The gentlemanly Sandro Magister has hit a grand slam with his recent piece on Chiesa.
Let’s have a look with my emphases and comments.
Great Music in the Churches of Rome. But in the Vatican, They’re Deaf
The Wiener Philarmoniker and other illustrious performers have played in the Roman basilicas, in one case with the pope present. But there’s paralysis in the curia. The musical accompaniment of the papal Masses continues to be of appalling mediocrity [Absolutely correct. The other day I was watching the papal Vespers for Advent and noted that, while somewhat improved, the Sistine choir is still living up to their old nickname "the Sistine Screamers". Not only, the present director has taken it upon himself, as have others, to substitute the Church’s great patrimony of sacred music with their own cloying ditties.]
by Sandro Magister
ROMA, December 3, 2008 – The International Festival of Sacred Music and Art, held every fall in the papal basilicas of Rome, concluded last Sunday, the first Sunday of Advent.
Organized by the Fondazione Pro Musica e Arte Sacra, the festival is intended to restore great sacred music to its authentic context, the churches: a context that may not be as acoustically perfect as a concert hall, but is the right one for revitalizing music originally created for the liturgy. [Yes. Hearing music in the proper context changes everything.]
"My dream," says Hans-Albert Courtial, president of the foundation, "is that on each Sunday of the year, in one of the churches of Rome, there would be a Mass accompanied by the masterpieces of sacred music, Gregorian and polyphonic, with performers of the first rank."
In effect, this is what happened last November 26. In the basilica of St. Peter, Cardinal Angelo Comastri celebrated the Mass, and maestro Helmuth Rilling magnificently conducted the Harmoniemesse in B flat major by Franz Joseph Haydn. [Yes… those Masses should be used for Masses!]
But the festival did not present only liturgical music. The first and last days of the program were centered, respectively, on the Art of the Fugue and the Musical Offering by Johann Sebastian Bach, ingeniously rediscovered and reinterpreted in their metaphysical profundity, of sublime cosmic harmony, by Hans-Eberhard Dentler.
Another high point of the festival this year was the performance in the basilica of St. Mary Major (see photo) of the German Requiem by Johannes Brahms, a work that is not liturgical or Catholic, but is intensely spiritual, masterfully conducted by Marek Janowski, with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande and the Rundfunkchor Berlin.
Also memorable was the Sixth Symphony by Anton Bruckner, performed by the Wiener Philarmoniker and conducted by Christoph Eschenbach, at the basilica of Saint Paul’s Outside the Walls, on October 13, with Benedict XVI in the front row.
* * *
The presence of pope Joseph Ratzinger [Don’t fret about this turn of phrase. This is common to Italian writing and is not disrespectful.] at a concert was not the only novelty of the festival this year.
Together with Benedict XVI, that evening at St. Paul’s Outside the Walls were also the 250 cardinals and bishops who had participated that same day in the worldwide synod on the Word of God. For many of them, Bruckner is not an easy composer, but the pope’s example – at least for once – brought them there [You know.. I love this! Usually we have to endure a certain measure of condescension from our pastors and prelates who, clearly, make the assumption that their flocks are neither well-educated or very bright. Here the implication is that the Bruckner, definitely long-hair stuff, would be too challenging for their Reverences. Had Benedict XVI not set the example, they wouldn’t have gone.] to attend a great concert. Because musical sensibility is not exactly at home in the ecclesiastical sphere: [In other words, most clerics are musical rubes. We need to have sound training even in music appreciation in our seminaries, so that priests of the future do not perpetuate this lamentable tradition.] the high-ranking prelates who went to other concerts of the festival could be counted on the fingers of one hand.
Another novelty was the emphasis given to the organ. For four evenings in a row, from November 17-20, the main instrument of liturgical music dominated the program of the festival, with both ancient and contemporary works played by famous organists in various Roman churches. And not only that. The performances in Rome were the crowning moment of a more extensive schedule of organ concerts in nine European countries, which began in June in Bavaria: a "Euro Via Festival" that has been held every year since 2005, under the artistic direction of Johannes Skudlik.
During those same days, in Rome, restoration was completed on two magnificent organs: that of the Academic Hall of the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music, [Which is in the other side of my house in Rome.] and that of the church of Sant’Antonio dei Portoghesi. Another of the most splendid organs in Rome, that of the church of St. Ignatius, will be restored in the months to come, sponsored by the Fondazione pro Musica e Arte Sacra, and will be played again at the festival in 2009.
Brutally supplanted by guitars [and we might say "brutishly"] in many churches around the world, the organ has recently shown small signs of revival. The Italian bishops’ conference, for example, organized a study seminar last month for organists and liturgists, entitled: "The pipe organ. A journey of centuries in service of the liturgy."
But the road has been cut off. Not only is the sound of the organ largely absent from liturgical services, but its use is even overlooked for situations that are perfectly suited for it. One bad example is given by the basilica of St. Peter itself. Every time there is a liturgical celebration with the pope, the basilica is filled with faithful, long before the scheduled time. This would be an ideal moment for the sound of the organ. It would create an atmosphere of greater recollection, of preparation for the liturgical celebration. And instead, nothing. The organ is there, the organists are there, there are thousands of faithful who would enjoy listening to good music that would raise their spirits. The only thing missing is the will to decide to do something so basic. [And the organist for the papal ceremonies is exceptionally gifted! He is an American who has really got game.]
There is a sort of musical paralysis, in Rome, around the celebrations of the pope. Benedict XVI’s thought on liturgical music is very well known, it has been presented in his writings, very critical of the decline that has taken place. But almost nothing has changed, in more than three years of pontificate. The Vatican still has no office with authority on sacred music. The Sistine Choir, conducted by Monsignor Giuseppe Liberto, is a shadow of its glorious former self. And when the Sistine Choir is not singing at the papal Masses, what dominates is the theatrical style of Monsignor Marco Frisina, director of the choir at the Lateran, the cathedral basilica of Rome. [In whose tunes one feels as if one is drowning in Lyle’s Golden Syrup. It is reason nunbing audio treacle and paradigmatic of what has happened with Church music in the last 40 years.]
In this sense, too, the International Festival of Sacred Music and Art taught a lesson. To perform the Masses and motets of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, Tomás Luis de Victoria, Luca Marenzio, Claudio Monteverdi – in short, the illustrious choir directors at the cathedrals of Rome and of Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries – the choir of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, conducted by Peter Latona, came from the United States, and from Germany the choir of the cathedral of Speyer, conducted by Leo Krämer.
It is not that Rome and Italy lack valid performers of this great polyphonic music. On the contrary, the most ingenious performer of Palestrina in the world is certainly Monsignor Domenico Bartolucci. But Bartolucci conducts Palestrina in the concert halls, and no longer at the papal Masses with the Sistine Choir, which he conducted until he was rudely removed in 1997. It is difficult to find a church choir in Rome and in Italy today that could perform the works of these composers in the live setting of liturgical action.
If it takes a festival to permit such marvels to be savored again, it’s a sign that there’s still a long road ahead.
Well done, Sandro!