Rorate Caeli

Out of tune

One weak point of this pontificate concerns liturgical music. Benedict XVI's grand vision is not being backed up by actions, which are even moving in the opposite direction. The latest proof: the ostracism of the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music
by Sandro Magister

ROME, May 30, 2011 – A century ago, Pius X was quick as lightning. Just three months after his election as pope, he promulgated the motu proprio "Tra le sollecitudini": the manifesto that prohibited "tunes" in the churches and marked a rebirth of great liturgical music, Gregorian and polyphonic.

And shortly afterward, in 1911, he created in Rome the advanced school set up for this rebirth: what is today called the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music and is celebrating its centenary with a grandiose international conference of musicologists and musicians.

Benedict XVI is also a pope of recognized musical competency, even more so than his holy predecessor. On music in general and on sacred music, he has said and written memorable and brilliant things.

But unlike with Pius X, the current pope's words have not been backed up with actions.

Instead of reviving it, Benedict XVI has let slide what was the musical glory of the pontifical liturgies: the choir of the Sistine Chapel. When the choir was decapitated in 1997 with the ouster of its highly qualified conductor, Domenico Bartolucci, by pope Karol Wojtyla's directors of ceremonies, then-cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was the only high official in the curia who came to his defense.

As pope, in 2010, he made Bartolucci a cardinal. But never, up until today, has he received him in audience. Nor has he ever consulted him to ask for advice, for example, on the appointment of the new director of the Sistine Chapel: an appointment that then fell, still in 2010, on a figure, Don Massimo Palombella, clearly not up to the role.

Not only that. As cardinal, Ratzinger called for the creation of a pontifical organism endowed with authority over everything concerning sacred music in the Catholic sphere: an organism that does not exist in the curia, leaving room for disorder and confusion.

As pope, however, he has never done anything about that old proposal of his.

In order to bring into better focus this distance between words and actions, it is enough to go back – as far as the words are concerned – to the third of the three capital discourses of the pontificate of Benedict XVI: the one on September 12, 2008 at the Collège des Bernardins in Paris (the third after the one to the Roman curia on December 22, 2005 and that of Regensburg on September 12, 2006).

At the Collège des Bernardins, pope Ratzinger said:

"For prayer that issues from the word of God, speech is not enough: music is required. Two chants from the Christian liturgy come from biblical texts in which they are placed on the lips of angels: the 'Gloria,' which is sung by the angels at the birth of Jesus, and the 'Sanctus,' which according to Isaiah 6 is the cry of the seraphim who stand directly before God. Christian worship is therefore an invitation to sing with the angels, and thus to lead the word to its highest destination.[...] From this perspective one can understand the seriousness of a remark by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, who used an expression from the Platonic tradition handed down by Augustine, to pass judgement on the poor singing of monks, which for him was evidently very far from being a mishap of only minor importance. He describes the confusion resulting from a poorly executed chant as a falling into the 'regio dissimilitudinis,' the 'zone of dissimilarity' [...], into a remoteness from God, in which man no longer reflects him, and so has become dissimilar not only to God, but to himself, to what being human truly is. Bernard is certainly putting it strongly when he uses this phrase, which indicates man’s falling away from himself, to describe bad singing by monks. But it shows how seriously he viewed the matter. It shows that the culture of singing is also the culture of being, and that the monks have to pray and sing in a manner commensurate with the grandeur of the word handed down to them, with its claim on true beauty. This intrinsic requirement of speaking with God and singing of him with words he himself has given, is what gave rise to the great tradition of Western music. It was not a form of private 'creativity', in which the individual leaves a memorial to himself and makes self-representation his essential criterion. Rather it is about vigilantly recognizing with the 'ears of the heart' the inner laws of the music of creation, the archetypes of music that the Creator built into his world and into men, and thus discovering music that is worthy of God, and at the same time truly worthy of man, music whose worthiness resounds in purity."

And so, what actions correspond to these sublime heights of the papal vision?

Last May 1, the Mass of beatification of John Paul II was observed by millions of people all over the world. From the liturgical point of view, it was a model, as are all the Masses celebrated by Benedict XVI. But not from the musical point of view. The two choirs that accompanied it, conducted by Don Palombella and Msgr. Marco Frisina respectively, made one think precisely of the "poor singing" and "poorly executed chant" condemned by Saint Bernard in the discourse by the pope just cited.

And just as the bad music of his time was for Saint Bernard "evidently very far from being a mishap of only minor importance," so the inadequacy of the liturgical music performed today at the papal Masses in Rome has serious effects: it cannot help but give a bad example to the whole world.

There was every reason, in recent days, for one of the most celebrated orchestra conductors, maestro Riccardo Muti, to call for the umpteenth time that "the churches return to the great Christian musical patrimony" and get rid of the "tunes."

Fortunately, there are still places in the world where liturgical music is performed well and in keeping with the liturgy itself.

For example, it was stunning how high the quality was of the choir that accompanied the vespers celebrated by Benedict XVI on September 17, 2010 at Westminster Abbey, with a marvelous fusion between ancient and modern pieces.

And even in Rome, it would not be impossible to elevate the quality of the songs that accompany the papal liturgies, if only there were the will to start over from the beginning and rely on competent men who have the same vision of liturgical music as the pope.

The place in which this vision is most alive and present, in Rome, is precisely the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music that is celebrating its centenary during these days, with its president Msgr. Valentino Miserachs Grau.

Incredibly, however, everything is being done at the Vatican curia except for valuing the men and the approach of this Institute. On the contrary, it seems to be doing all it can to boycott them.

Last March 14, Archbishop Fernando Filoni, the substitute secretary of state at the time, had pledged in writing that the pope had "benevolently accepted the request for a pontifical audience and for an apostolic letter" on the occasion of the celebrations of the centenary.

On the invitation to the conference, in fact, the Institute also printed the announcement of the audience with the pope.

But then, a few days before the opening of the conference and with the invitations already sent, the prefecture of the pontifical household made it known that there would be no audience, nor any apostolic letter.

In their place, the pope would simply send a message, in the form of a letter to Cardinal Zenon Grocholewski, prefect of the congregation for education and therefore the grand chancellor of the Institute.

This took place on the morning of Thursday, May 26, the opening day of the conference. But with another slap in the face. Unlike for all the other papal messages of this kind, this one was not made public by the Holy See press office, nor was it mentioned by Vatican Radio.

And it's not finished. The edition of "L'Osservatore Romano" printed on the afternoon of the same day completely ignored both the opening of the conference for the centenary and the pope's message. Not one line. There was instead, on the culture page, an article regarding a concert offered for Benedict XVI the next day by the president of the republic of Hungary, with music of Ferenc Liszt . . .

The prefecture of the pontifical household also made it known that a papal audience would not be granted to the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music even in the following months, after the centenary.

It has become clear that Benedict XVI, in a drastic selection of his engagements, has declined to act and to make decisions in the field of sacred music.

But it is also all too evident, at this point, that those who decide in this field in his place – in the secretariat of state as in the prefecture of the pontifical household or elsewhere – often work differently from and even in contrast with the pope's vision.

Given this divergence, it remains incomprehensible why Pope Benedict would tolerate it.

In other words, it remains incomprehensible why he should have decided to decline a few simple practical decisions that were and are fully within his grasp, in a field like this, which he sees as so crucial and on which he has very clear ideas. And why he has left such decisions to men who, seeing what they do, certainly are not helping him in his effort to restore light and the "splendor of truth," including musical, to the Catholic liturgy.


  1. Anonymous8:12 AM

    Very good article, I hope the Holy Father gets to read it. But one has the feeling that His Holiness is increasingly isolated.

  2. Anonymous8:28 AM

    I can't understand Magister's Bartolucci enthusiasm. Cardinal Bartolucci might have good ideas about repetoire, but he is a terrible choir director, and the Sistina under his direction sounded even worse than it does today.

  3. Anonymous11:04 AM

    Thw answer is, get rid of Archbishop James Harvey, the American Prefect of the Pontifical Hoiusehold who was appointed close to 12+ years ago by the late John Paul II, and also clean out the Secretariate of State of Bertone, (now close to 77), AND ALL THE OLD JPII "HANGERS ON".

  4. I must say that I agree with sancrucensis. I have never understood the enthusiasm many have for Cardinal Bartolucci, except perhaps for his connexion with Pope Pius XII. The Sistine Chapel Choir under his direction was one of the worst choirs in the world and it is not much better today. I have always thought it a good idea to import a choir director from England where the fine art of choir building and conducting is still understood and practiced.

  5. Anonymous11:42 PM

    How could anyone dislike/not appreciate the great Cardinal Domenico Bartolucci?

    He was/is a great Maestro of the classical Roman Catholic musical patrimony, and was successor to the great Lorenzo Perosi, who I believe was Maestro of the Sistine Choir for over 50 years before his death in 1956! Bartolucci succeeded him, and was the highly praised and highly valued Masetro of the choir from 1956 till be was unceremoniously and cruely given the boot by Cardinal Noe, Archbishop Piero Marini, and ultimatly, Pope John Paul II. Because he was too traditional.

    Garbage ruled in the Sistine Choir from 1997-2010. There is still too much contemporary vernacular hymns sung, and too much orchestral accompaniment....but it is slightly improved over 1997-2010.

    Pope Benedict XVI values Bartolucci so much that he was given the Cardinal's hat at the last consistory......There's justice given for a terrible injustice done in 1997.

    The best thing about Cardinal Bartolucci is his statement that he has never, even once, celebrated the Novus Ordo Mass personally.

  6. An interesting report on the Pontifical Inst. of Sacred Music's conference from Anthony Ruff of the liberal "PrayTell" blog:

    Clash of Choirs: Pugnacious about Palestrina

    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.

  7. Anonymous7:08 PM

    Anonymous said...
    "The best thing about Cardinal Bartolucci is his statement that he has never, even once, celebrated the Novus Ordo Mass personally."
    Is that supposed to prove that he is a good choir director?


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