style of / on the homily”. Daniel Roth similarly describes it as “encapsulating” the homily. Improvisation create atmosphere, based on the texts of the day. Cardinal Lustiger used to say “Organ, speak to us!” This interaction is rooted in liturgical sensitivity and deep faith, and provides a vision of eternity.

O’Donnell was anxious to differentiate between liturgical improvisation, which is not about the player and involves something received and then given, and concert improvisation, which is all about the player. The listener experiences it differently in the two cases. There is a question about “prepared improvisations” [this would arise again in subsequent sessions], and how these differ from improvisations on the spur of the moment.

He used recorded examples from J S Bach and Olivier Messiaen to illustrate some of the characteristics of improvisation. A chorale improvisation has a semantic and reverential power, and affects people who have the melodies “in their bones”. Often outside influences can produce a combination of two different sound worlds and transport the listener to a mystical plane.

Here there is once again a question of context. Bach’s O Mensch bewein’ will come across differently in a Passiontide liturgy and in a concert hall. The ambience of worship is crucial. Can you really play Messiaen’s La Nativité in a concert hall at all?


Participants were then invited to separate and choose between two organ workshops. Daniel Matrone, a French organist and titulaire at the church of Saint Louis de France, gave a recital in Santa Maria in Camposanto Teutonico in the Vatican, the German church. His aim was to illustrate improvising in various styles — Baroque, neo-classical, the 1930s, free style, and contemporary style.

This writer opted for the other workshop, given by Dom Theo Flury, a monk of Einsiedeln and a professor at the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music. This took place in the Cappella del Coro in St Peter’s Basilica, which contains two organs, a Morettini from the 1880s and a Tamburini from the 1970s. Although billed as being in Italian and English, this presentation was exclusively in rapidfire Italian with a Swiss accent, and disappointingly no attempt to translate. It was interspersed with a number of improvisations, mostly on the Tamburini. As far as this writer could tell, the underlying main burden of Dom Theo’s song was “The way I improvise is the way I improvise”, which turned out to be predominantly in a sub-Reger/Liszt idiom which became rather wearing after a short while. The wonderful compensation as we left was the discovery that the body of St John Chrysostom, one of my heroes, lies in a sarcophagus under the altar!

One was left wondering about the question of “prepared improvisations”. Do we listen to them differently from improvisations that may arise in a liturgical context? Are they not rather memorized performances of previous improvisations? In which case, can we say that they are actually improvised at all? The same questions would arise in improvisations which incorporate previously-thought-out figurations and progressions. In this case, what was played seemed intended to show off the player’s skill and demonstrate the different colours of the instruments, including the exeunt omnes sacristy bell in the basilica when it interrupted one of the pieces. I contrasted this with my first mind-blowing experience over 40 years ago of hearing a French organist improvising on the homily — the late Jacques Berthier bringing to life the amazing words of the late Joseph Gelineau, mirroring exactly the structure of Gelineau’s thought and even the cadences of Gelineau’s manner of speaking.


We reconvened for Day Two in the Old Synod Hall. First up was Massimo Doria, a jazz philosopher and musician working in Milan. His topic was the relationship between music and the sacred. Beginning with Pythagoras’s question, What is Music? he defined it as unifying opposites, and making a correspondence between numbers and sounds. But there is more than that involved in sacred music: the Logos speaks. A written-down mathematical ratio has no sound; scores are silent. What about music today? It can heal you, or make you ill! Injury is caused by imbalance in the order. Restoration comes about through movement (cf. stiff limbs). Cosmos is in battle with Chaos, which is a denial or order. The musical artist is forced to create another order, something different.

Augustine’s dictum was the mystery of God is within oneself. God is inside my soul. The infinite is not big or small, it is literally without measure. I cannot embrace it. It is not quantifiable. But music moves the unchangeable logos. The 13th-century English philosopher Robert Grossatesta said that Truth is the light that can illuminate even one’s denial of reality; it enables one to understand what is wrong. For Augustine, music is time. We live the temporal element of creation. God is not beyond time. Sometimes we want to be eternal, but eternity is not never-ending time. Rather, it is a fleeting moment between past and future. When I perform music, I deny the present (cf. Magritte). Music enables us to understand concepts of rhythm. We should stop being afraid of time. The divine one revealed himself in time. Music is simply a different way of living time.


Fr Jordi-Agusti Piqué, another Benedictine teaching at the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music, this time from the abbey of Montserrat, had been given the topic of Flatus vocis: the sound of the voice as music in the liturgy. Unlike the profane world, the sound of the human voice in worship is understood as an epiphany, a manifestation of the Spirit. There is clear distinction between sung and spoken euchological texts. Two crucial open questions arise: (1) How does one evaluate singing as liturgical music? and (2) What is its theological weight?

In Ps 29:4 the voice of the Lord is power (forza), thunderous, rending cedars. For Moses, it’s an action (Exodus 15:6); in the psalms it’s a voice. Isaiah 40:8 tells us that the voice of the Lord will stand (as opposed to flowers that will fade). In Matthew 17:5b, the voice said “This is my beloved Son….listen to him” — not touch him, worship him, represent him, but listen to him. Eli, Eli, lama sabacthani? — Why aren’t you listening to me?! Angels are a symbol of God’s voice.

Turning to the Fathers, Cantate vocibus ! Augustine famously said Cantare amantis est [cf. Bernard: Ubi amor non labor sed sapor!]. He talks about singing in terms of praise, dwelling especially on the jubilus, pure sound which will lead to the use of instruments in Western liturgy. Also “Sing with your voice, sing with your life, that your works may sing in unison with your voice.”

If the voice is an epiphany of God, the physical voice makes the non-understandable “visible”. In Haydn’s Representation of Chaos, “Let there be light” — and there was light! Cf. Schoenberg’s use of Sprechgesang in Moses and Aaron. Also, “Those who do not have the Spirit (for example, the Devil) cannot sing.” The 20th-century Hungarian composer György Déak-Bárdos, in his Eli, Eli, makes use of a “dropping” octave.

Liturgical singing calls us to a higher level — una voce dicentes, We are monodic, only God is polyphonic. SC 83 talks about the liturgical action of the whole Church prolonging the prayer of Christ. This is especially true when we sing Maranatha. Chaos is not everything going crazy but when nothing happens. For example, an octave contains no movement, just the same note at two different pitches.


Next came Salvatore Sciarrino, a self-taught musician and psychologist and contemporary composer, originally from Sicily, on The Use of the Voice. His basic premise was the need to create a new vocal style. We don’t need new intervals but a new way of listening to them. How do you move towards a new style that doesn’t exist? We need to shake off the shackles of conventional music formation, clear the mind. The need is to focus on the bodiliness (corporality) and dramaturgy of music, utilising human configurations such as groaning, crying out. It is not the score that is important but the listener that needs to be at the centre. We need to create the conditions for listening as an active value rather than as a background to help us forget about silence. We are the music. What sound do your eyebrows make?!

Music should not just be sounds following each other. He constructs music from “alien elements”, espouses responsorial forms that make use of alternation, makes use of microtones (e.g. in his Tenebrae Responsories). We did not, alas, hear any examples of his work.


Giovanni Acciai, Professor of Musical Palaeography in Milan, and a specialist in Renaissance and Baroque vocal repertoire, took us on a lengthy tour of many theoretical sources from the 15th century onwards into the 18th century. The science of pitches, tones and durations was excessively codified, especially in Italy, the object being to create an exact relationship between individual syllables (vowels especially) and music. Many elaborate rules were set down in a sort of musical grammar which acted as a form of straitjacket for composition. Countless treatises were devoted to this subject. If you didn’t know the rules, you were deemed not to be educated. Those who wrote differently were either said to be rebels or heroes.

Acciai’s sources were extremely well-documented, and illustrated by examples from the work of Josquin des Prez, Palestrina, Monteverdi, Legrenzi, and Leonard Leo (1694-1744).


A joint presentation on interpreting ancient sacred music today was given by Antonio Florio and Dinko Fabris, the latter a constant presenter in these conferences.  We were given a rapid tour of the early music revival, starting with Mendelssohn’s revival of Bach’s St Matthew Passion in 1829, the first example of performing more of the past than the present, and the starting point of musicology, even if it made use of modern instruments and playing techniques. The Early Music revival starting in 1968 produced authentic performances using historic performance practice. New repertoires of sacred music were discovered. From the 1980s, a similar evolution took place in the performance of music from later times.

Naples has been at the forefront of some of these developments, with a new Christian repertoire uncovered in its libraries. In the 16th century it had been the most populous city in Europe, larger than London or Paris, with only Constantinople of greater size. Not only that, but Naples was the music capital of the world, and its repertoire from that era has been single-handedly rediscovered by Professor Florio. The question is how can we make use of this patrimony today?

Among his discoveries are the fact that the opening of Pergolesi’s celebrated Stabat Mater is a replica of a Pange lingua written two years earlier by Francesco Provenzale, which is itself in turn a replica of a Stabat Mater written seventy years earlier by Giovanni Salvatore, Provenzale’s teacher. The same sort of thing is true for other works and composers. The “School of Naples” ultimately goes back to Gesualdo.

In style it was very different from the “boring” style of Rome, being more alive, more romantic, more passionate. Similarities to composers such as Monteverdi were apparent. There were no social barriers at that time, and the popularizing influence of the Laudi Filipini of 1586 [songs associated with the Oratory of St Philip Neri] was considerable. As well as the Pergolesi/Provenzale/Salvatore examples already mentioned, we listened to music by Cristoforo Caresana and Gaetano Veneziano. The latter’s Passion, written for the arrival of Alessandro Scarlatti, to my ears sounded very like the Missa Scala Aretina of his exact contemporary, the Catalan composer Francisco Valls.


Dr Richard Mailänder is director of music and musicians for the Archdiocese of Cologne. He offered us a very broad take on what were termed “oratories” — a mistranslation of “oratorios” ! — which turned out to mean anything in the realm of  popular extra-liturgical religious music making, ranging from Handel’s Messiah and Bach’s St John Passion to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. There are 5,000 children in the choirs of the archdiocese, which offers a rich field for formation in extended dramatic/narrative/contemplative forms, but adults are involved, too. Many motives can be involved: working in a non-liturgical context, promoting spiritual meditation, edification, entertainment, and even in order to make money (for charitable purposes). Narration of bible stories is often involved, principally from the Old Testament, but there are also stories of saints, legends, and even allegorical reflection. Performances can last from 30 minutes to 3 hours, and range from Carissimi to Liszt, including elements of recitative, aria, sinfonia, choral fantasia and hymn tunes (chorales).

A brief historical overview began with monasteries around the year 1200, mystery plays, via oratorios proper (Philip Neri) from 1550 to 1700, which initially took place in schools, seminaries, hospitals, parish houses and finally churches. From 1730 onwards, these extended to palaces and other royal establishments,, in the 19th century to concert halls, sports stadiums, and by the 20th century could take place anywhere.

Today, motivation for performers can range from the desire to create an event, proclaiming the word of God, a means of pastoral care, especially of children, contributing to “bourgeois musical culture”, making church buildings more open and available (some churches in Germany have ceased being used for worship and have become cultural centres), proclamation, spiritual experience, and the experiencing of God through words and music, mounting celebratory, festive events, building up the identity of church congregation, providing opportunities for amateur choirs and school choirs.

Over the past five years, there has been a wide range of performances across the archdiocese — old, new, pop (mainly musicals), often designed for children, and much of it homegrown. With the musicals, there are a number of aims: catechesis for both performers and audience, rooting stories in their heads, providing roles for solo singers, varied instrumentation, involving parents in making costumes and stage sets, the long-term connection of children and parents to the congregation, and allowing children to be co-authors of what takes place.

We watched video extracts from several different performances of the St John Passion. One was in a Cologne high school. It had been advertised with a refugee boat as the backdrop. In the room itself, the boat was central in the assembly, with a large cross on top (reminiscent of the World Council of Churches logo). To begin with, the cross was placed in such a way that you had to step over it to get in to the room. The aim was to make the “passion” topic up-to-date. The audience participated in the chorales, and all dialogues took place at the cross. There was shouting at the end because of the death of refugees in the Mediterranean.

Another performance took place on Ash Wednesday in an art museum. The musicians (two different orchestras were involved) were stationed all over the museum at different points, and the audience encountered different sections of the work as they moved from one room or corridor to another, as indeed the musicians sometimes did. Some lessons that they learnt from that experience include the fact that in a real sense there is no objective artistic work “available”: each person has to find their own place in the music. The Word of God can’t be prayed, can surprise, and can get lost! It’s actually impossible to take in the complete work.

A different Ash Wednesday performance for art lovers, this time of the St Matthew Passion, took place in a large church, accompanied by video images projected on a large screen, designed to reinforce the impact of the performance. Some of the combinations were quite overwhelming, both abstract images and one particularly harrowing close-up film of a heart operation.

Other experiments have included mounting performances in different locations. So Part I of The Messiah took place in a municipal refuse hangar, Part II in a large courtroom, and Part III in a church with a light installation at the end. These “locations of life” were an opportunity to speak to God in art outside the liturgy, had an evangelizatory quality, and were also building blocks for pastoral care. The entire performance, including travel between locations, took seven hours.


Professor Pawel Lukaszewski is vice-rector and head of composition at the Fryderyk Chopin University of Music in Warsaw. He is also a well-known contemporary composer, with some 2,000 compositions to his name, over 150 CDs, etc. Many of his performances take place in the UK where he is extensively published and recorded, and he currently has a contract to produce 40 new works for Chester/Novello in London.

He was billed to speak on The Language of the Composer, but instead began by playing us a number of extracts from his work, which he describes as “neo-tonal”. We heard O Rex Gentium, the 6th of a set of O Antiphons, which demonstrated juxtaposition of different stylistic elements. An extract from Funeral Vespers showed neo-modal recitative accompanied by lush orchestral chords, an idea perhaps borrowed from the opening movement of Malcolm Williamson’s Mass of Christ the King. Finally some extracts from his Via Crucis, an extended work consisting of an Introduction, fourteen stations, a fifteenth station (resurrection) and a concluding Christus vincit.

Lukaszewski doesn’t feel himself linked to other composers — the word he used was “unfettered”. His musical language is, he says, inspired by the 1903 Motu Proprio Tra le sollecitudini, in the sense that he is searching for the sacrum. He writes according to the text, the mood, the occasion, the time and the type of sound he is using. In line with Sacrosanctum Concilium, chapter 7, he feels that the role of artists is to “communicate the Creator”. He aims for simplicity, avoids complex developmental processes and instead relies on juxtaposition and repetition. Other adjectives he uses to describe his work include “renewed tonality” and “antimodernism”. He is interested in the “prolongation of time”, the slowing-down of the pace of life, in self-discovery in the realm of feelings, faith and doubts, and in musica humana rather than musica vulgaris.

But he didn’t describe his musical language at all. Listening to the extracts, and to his afternoon session, one would use the word “eclectic”. One can find echoes of many other composers, from Carl Orff to Shostakovich, Howells to Langlais, and even Mussorgsky. I would also say that Lukaszewski is a miniaturist. Large-scale forms are not his forte, but instead the use of juxtaposition and repetition, as stated above. In the final analysis, all he appeared to be saying was “The way I write is the way I write.”


Giuseppe Gullo is an Italian-trained singer and also a medical doctor and oncologist, currently working in New York. His topic was Vox humana — physiological, historical and technical aspects of vocalization from the Baroque to the 21st century. He began with the paradox of voice. Vocal technique in singing can change over time (unlike the spoken voice). There can be different cultural expectations, for example, the way the Japanese sing. In the West, there were changes in technique between the 16th and early 20th centuries. Now we are in the position of having to ask ourselves which “instrument” we should use for the music of Vivaldi, for example.

We need to get rid of the vision of the past 200 years in which phonation has been dominated by early 18th-century techniques (Bel Canto, etc). We have no recordings earlier than the early 20th century — Melba, Lipatti, etc. Phonation history is 90% Italian (indeed, the same is true for other areas of musical history), but what about the French tradition, for example? Bel Canto is not just from the time of Bellini, Rossini, erc — this was just the final stage — but started in the 16th century, and changed in the 18th century and again in the early 20th century. The direct line stretches back to Mozart and beyond.

What is Bel Canto? It is typified by “high” tone, “low” tone, the use of ornamentation, and the expressive qualities of the human voice. Sometimes it will mimic nature — birds, etc. Today we have reached the stage of requiring “phonation therapists”. The larynx was only discovered in 1701, the precursors of laryngoscopes followed subsequently, and it was not until 1854 that Manuel Garcia was able to see a functioning glottis and larynx. Before that, scientific opinion was that the voice came from the lungs, so flatten the tongue and lift the palate. In the late 18th century there was a period of enlightenment with treatises by Bérard, Mancini and others, which presented the theory of chest and head registers Melding the two together would produce beauty — completely wrong! Prior to that, vocalists had used the falsetto register (for example, in the lament from Carissimi’s Jephtha. Castrati singers differentiated between the head and chest registers. The chest register was used, among other things, to denote suffering. These registers did not disappear in the Italian system: it was Verdi who wanted them to be merged in Bel Canto. Today, we are more influenced by the French school, and the chest voice has been largely forgotten.


Participants then divided up into two “workshops”. Richard Mailänder gave one on directing choirs, while this writer stayed with Lukaszewski for a workshop on composition. It was nothing of the sort. He introduced, once again, his Via crucis, this time in more detail, pointing out the “mega-rondo” form of it, and how it uses a Polish Christmas carol melody to symbolize death/new birth. The instrumentation and use of voices was explained. We then listened to a complete recorded performance of the work, lasting 60 minutes. Not exactly a workshop!


We then reconvened and headed up to the Sistine Chapel for Vespers for Friday of the 31st Week of Ordinary Time. The opportunity to sit in this amazing room for the best part of an hour, surrounded by the stunning artwork, was much appreciated. Most visitors are funnelled through rapidly in large groups. The presider was Monsignor Guido Marini, Papal Master of Ceremonies, who also preached. The choir of the Sistine Chapel was under the direction of its interim director, Monsignor Marcos Pavan, who has been responsible for training the boys’ voices for a number of years. The service was predominantly in Latin chant, but interestingly the psalms were chanted in Italian to modern modal tones. After the service, the choir gave a mini-concert of works by Palestrina and Lassus but also more modern compositions. It was interesting to hear the change in the tone quality of the choir since the departure of their previous director, Massimo Palombella. It seems more confident and assured, though the men are in danger of “running away” and reverting to their previous bawling operatic style.


Next morning, we met Pino di Luccio, an Italian Jesuit who has spent much time at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Jerusalem. His presentation looked at song, instrumental music and dance in monotheistic religions of the Mediterranean area. He focused mainly on Psalm 41(42), but his final four examples were three from the Koran and one from the Rabbinical tradition. The primary these is that music brings about change. This is achieved by breathing, instrumentalists as well as singers, by relaxation (even fuelled by alcohol!), calming, invitation (that casts off depression, and cf. Qoheleth — there is a time for….), the movement from sadness to joy, consolation, changing war into joy, the use of the shofar to mark expiation, when tears become the psalmist’s bread. With John the Baptist and Salome, there is a shift in their respective journeys brought about through the medium of dance. The Koran speaks of dance as a mystic union with God; the entire universe rotates in a dance.


Egberto Bermúdez gave a fascinating insight into the reciprocity that existed between church music in Spain and Colombia from 1550 to 1950. The Colombian Indians used the muisca language and we know from their last celebration in 1564 that child singers were slain with spears and arrows at the end of the rites. From then on, the music used was heavily 1st World-influenced, accentuated by the arrival of the Jesuits in 1604. Organs were imported into the country, but singers and choirmasters were still predominantly Indian. One form which typifies the culture more than any other was the villancico, the religious popular song. (Today, the term has been relegated to a descriptor for Spanish-language Christmas carols, but earlier it was far more broad in its usage.) One extraordinary feature of this history is the fact that the Indians would “black up” in parody: for the Indians, black people symbolized ignorance. This practice eventually led to phenomena such as Al Jolson in the USA, Laurence Olivier’s black Othello in the UK, the Black and White Minstrels, and much else that can no longer be done today. In the 19th century, there was a struggle against operatic tendencies in church music, in the same way as there was in Europe.


The conference was then received in audience by the Holy Father in the Sala de Concistorio, the Consistory Room in which Benedict XVI announced his resignation. Pope Francis’s address to the gathering was given in a previous post on this blog:

All the participants then had the privilege of meeting the Pope individually.


Our final session was a demonstration of ancient music by the Ars Longa ensemble from Havana. The influence of folk rhythms and idioms on the Baroque style was fascinating to hear. It was also clear that church music of that time could verge towards the erotic as part of the integration of the two traditions. We heard Cuban Baroque and Mexican Baroque examples, presented with verve and technical virtuosity.


All in all, a very worthwhile exploration into varying ways in which change and interchange can influence the way we sing and play and pray the music of the Church. There was a strong field of English-speaking participants. The USA contingent included two former presidents of NPM, Virgil Funk and Richard Hilgartner, together with composer and historian Ken Canedo from OCP. Several Canadian composers and musicians were present, including Michel Guimont. The UK was represented by the present writer and several other composers and church musicians.

The Pontifical Council is already planning for a fourth conference in the series, to take place sometime in 2020.


  1. This was the first time I attended this annual conference. The speakers were engaging and the selected theme was very pertinent to how we can renew our relationship as musicians and composers with the liturgy. I hope to attend next year’s conference as well. Thank you for this summary of the conference.
    Gilles Maurice Leclerc, composer and organist

  2. Thanks for posting this. Unfortunately I couldn’t make this one. I was present at the first, and hope to make it to the next. As an American, I am always discovering new understanding and a wealth of Faith found within various cultures. These meetings are opportunities to explore not only other cultures, but to expand my knowledge of the musical richness of the Church in various places around the world.

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