|The Sistine Chapel Choir at Westminster Cathedral|
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The Sistine Chapel Choir sings at most Papal Liturgies in Rome, and traces its beginnings back to the earliest centuries of the Church – Pope St Sylvester I is known to have had a schola cantorum in the early fourth century. This choir was first reorganised by Pope St Gregory the Great in the sixth century, whilst Pope Boniface VIII also made some significant changes to it during the Middle Ages. Pope Sixtus IV made it his personal choir in 1471, and renamed it the Cappella Musicale Pontifica "Sistina", due to the fact that it usually provided the music for liturgies in his newly restored Sistine Chapel.
During the Renaissance, the choir counted many illustrious composers amongst its members – men such as Palestrina, Marenzio, Morales, Josquin des Pres and Jacob Arkadelt. During the whole of the first half of the twentieth century, it was led by the great composer, Lorenzo Perosi, who - despite suffering from various mental and physical illnesses (the kind of person I have a soft spot for) - wrote some of the Church's finest music. Another important twentieth century director was Cardinal Domenico Bartolucci. He is still alive, and was given the red hat only in 2010 – soon after stating publicly that he “always and without interruption celebrated” the old Rite, and that “the new rite had deficiencies is by now becoming evident for everybody.”
After the directorship of Bartolucci's successor, Mgr Giuseppe Liberto, and a month exactly after celebrating Mass at Westminster Cathedral, Pope Benedict XVI appointed the respected liturgist and musician, Mgr Massimo Palombella SDB, as choirmaster of the Sistine Chapel Choir. It was he who directed last night’s performance in London.
Whilst listening to yesterday’s concert, I was struck by the difference in style between our well-known English choirs, such as Westminster Cathedral Choir, and the very ‘Italianate’ sound produced by the Cappella Musicale Pontifica "Sistina". Whereas a choir such as the one at Westminster Cathedral, or most of our English cathedrals, tends towards a clear and disciplined style, it seemed to me that the Sistine Choir was more florid or operatic in its approach to music. In that sense, I believe that the ‘English sound’ is far more suited to performances of Renaissance and Early music, whereas the Papal choir probably lends itself better to later compositions, or what some might call 'the theatrical' or 'grand'. (I am no expert in music, by the way - this is merely my opinion!)
Performing various short pieces, the Sistine Chapel Choir concentrated on Gregorian chant, the works of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina and three compositions by Lorenzo Perosi. Possibly due to its large size and the rich texture of its voices, I felt that the Cappella Musicale Pontifica managed to produce a powerfully ethereal sound – especially when it came to Gregorian chant. Conversely, I thought that its size – the choir has about 24 adult singers and 35 boys – was rather counter-productive when it came to performing Palestrina. (Could it be that having too many voices / members is risky for a choir?) Those used to hearing this great composer’s music performed by Westminster Cathedral Choir, which is superbly able – through a clear and well-disciplined style – to explore complex emotions and ideas, may have felt a bit confused after hearing the Sistine Choir’s interpretation of his music.
|The front cover of the concert programme|
Yes, some purists may have been put off by its rather operatic style, but I thought the Sistine Choir had a much richer tone than that which is often found amongst the sometimes overly precise choirs of northern Europe. And even one of its interpretations of Palestrina left me amazed by its beauty – I refer to part of the Good Friday reproaches, Popule meus. In fact, I thought this may even have been the best version of this piece of music that I have ever heard! Perosi’s Qui operatus est and Tu est Petrus were also brilliantly performed – the former lacked the Italian tendency towards falsetto (or vibrato), whilst the latter really was grand, majestic and moving in a way that some choirs here in the - dare I say, 'repressed' - UK would possibly find hard to emulate.
After the concert, Archbishop Vincent Nichols expressed his gratitude to the Pope for sending his personal choir to Westminster Cathedral – referring to the event as "a great honour". He also mentioned the fact that the concert was a means of marking Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Britain, and his Mass at the Cathedral. After saying that the Sistine Choir had provided “food for our souls and our spirits”, the Archbishop went on to speak in Italian, specifically thanking Mgr Palombella and the members of the Cappella Musicale Pontifica "Sistina" for their performance. The Archbishop of Westminster ended his speech with a prayer from the heart.
Mgr Massimo Palombella also addressed those present – the Cathedral was packed and many had to stand throughout the concert. After praising Westminster Cathedral Choir and its director, Martin Baker, Mgr Palombella said that the Pope desired a greater collaboration between his choir and the choirs of Westminster Cathedral and Westminster Abbey. It seems that the Holy Father was impressed by the music he had heard in London during the 2010 Papal visit. In fact, Palombella went on to say, through an interpreter (Richard Rouse, an English member of the Cappella Musicale Pontifica, who also organised last year’s bloggers conference at the Vatican), that the Holy Father had “pushed” the Sistine Chapel Choir to collaborate with the English choirs. He also said that the Pope had expressed a desire to see ecclesiastical music used as a means of fostering true ecumenical ventures – Benedict XVI has invited Westminster Abbey Choir to sing during the Papal Liturgies for this year's Feast of St Peter and St Paul.
Before ending the evening, the Cappella Musicale Pontifica "Sistina" performed one last piece, which was beautiful, moving, and refined. It was a motet composed by Mgr Palombella in thanksgiving for his appointment as Maestro of the Sistine Chapel Choir. Listening to this piece of music, it dawned on me that in Palombella, the Church might even have found herself another Palestrina. It also struck me that it seems the Pope really wishes to see genuine collaboration between the great choirs of Christendom; possibly for the benefit of his own choir, but also for the sake of Europe's lost - and magnificent - Christian heritage.
All in all, though, everyone present at last night’s concert seemed genuinely moved by the fact that this was a truly historic event – the first time ever that the Pope’s own choir, at his behest, had performed in the UK. Yet again, Pope Benedict XVI has shown particular kindness and generosity towards the people of Britain - a people who know the ecumenical value of music. The Holy Father is not only a musical Pontiff, he is also the Pope of Christian Unity.
The concert was free, with a collection taken at the end for the St John Southworth Fund. For some of us, last night's event was more 'para-liturgical' than what someone might typically understand by 'a concert'.