Magister’s piece on Sacred Music and the Pope’s ongoing plan

I have been for a long time that the Pope has a kind of "Marshall Plan" for the Church.  He is trying to revive, rebuild, reinvigorate many sectors of the Church after the devastation of the last decades.  

Despite the happy gas blown around hither and yon, things in the Church aren’t actually so rosy these days, unless of course you wear rose colored glasses… which make it hard, by the way, to read rubrics.

I contend that Summorum Pontificum is a major component in the Benedictine Marshall Plan.  For Benedict, we are our rites.  If the Eucharist (the Sacrament and the celebration) ar the source and summit of Christian life, then liturgy is all important.  Save the Liturgy, Save the World, after all.

Other people are noticing the Pope’s agenda.

For example, the gentlemanly Sandro Magister had a very good piece about how the Pope is underscoring sacred music.  It deserves a close reading.

Here it is, somewhat edited, with my emphases and comments.

A New Musical Season Opens at the Vatican – And Here’s the Program [Even in translation, the perfect word choice for a title]

Pope Ratzinger seems to be stepping up the tempo. The curia will have a new office with authority in the field of sacred music. And the choir of the Sistine Chapel is getting a new director

by Sandro Magister

ROMA, October 18, 2007 – In the span of just a few days, a series of events have unfolded at the Vatican which, taken all together, foretell new provisions – at the pope’s behest – to foster the rebirth of great sacred music.  [He has a plan.]

[1st] The first of these events took place on Monday, October 8. On that morning, Benedict XVI held an audience with the "chapter" of Saint Peter’s basilica –

The pope reminded them that "it is necessary that, beside the tomb of Peter, there be a stable community of prayer to guarantee continuity with tradition."

One example the pope gave to the chapter of St. Peter’s was the celebration of the liturgy at the abbey of Heiligenkreutz, the flourishing monastery he had visited just a few weeks earlier in Austria.  [Ironic that the Pope shouldhave to go to Austria to give the chapter a lesson in singing the Roman liturgy, but let that pass…]

In effect, since just over a year ago, Gregorian chant has been restored as the primary form of singing for Mass and solemn Vespers in Saint Peter’s basilica.

The rebirth of Gregorian chant at St. Peter’s coincided with the appointment of a new choir director, who was chosen by the basilica chapter in February of 2006.

The new director, Pierre Paul, a Canadian and an Oblate of the Virgin Mary, has made a clean break with the practice established during the pontificate of John Paul II – and reaffirmed by the previous director, Pablo Colino – of bringing to sing at the Masses in St. Peter’s the most disparate choirs, drawn from all over the world, very uneven in quality and often inadequate.

Fr. Paul put the gradual and the antiphonal back into the hands of his singers, and taught them to sing Mass and Vespers in pure Gregorian chant. The faithful are also provided with booklets with the Gregorian notation for Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, and the translation of the texts in Italian, English, and Spanish. The results are liturgically exemplary celebrations, with increasing participation from a growing number of faithful from many nations.  [Gee!  What a surprise!]

[2nd] The second event took place on Wednesday, October 10, again in Saint Peter’s Basilica. The orchestra and choir of Humboldt Universität in Berlin, conducted by Constantin Alex, performed the Mass "Tu es Petrus," composed in honor of Joseph Ratzinger’s eightieth birthday by the German musician Wolfgang Seifein, who was present at the organ.  [I wrote about this event.]

Make no mistake: this was not a concert, but a real Mass. Exactly like on November 19 of last year, when in St. Peter’s (see photo) the Wiener Philarmoniker provided the musical accompaniment for the Eucharistic liturgy celebrated by cardinal Christoph Schönborn, with the Krönungsmesse K 317 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

[3rd] The third event is Benedict XVI’s visit to the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music, on the morning of Saturday, October 13.

He also confirmed that "three characteristics distinguish sacred liturgical music: sanctity, true art, and universality, meaning its ability to be used regardless of the nature or nationality of the assembly."  [What an incredible vindication of the constant drumbeat kept up in the dark years by the late Msgr. Richard Schuler, well-known to the Holy Father (he sent a telegram for Msgr. Schuler’s funeral!) and Msgr. Georg Ratzinger, another great Church musician.]

And he continued:

"Precisely in view of this, ecclesiastical authorities must devote themselves to guiding wisely the development of such a demanding genre of music, not by sealing off its repository, [Msgr. Schuler used to talk about "opening up the treasury".] but by seeking to insert into the heritage of the past the legitimate additions of the present, in order to arrive at a synthesis worthy of the high mission reserved to it in the divine service. I am certain that the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music, in harmonious agreement with the congregation for divine worship, will not fail to offer its contribution for an ‘updating’, adapted to our time, of the abundant and valuable traditions found in sacred music."

This expectation could soon be followed by the institution, in the Roman curia, of an office endowed with authority in the area of sacred music. It is already known that, as a cardinal, Ratzinger maintained that the institution of such an office was necessary.  [Interesting, no?]

But Benedict XVI has also made clear his preferences in regard to the type of sacred music that should be promoted.

In his speech to the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music, the pope mentioned the name of only one living "maestro" of great sacred music: Domenico Bartolucci, 91, who was seated in the front row and whom the pope later greeted with great warmth.  [Read this carefully.]

Bartolucci was removed from his position as director of the papal choir of the Sistine Chapel in 1997. And his expulsion – supported by the pontifical master of ceremonies at the time, Piero Marini [What an impact he had.] – marked the general abandonment in the papal liturgies of the Roman style, characterized by great polyphonic music and Gregorian chant, of which Bartolucci is an outstanding interpreter.  [BULLSEYE! It was a terrible scandal in Rome, years ago, when Bartolucci, who was the Maestro in perpetuo of the Sistina, was so unceremoniously (or rather very "ceremoniously" given the heave-ho.  Everyone knew what happened.]

The only group that remained to keep this style alive in the papal basilicas of Rome was the Cappella Liberiana of the basilica of Saint Mary Major, directed since 1970 by Valentino Miserachs Grau, who succeeded Bartolucci in this role.

Miserachs is also the head of the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music, to which the pope has entrusted the task of "guiding wisely the development of such a demanding genre of music."

Bartolucci and Miserachs: this is Benedict XVI’s dual point of reference, in Rome, in the field of liturgical music.  [I have heard Miserachs speak a few times.  He is such a breath of fresh air in his approach to music and liturgy after the horrible times from which we are now happily emerging.]

* * *

[4th ]The fourth event, which came shortly before the first three, was the replacement, on October 1, of the director of pontifical liturgical celebrations.

To replace Piero Marini – who will go to preside over the pontifical committee for international Eucharistic congresses – the call went out to Genoa, to Guido Marini, who’s close to his predecessor in name, but to pope Ratzinger in substance.

The removal of Piero Marini leaves unprotected the man he had brought in, in 1997, to direct the Cappella Sistina after Bartolucci’s dismissal: Giuseppe Liberto.

As director of the choir that accompanies the papal liturgies, Liberto is not the right man for the current pope. It’s enough to read what was written about him in the authoritative "International Church Music Review" by an expert in this field, Dobszay László of Hungary, in commenting on the inaugural Mass of Benedict XVI’s pontificate:

"The election of pope Benedict XVI gave hope and joy for all who love true liturgy and liturgical music. Following the inaugural Mass on the tv-screen we were deeply moved by Holy Father’s celebration and sermon.

"As the Mass went ahead, however, we became more and more unhappy with its musical feature. Most of what was sung is a very poor music; Gregorian chant was not more than pretext for a home-composer to display himself. The choir cannot be proud on anything except the old nimbus. The singers wanted to overshout each other, they were frequently out of tune, the sound uneven, the conducting without any artistic power, the organ and organplaying like in a second-rank country parish-church.  [We used to call the the "Sistine Screamers".  PHEW were they awful!]

"The poor quality of music was the consequence of another fault: the awkward and arbitrary fabrication (by Marini?) of the liturgical texts (proprium), [BULLSEYE again!  Isn’t this the case?  Marini just made up his own rites and Liberto set aside the Church’s "standard" and imposed his own schlock compositions.  I have heard Liberto speak twice.  The first time was at a day’s conference sponsored by the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments.  He was to talk for about 15 minutes… he took almost 45!  All the time pushing nothing but his own weird view of music.  The occassion?  The anniversary of Pius X’s motu proprio on Sacred Music.  It was awful.]  that practically excluded the ‘precious treasury of Church music’ (cf. Sacrosanctum Concilium). A formula missae selected from the proper of the Roman Liturgy could have good influence on the music, too. Somebody, however, got again onto the path of vane glory and conceded to the temptation of voluntarism. Our happiness has been spoilt."

The director of the "International Church Music Review," a publication in four languages, is Giacomo Baroffio, a towering scholar of Gregorian chant and the head of the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music before Miserachs.

* * *

[5th] One final event must be added to the events already mentioned, one that provides background for all the others. It is the promulgation of the motu proprio "Summorum Pontificum," by which Benedict XVI liberalized the ancient rite of the Mass.  [Yes… this is the centerpiece of Benedict’s plan, make no mistake.]

It is increasingly evident that with this decision, pope Ratzinger wanted to make it possible for the modern liturgies to regain the richness of the ancient rite that they are in danger of losing: a richness of theology, textual form, and music.

It is no accident that maestro Bartolucci’s first words to the pope, during their brief conversation on Saturday, October 13, were a "thank you!" for the promulgation of the motu proprio. 

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. RBrown says:

    He also confirmed that “three characteristics distinguish sacred liturgical music: sanctity, true art, and universality, meaning its ability to be used regardless of the nature or nationality of the assembly.”

    Interestingly enough, in the text BXVI quoted JPII as the source of the three characteristics.

  2. Kirk Rich says:

    It’s about time. As a professional musician (organ major at the Oberlin Conservatory) and traditionally-minded Roman Catholic, I nearly left the Church over the dire situation of music. That is, until I went to my first “Extraordinary” form of Mass. It’s sad that the Catholic Church was once the keeper and promoter of some of the best music ever written. This is where John Paul II was absolutely disastrous as pope. Completely musically illiterate. I remember watching Vatican liturgies only to turn the the television off within a matter of minutes.

    So glad they’ve got a new choirmaster. The Vatican’s choir should be as good as Westminster Cathedral, London. They have ALWAYS been abominable. Always terribly flat and no blend!! The boys sound like they’re all hooked up to vacuum cleaners. They also need a proper organist. He’s completely inadequate, and in the organ world there is a scandalous rumor of how he got the post at the Vatican, which I won’t mention on this post! Suffice it to say it would upset readers of this blog.

    We musicians still have work to do. Many priests who say the old Mass are unsympathetic to music as well. There needs to be loads of education. An organist friend of mine was playing an old Mass this past summer, and during his prelude (which he had timed to end right at the start of Mass) some hateful old priest starting flicking the light switch on and off in the choir loft and just expected him to stop playing because the celebrant was ready early. This behavior must cease. Pastors, WE NEED YOUR SUPPORT!!!

  3. danphunter1 says:

    It would be wholly edifying and holy if the the Vatican could assemble and sustain a schola gregoriana similiar to what German monastaries have.
    For my money the German monks are the most well trained and talented chanters in the world today.
    God bless His Holiness!

  4. Fr Arsenius says:

    Let’s see:

    a) new choir director at St. Peter’s Basilica
    b) Kroenungmesse in St. Peter’s Basilica
    c) Papal visit to Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music
    d) new papal master of ceremonies
    e) Summorum Pontificum

    It just keeps getting better and better — sort of like having Christmas every day of the year. Viva il Papa!

  5. Brian says:

    Perhaps the next expansion of the Benedictine monks of Solesmes/Fontgombault should be the Vatican. Build them a monastery some place in the Vatican and have them provide the chant. That would be awesome. Having the monastic/prayerful presence of monks who also provide sublime chant for the liturgies.

    It would also be fitting that it would take place under this pontificate.

  6. Sid Cundiff says:

    I can confirm the quality of the choir at St. Mary Major. I’m delighted that the prospects are good for St. Peter’s. In the Baroque age, all 4 major basilicas had first rate choirs.

    What about the Tenebrae for holy week? Can we hope for its restoration?

  7. EDG says:


    You’re right about the fact that many priests (and bishops) who are unsympathetic to the old rite also see red at the old music. A small group of us sang some chant and a short polyphonic piece in Latin at the daily mass a few weeks ago, and the parishioners loved it. Our participation had been arranged by the associate, who celebrated the Mass. The very anti-MP, raving liberal pastor was enraged when people told him how much they liked it, something that obviously could not be permitted. A ruling came down from him: no music at daily masses! He also changed the hour of the daily mass from 8:00 a.m. to 7:00 a.m. to make it more difficult for people to attend (some drive in from outside of the town), since he sees the daily mass crowd as too conservative and knows that many of them are among the signers of a request for the old rite.

    One thing that these people understand is that the old rite, its music and everything associated with it, such as church design, art, and even doctrine, form one integrated package, so to speak. If the music is allowed back, they know that the rest will soon follow. And the parallel church they have built up over the last 40 years will simply dry up and blow away.

  8. dad29 says:

    It has been said that the “Sistine Screamers” could well have been the cause of many to leave the Church.

    I would, if I didn’t know…better.

  9. mrs. k says:

    I bet the Holy Father loves Messiaen!

    Kirk– greetings from a former CIM organist. My only road-block to conversion from the hot-dish Lutheran was the banal music at every Catholic Mass I’d attended… until St. Agnes, and God be praised, did tears of joy fill my eyes at the beauty of a life as a Sacred Musician!

    There is much hope for the Patron of the Arts.

  10. Celibatarian says:

    Oh I so want to see some of this for my self. Both in terms of great music and an traditional mass. I still haven’t found a TLM anywhere in the diocese and it is a geographically large diocese since it is mostly rural ranch and farmland. 200 miles to the next nearest diocese and no telling how far to a parish with a TLM. I haven’t even found anyone who is also looking for it, very frustrating. But I am still just in RCIA so I don’t want to rock the boat.

    One of the several reasons I stopped going to the evangelical church that I had been a member of for a decade was because of the music. Having been an offshoot of the Churches of Christ, it used to be acappella and although the music was generally newer choruses rather than hold hymns it was still very worshipful and everyone sang. Not that I was wanting to be legalistic about using instruments as some get in the CoC, I wasn’t at all since I didn’t grow up in the CoC. But one thing I noticed was that the music went down hill fast when they introduced the “Rock Band” up front. Most people stopped singing. Some of the songs didn’t at all lend themselves to being sung by the people but were obviously a vehicle for the band and song leaders to “perform for the audience”. There was no more worship. Just a show and a sermon. One of the problems with evangelicalism is that it doesn’t have truth, history or the real presence to fall back on when the worship experience goes bad. I have found that all the Catholic parishes I have been to have pretty disappointing masses but at least there is still something to go for, Jesus coming near.

    It strikes me that the same thing has gone on here in Catholicism only on a much larger scale and in a slightly different musical context. I find it interesting that in both cases people starve spiritually and eventually fall away when traditional forms are abandoned for the sake of appealing to a wider audience. When a church tries to market itself like any other organization, and becomes more concerned about reaching people rather than bringing them truth it all goes down the toilet.

  11. SC says:

    Was I the only one hearing Handel’s Hallelujah chorus as I read this great post? Thank you, Father Z!

  12. Ruthy Lapeyre says:

    After becoming Catholic in 1978 and was disappointed in the music I heard at most Masses, although there were exceptions in New Orleans even back in the 1970s. At one point right before becoming Catholic I was a paid soloist at a Catholic Church but have found over the years that having paid singers is more often to be found with the Protestants. For many years I made what little money I could as a singer for Presbyterians and Methodists. When we moved up here to Detroit it was still another 10 years before we discovered a marvelous parish in Detroit where the Novus Ordo Mass was Celebrated in Latin complete with decent choir and Orchestral settings of the Mass Ordinary. We have been at Assumption Grotto Parish since 1996. When I found this parish I stopped singing for the Protestants and began to use the music degree I had earned in college for my new parish as a volunteer.

    Our Pastor began Celebrating the Traditional Latin Mass Sept. 14th and every Sunday since. It is wonderful, I have grown to appreciate this form of the Roman Rite more every Sunday. I am anxiously awaiting my new Missal from Baronius but until then am happy to use the old Cathedral Missal from St. Paul MN. So much catechesis was offered to the laity in these Missals, I had no idea until I took it off the shelf and began to use it for Mass last month. God bless the Pope and God bless you Father Z for providing this blog and very timely article.

  13. PMcGrath says:

    This expectation could soon be followed by the institution, in the Roman curia, of an office endowed with authority in the area of sacred music. It is already known that, as a cardinal, Ratzinger maintained that the institution of such an office was necessary.

    And the first order of business for this office? An Act for the Suppression of Certain Unworthy Liturgical Musical Forms, with an attached Schedule to the Act, in which you plop the OCP / GIA / St. Louis Jesuits / Haugen-Haas catalogues. This would be the equivalent of the Normandy Invasion of the revival of the Latin Rite Liturgy.

  14. Ben says:

    What a great article. I’m especially interested to learn that
    the Abbe Paul has put the Antiphonal into the hands of the
    St Peter’s Choir. This must be the pre-conciliar Antiphonale
    Romanum, since Solesmes and the Vatican have been unable to
    agree (for 35 years!) about the revision of the Antiphonal!

  15. Ben says:

    Fr Augustine Thompson’s comment on the New Liturgical Movement blog
    clarifies this: they use the modern Liturgia Horarum, but sung in
    Latin to Gregorian tones which, presumably, are taken from the old
    Antiphonale Romanum.

    He also points out that it’s standing room only for Sunday Vespers.

  16. Adam says:

    I have top agree with Kirk’s comments on the Sistine boys choir. Absolutely terrible. They are always distracted, looking around and not focused. The voices are indeed like vacuum cleaners. Fact: the music in the heart of catholicism is pitiful and a disgrace. Compare it with the Brompton Oratory on sundays or the Notre Dame choir and organ in paris. These are places that know polyphany. They are places to attract catholics and others to the worship of God. The new MC in Rome needs to pull out all stops and hopefully the pope will agree that there is much to be done. Bring in larger, well trained and adult choirs that have voice and can empower the basilica there as it ought be. Use the grand organ to its full stature and raise the dome off the great basilica so that even Julius II would be proud. Its time for the vatican to get a gripmon music and use the great composers like Mozart and Hayden for Masses there that watched by millions around the world. If the crustal cathedral in California can do it so well, why can’t the vatican? Vade vade sempre.

  17. Vincent Uher says:

    Seeing Domenico Bartolucci receive the warm recognition he so richly deserves is enough to warm my heart for a very long time. That the very music that draws me ever nearer to the Divine Throne of Grace is slowly but surely returning to the heart of the Church moves this sometime sceptic to tears.

  18. TNCath says:

    I visit Rome at least once a year and usually attend daily Mass at the Altar of the Chair in St. Peter’s as well as the main Sunday (Canta Miss Latina) Mass and Vespers. It’s always an interesting experience, especially watching the elderly canons as either celebrants or simply assisting in the choir stalls. Some of the “guest choirs” from around the world who had made pilgrimages to St. Peter’s to sing for the daily Masses were ok; some were even pretty good; most of them were awful. A couple of years ago, I noticed at Vespers, in the lineup of the canons in procession, the former director of the Cappella Giulia, the schola that sings for the day-to-day ceremonies at St. Peter’s. He did not look like he was a happy camper. I inquired as to why he was assisting in a choir stall and no longer directing and was told he had been “retired.” The following year, I attended the same vespers for the same Sunday and was amazed at how much the quality of the music had improved with even better participation on the part of the congregation because music had actually been provided them. I look forward to seeing how much more things have improved on my next trip.

  19. Henry Edwards says:

    EDG: One thing that these people understand is that the old rite, its music and everything associated with it, such as church design, art, and even doctrine, form one integrated package, so to speak. If the music is allowed back, they know that the rest will soon follow. And the parallel church they have built up over the last 40 years will simply dry up and blow away.

    As James Hitchcock explains it in an article in the recent September issue of Adoremus

    The use of the Latin language, Gothic architecture, traditional vestments, and other such things incite in liturgical liberals a panicky fear of being pulled back into a world in which guilt would again be appropriate.

    Including their own personal guilt, I suspect.

  20. prof. basto says:

    Magister dixit!

  21. Pete says:

    I look forward to a more traditional music being restored. Too much out there fails to inspire. Back to basics please. Rock on your Holiness! I like what I see!

  22. Stephany Rose says:

    It seems to me that its not the type of music but what is put
    into the music that matters. If the choir director truly tries
    to make the litergy beautiful and inspirational then it will

  23. Stephany: It seems to me that its not the type of music but what is put
    into the music that matters.

    To the extent that “what you put into it” means “doing one’s very best” then I can agree but only to a certain point.

    You can still do your best with awful music. It remains awful music that you have done your best with.

    However, I think “doing one’s best” eventually must apply also to choosing the music well.

  24. What Antiphonal is being used?
    The 1912 Antiphonale Romanum, Antiphonale Monasticum (the 1932 or 2005?), or an as-yet-unpublished new edition of the Antiphonale Romanum. If the last, when will it be published?

  25. Bill says:

    Kirk and Adam, you expressed my sentiments exactly! The choir has been a complete embarrassment. Having said that, I understand that the sound sought by many Italian liturgical choir directors is more “robust” than some of us are used to — almost operatic. So, even the best choirs may not please the ears of those of us who relish the music at Brompton.

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