A restoration of sacred music and the maestro

A restoration of sacred music and the maestro

As Rome goes, so goes the Church or something like that. We can only hope. Vaticanista Sandro Magister writes about a shift in Rome with regard to liturgical music. The scene is set with the appointment of maestro Domenico Bartolucci (such a nice name!) as “perpetual” director, i.e. for life, of the Sistine Chapel choir by Pius XII in 1959. The choir has been the official musical accompaniment for pontifical liturgies for centuries. Bartolucci was famed as an expert in Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony.

However, that lifetime appointment was cut short in 1997 when he was dismissed by Archbishop Piero Marini, master of ceremonies for pontifical liturgies, and replaced by a choirmaster more amenable to the “popular” music supposedly favored by Pope John Paul II. (Is this an example of how some took advantage of the fading strength of the aging pontiff in his declining years?) At the time, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was the only one to object—not surprising given his musical and liturgical genius. So now, as Pope Benedict he’s restoring some things.

In the areas of liturgy and music, Benedict XVI knows that decrees from the authorities are not enough. His intention is that of reeducating more than issuing orders. The concert by maestro Bartolucci in the Sistine Chapel is one of these teaching moments that the pope wants to leave a mark.

In the concert, Bartolucci masterfully executed an offertory, two motets, and a “Credo” by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, the prince of sacred Roman polyphonic music and maestro of the Sistine Chapel until the end of the 1500’s.

But he also executed some of his own compositions: three motets, an antiphon, a hymn, and an “Oremus pro Pontifice nostro Benedicto,” composed in 2005 after Ratzinger’s election as pope.

The juxtaposition of ancient and modern polyphony was not a casual one. Speaking at the end of the concert, Benedict XVI noted: “All of the selections we have listened to – and especially in their entirety, where the 16th and 20th centuries stand parallel – agree in confirming the conviction that sacred polyphony, in particular that of what is called the ‘Roman school’, constitutes a heritage that should be preserved with care, kept alive, and made better known, for the benefit not only of the scholars and specialists, but of the ecclesial community as a whole. [...] An authentic updating of sacred music can take place only in the lineage of the great tradition of the past, of Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony.”

We can only hope that more and more people heed the teaching example provided by the Holy Father. At our own parish last weekend, we had the quadrifecta of bad hymns: “Gather,” “Here I am, Lord,” “On Eagle’s Wings,” and “Sing to the Mountains.” I call the latter “the Catholic drinking song,” because when I hear it I imagine a bunch of guys in lederhosen swinging steins full of beer while they sing it: “Sing to the mountains, sing to the sea, raise your glasses, lift them high…”

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Written by
Domenico Bettinelli