Blistering analysis of implementation of Pope Benedict’s vision for sacred music

It has been said that Pope Benedict has been reigning but not ruling.

Sandro Magister has an analysis piece at his place, Chiesa, about something which touches the the heart of what I have been calling Pope Benedict’s “Marshall Plan”, a project during his pontificate to revitalize the Church and our identity as Catholics, a vital component of which is a renewal of our liturgical worship.  Music is, of course, not an add on in liturgy: it is prayer.  Sacred Music which is truly sacred and truly artistic is an “integrating part” of liturgy.

It is clear that some people very close to the Pope are battling against the Pope’s project.

Let’s see what Magister has presented with my emphases and comments and no editing.  It is longish, but you will want to read the whole thing.  The topic here is, ostensibly, music and liturgy, but the import of the piece reaches far beyond.

Glorious Music. But the Choir Is Tone Deaf

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.

[NB:] 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.  [A weakness of this presentation emerges.  The Sistina was dreadful back then.  Simply dreadful.]

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. [But WAIT! Palomebella has SDB after his name, just like Card. Bertone!  He must be qualified!]

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. [But… perhaps if it were a curial entity….  Never mind.  And would have to be something under the CDW.  No?]

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). [Get that?  One of what Magister thinks are the three most important discourses Benedict has given.]

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. [NB] 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. [Remember my piece about exitus et reditusHere.] 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. [Do I hear an “Amen!”?  No… really… do I?] This intrinsic requirement of speaking with God and singing of him with words he himself has given, [texts of Sacred Scripture] 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.”

[QUAERITUR, ergo…] 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. [Ehem.. the musical is liturgical.] 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. [Exactly so.]

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.  [Perhaps James MacMillan should be given a crash course in Italian, if he doesn’t have it already, and be given a role in Rome.]

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. [I have heard him speak several times and each time I thought he was dead on right.]

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.  [How many of them were born with the advantage of SBD after their names?]

Last March 14, Archbishop Fernando Filoni, the substitute secretary of state [Sostituto] 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. [Bad.]

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. [Big deal.]

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. [Some highly placed and exalted person or persons clearly hate Pope Benedict’s vision and thinking about liturgy and sacred music.]

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 [Run by the American Archbp. Harvey.] 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. [Benedict, to be fair, does not do his own scheduling. Other, highly exalted persons do that for him.]

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[And there, my friends, it is.  And therefore, there is an implicit question – which must arise – from the next sentence in this piece…]

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.

It has been said that Pope Benedict is reigning but not ruling.

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  1. GordonB says:

    I wonder if Pope Benedict will read this piece by Magister and what his reaction would be?Are those who had a role in the actions described above able to keep him from even reading this article? The lack of congruence in the word and action is definitely curious.

  2. James Joseph says:

    I think the Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate have got it really, really right. Their polyphony is so well balanced it is simply beautiful.

    I also think the composers in and around the Esemble Organum have got it very right as well. I also like that I have heard the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate chant one of their compositions very successfully.

    I like Kevin Allen’s work very much, and have been following it for some time, but I still can’t bend my soul around his polyphony. I have great hopes for him, but I have trouble buying into the Corpus Christi Watershed notion of writing a new compostion every week, a notion reeking of classicalism.

    Maybe being a meta-historian, and a miserable one at that, puts me at a disadvantage. I am so dearly enamoured by the idea of chants being simple enough for the priest, the deacon, and the “let’s-call-him-an-instituted-acolyte-but-he-may-also-may-be-known-as-a-sub-deacon” to intone. The trend for the lack of conversation, in the last 1000 years or so, twixt the choral (those in the field/in the distance) and the man standing at the meeting point of Heaven and Earth is spirtually troubling. I also find it troubling that there is little focus on male and female parts to many of the sequences.

  3. LittleFlower says:

    I am not really sure why Pope Benedict is not taking more steps to implement his vision of music.. maybe he is being prevented from doing so? Or maybe he doesn’t want to enforce it and is trying to get people to agree first? I think it’s sad that so few are listening.. I read an article about what the Pope has to say about sacred music and he makes really good points ( It’s sad that he has so much opposition in many things that he says, not only outside the Church, but within as well.

  4. Athelstan says:

    A century ago, Pius X was quick as lightning.

    Yes, he certainly was.

    It *is* a little curious how inactive the Holy Father has been on this front, given how close to his heart this issue is – and how vocal he was when he was Prefect.

  5. jeffreyquick says:

    Most of the people who sing the Church’s music well are outside the Church. It has long struck me that a fresh start would involve the Vatican hiring an ensemble in residence (on the level of the Tallis Scholars) and paying them enough that they live well on a 5 year contract. St. Rochus in Vienna has done this with the ensemble Cinquecento ( I don’t know how it’s worked for them liturgically or politically, but it’s an impressive playlist.

  6. Mitchell NY says:

    It is a bit disconcerting to think that the Holy Fahter can not attend events or give audiences to people or groups which he may desire if the decision was left to him. This makes him sound like a marionette. Maybe part of a renewal within the Church should include freeing the Pope to make some of his own decisions, I think he is capable of thinking for himself, and stop being pushed around into different corners of the Vatican to suit other people’s agendas. If he is Pope he must be able to decide things without the bureaucracy. This whole article makes the Pope sound so impotent and as if he is lead around by a string by different people pulling him wherever they may want him to go. It does little to enforce the idea that we have a Pope who is there to protect our liturgical heritage, Sacred music and Traditions, which are to be handed to the next Pope. If he can not do as he wishes how are we to trust his examples as proof of his wishes and what is best for the Church? Someone else may be behind what we see which may not reflect the will of the Pontiff nor the mens of the Pope. Quite disturbing. This shows that definately something has to change. We need to believe that at least one person is doing exactly as he wishes, and that is the Holy Father in Rome.

  7. Penta says:

    Jeffreyquick: One problem, though. The Vatican is asset-rich, but very, very cash-poor. (They release financial reports for the Holy See and the Vatican City State annually, and they’re usually pretty hair-raising.)

    Which raises a question, even before one considers “Is a paid choir really in line with Catholic tradition?” Namely, “How would they pay for such a thing?”

  8. Oneros says:

    Just because you’re officially in charge, doesn’t mean you have the strongest personality. Some people, out of a perhaps somewhat distorted sense of meekness…don’t want to step on toes. I say distorted, however, because when it mainly seems to apply to friends and colleagues with whom you interact daily…that sounds more like just being cowed than real meekness.

    This is why we need a Vatican outsider (inasmuch as there is such a thing) next time. The less interpersonal connections you have with these people, the less they’ll be able to emotionally blackmail you or grab you by the heartstrings (or, ahem, other parts of anatomy) to prevent you from doing what must be done and steamrolling over them.

  9. Sid says:

    James Joseph:
    I also think the composers in and around the Ensemble Organum have got it very right .

    Do you mean the recordings of Ensemble Organum? If so, a fortissimo Amen! Especially their recordings of Old Roman Chant. I’m no scholar, so I can’t speak to the historical accuracy of these interpretations, but they sure sound sublime! Rudolf Otto would love them.

    In passing, the chant revival of the 90s and the early music revival of the past 40 years have me wondering if the secular world is ahead of the Church in getting holy music out to the people.

    — Sid Cundiff

  10. anilwang says:

    Personally, I think that the Pope’s hesitance to raise the priority on music is intentional. At the moment he is juggling several balls, and there are a great number of things that need fixing. He could try to issue a radical reform on all parts, but that might cause more problems than he’s trying to fix. Like boiling a frog, if you do it too quickly the frog jumps out of the pot and all is lost. If you do it slowly, the frog endures the incremental discomfort of the additional heat until it’s too late.

    The plan so far seems along these lines:
    (1) Let TLM be available and trust bishops.
    (2) Continue talks with the Orthodox and SSPX, who in turn stress that the liturgy is important for ecumenical reasons.
    (3) Crack down on the worst forms of liturgical abuse in the NO.
    (4) Create an Ordinariate for Anglicans and Lutherans (NB: the ALCC is also included) who have a higher liturgy than the common NO and encourage them to evangelize.
    (5) Beatify John Henry Newman to try to strengthen the English church (which not so coincidentally is now calling for meatless Friday)
    (6) Strengthen Catholic Identity though ensuring CINO agencies actually uphold Catholic doctrine (this is ongoing).
    (7) Create the new Roman Missal to fix the main problems in the old NO missal and put dynamic equivalent translations in the dog house.
    (8) Appoint more conservative cardinals
    (9) Reinforce that both Women’s Ordination and Pedophilia are not to be tolerated.
    (10) Reaffirm that the TLM is here to stay.

    This plan has happened so slowly it was hardly noticeable. If the Pope lives another 20 years, I don’t think new Catholics will believe that the pre-Pope Benedict XVI Catholic Church ever existed.

    This hardly look looks like Pope Benedict is reigning but not ruling.

  11. benedetta says:

    In all honesty, the way we worship in the liturgy reflects our belief, our prayer, our faith, hope and love. What would those who oppose the Holy Father say in the defense of what they want? That our liturgies should become, even, less reverent, more uglified and banal? I haven’t the depth of knowledge to be able to make a judgment about the choir at the liturgies at the Vatican during JPII. But from experience there and in other places in the world, some without resources or grand surroundings, easily by far what is normally offered in the U.S. (and from reading this blog this is evidently the case as well in some parts of Canada, much of Western Europe, Australia…) is the worst sort of irreverent liturgy and this goes hand in hand with strange teachings and a bizarre collection of sentiment which does not even reflect selective bits and pieces of a theology or what the Church believes.

    What is the raison d’etre for these professional obstructionists? Do they wish to just hold young people hostage to the livin’ large in the 70s dream? Why can we not just get on with it. There is really nothing about the irreverent supposedly ‘folk’ rendition of the Mass that is edifying or supportive of the dignity of communal prayer, as put into practice in the U.S. in the 70s and now, not just reigning, but certainly ruling, with a vengeance to the exclusion of pretty much, anything else.

    That a few places under the radar or permitted manage to offer something different, here and there, perhaps due to resources, is simply not remotely an adequate situation to support the very real needs and hopes of young people willing to live the challenge of the life of faith. To foist the 70s ad infinitum on innocent young people who have no ability to choose or power is just a selfish, stubborn refusal to listen. Why not just say, it had it’s day and the day is now ended, night has fallen. Vocations, down, institutions, closed, widespread irreverence, whether it comes to how we are before God, together, or with respect to how we are, towards each other. It didn’t work, it didn’t achieve what was hoped for such that one can no longer tell exactly what it was that was hoped after, nor can it be comprehended after decades of listening, openness, patience in trying to understand, willingness to try it that way, waiting for the dialogue that never came.

    Shall we quote more nike ads for our obstructionist friends…’just do it’. Just change. It won’t kill you. Follow the Holy Father. Be effective on behalf of the innocent, the least empowered, the poor, in solidarity. Let them pray, and let them live.

  12. Joseph says:

    I think all music used within Catholic worship should have something like an Imprimatur issued by an appropiate consortium. But here again the underlying tune is, if nobody enforces discipline, the household runs wild.
    Last week a group of french priests wrote an open letter the the head of the congregation of clergy, Cardinal Quelette, begging to appoint good men for bishops, who are willing to run their dioceses as Pope BXVI has in mind.

  13. jatucker says:

    The focus of this piece seems more about pecking orders than substance. Magister has failed to notice that the music in the Vatican today is better than it has been in many generations and probably better than it was under Pius X – maybe better than anytime in hundreds of years – and B16 himself has led a global revival of sacred music through outstanding appointment, teachings, and practices. This has been a herculean undertaking, but Magister doesn’t seem to notice this. This is the third or fourth time that Magister has found himself embroiled in some strange bureaucratic struggle (it’s always Bartolucci vs. everyone, in his mind) that has nothing to do with much else.

  14. John Nolan says:

    The Pope did not celebrate Vespers in Westminster Abbey. He attended an ecumenical service based on the Anglican Evensong. Without wishing to detract from the Abbey choir, the musical highlight of his visit was the Westminster Cathedral Mass the following day, which featured the MacMillan ‘Tu es Petrus’. The Cathedral’s choir is the finest of its kind in England (therefore the finest in the world).

    Yes, nothing in Rome can meet this standard, and Palestrina thought the singing of the papal choir was pretty dreadful. There has been an improvement lately, but even under Bartolucci they sing the Missa Papae Marcelli in the style of a provincial opera chorus. Perhaps Italians like it sung this way.

  15. Jason Keener says:

    I think the entire work of liturgical reform could stand to be accelerated by the Pope. Why hasn’t the Pope celebrated an Extraordinary Form Mass yet or even publicly attended one as Supreme Pontiff ? I thought the Roman Rite has two equal forms. What does it say if the Pope doesn’t ever make use of the Extraordinary Form himself? I also wonder why the Pope does not celebrate the Ordinary Form using the ad orientem posture when making visits abroad, etc.

    I’m praying that things will begin to move a bit faster with the liturgical reform and that the Pope will deal more firmly with his enemies.

  16. berenike says:

    Martin Baker is responsible for the music at Westminster Cathedral. Leave him there, but get James O’Donnell from Westminster Abbey.

  17. david andrew says:

    I will set aside my perceptions regarding Curial politics, as I really don’t know enough about what is going on to comment. I will say that there have been some positive changes in the music program of the Patriarchal Vatican Basilica of St. Peter the Apostle in the years following the election of Papa Ratzinger.

    That aside, I would like to contribute a comment regarding the value/beauty/importance of the contribution of the group Ensemble Organum. From the point of view of a trained and experienced sacred musician, the interpretations of Ensemble Organum are esoteric at best and controversial at worst. I cannot imagine, although I have heard, their particular approach to the chanting of the Propers in the average EF parish in the U.S. Most scholars and sacred musicians “in the trenches” would be hard-pressed to achieve a rendition of a chant in EO‘s style, and most sacred musicians “poo-poo” their approach in favor of a Solesmes style or some other much more practical interpretation that can be readily taught and applied on a regular basis.

    I realize that my comment is a “rabbit hole”, and don’t wish to derail the larger issue at hand, but I think that the extremes in interpretation of chant such as those fronted by groups like EO be set aside for another time and that for the purposes of advancing the more important aspects of “the cause” we remain focused on the important elements.

  18. JaneC says:

    I doubt very much that Pope Benedict is uninterested in tackling the issue of sacred music. I believe that two things are going on here: one, that Fr. Z and Magister point out, is that the people who do the scheduling have agendas of their own; two, that Pope Benedict has a different method of bettering sacred music than previous popes have had.

    The program that anilwang points out seems right on, and I would predict that the actions laid out in that program will have a much greater effect on sacred music than any motu proprio could. I firmly believe that if Pope Benedict had issued a motu proprio on sacred music in the first three months of his papacy, it would have been ignored by everyone except the people who were already doing the right thing anyway.

    The way things are going, however, those of us who must deal with the problems inherent in music for the Ordinary Form will soon have a more dignified translation to work with, and ever more numerous examples of well-celebrated Extraordinary Form and Anglican Use Masses. People who would have ignored a direct order will either fall prey to the biological solution, or will have their hearts softened by the preponderance of good examples–and the sight of the large congregations of old and young alike who flock to Masses with artistic, orthodox music.

    It may be slower, but it might also be more thorough and more permanent; something that sadly cannot be claimed for Pius X’s reform, which was never universally implemented and was completely dismantled after only sixty years.

  19. If we could bring back Gregorian Chant to the ordinary form of Mass as the norm rather than the exception, it would probably make up for almost all the other deficiencies of the Novus Ordo.

    I must confess that the number one thing I like about the extraordinary form of Mass is the music, which is usually top-notch in my experience. If only that much-discussed cross-pollination actually would take place instead of having two opposing camps staring menacingly at one another across a great chasm, one waving the Gregorian Chant flag and the other waving the Haas/Haugen/Schutte flag, things would be much better.

  20. benedictgal says:

    Having been educated by Salesian Sisters, it saddens me to see the state of things today, especially at my alma mater. The nuns have now embraced the Protestant Praise and Worship genre and liturgical dance for the Mass. Some of the Salesian priests have taken to editing the texts of the Roman Missal and to imbedding strange rituals within the Nuptial Mass (concerning the offertory and the bride and the groom).

    Now, I am not trying to paint all Salesians with the same brush stroke. However, were St. John Bosco to suddenly reappear at my alma mater and in Rome, I do not think that he would be pleased. I admit that I never watched many of the Papal Masses celebrated by Blessed John Paul II; however, the fact that the propers are chanted and that Latin is used should offer us some glimmer of hope.

  21. benedictgal says:

    Something else that got me thinking was the fact that the world has greatly changed since 1903. Bad music spreads like wildfire, especially with the internet. Download a bad song, through PDF or MP3, learn it on the guitar and then it shows up next Sunday. We cannot expect Pope Benedict XVI to wave a baton and fix a festering problem that took over 40 years to develop.

    Furthermore, he’s brought back the trumpets and other elements.

    Lastly, Magister also seems to have forgotten Sacramentum Caritatis 42, where the Holy Father addresses the issue of Liturgical Song, as well as the announcement from the CDWDS that it will bes establishing a division of Sacred Music and Art within its congregation. The wheels of Rome grind slowly, but, they grind finely.

  22. anna 6 says:

    I am with Anilwang and Jane c…

    The Holy Father is a very patient man who is both ruler and pastor. In the end, I think his approach will bear lasting fruit.

    Those who interpret his actions as “weak” don’t understand him at all.

  23. Prof. Basto says:

    Today, May 31st, one day AFTER the dissemination of Magister’s article, the bulletin of the Holy See Press Office has made public the letter of the Holy Father to the grand chancellor of the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music, Card. Zenon Grocholewski, Prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education, that was signed by the Roman Pontiff on May 13, 2011, and read by the Cardinal on May 26, 2011, during the opening proceedings of the International Congress on Sacred Music (commemorating the Institute’s centennial).

    The delay between the document’s delivery to the Congress five days ago and its publication only today is indeed strange, coupled with all the other snubs recorded in Magister’s piece. It seems that, if it weren’t for the article above, this Papal Letter would never had made it to the Press Office bulletin.

  24. puma19 says:

    I am still stunned that the pontifical ceremonies in the Vatican lack any real majesty and splendour that the Church can offer. We are still being treated to terrible music from these papal ceremonies, and this is 6 years into BXVI’s reign. When the pontiff was in London last year he celebrated Mass at Westminster at which a most stirring ‘Tu Es Petrus’ was sung at his entry. This sent goosebumps down my spine as the procession entered. You felt the presence of the Successor of Peter, the majesty, the power of Catholic liturgy. There was the grand organ, trumpets, percussion – the full panoply of orchestral power brought to the maximum in the central sacrament of the Church.
    Yet when in St Peter’s we get the same squawking choristers who are shifting, wriggling and looking all around them while singing. Their discipline is totally absent. There is no grand organ music that could be the height and power of the liturgy there.
    The vatican ought be the centre and powerhouse of the Church’s music. Sadly this is not the case and I have to ask again, why not? What is stopping this happening. But go to Westminster cathedral, Notre Dame in Paris and you hear great liturgical music. The Brompton Oratory can make great music with an amazing choir every sunday. Why can’t this happen at the heart of Catholicism? And what is stopping this happening?
    |Why can’t great choirs across the world come to Rome and sing at papal liturgies?
    |Why can’t great organists perform there?
    There needs to be a music revolution at the heart of the Vatican – we have so much in our history to give, but something is stopping this happening, as we still have to listen to an undisciplined choir of squawkers!!
    Sad but true.

  25. robtbrown says:

    Anilwang wrote:
    (7) Create the new Roman Missal to fix the main problems in the old NO missal and put dynamic equivalent translations in the dog house.

    Maybe I’m missing something, but I know of no attempt to create a new Roman Missal. There has been a project to improve the English translations, but fixing the main problems of the NO, some of which are intrinsic to it (e.g., inadequate Offertory, the 2d EP, the distorted Mystery of Faith) and some extrinsic (e.g., habitual vernacular, versus populum celebration) seem not to be indicated for the near future.

    Of course, there has been talk of mutual enrichment, but IMHO that mainly refers to importing new saints into the EF, having two basic options for readings (one of which manifests the theme of the mass, the other presents successive texts from the Gospels), and increasing participation in the public low mass of the EF (e.g., facing the people during readings and perhaps being able to hear the priest during the canon).

  26. Peter in Canberra says:

    I can share this little story, prompted by Andrew Saucci’s comments, of a ‘reform of the reform’ experience. I have had occasion to visit a little Parisian parish, Notre Dame de Grace de Passy, on a number of occasions over the last few years. The last time was about 3 weeks ago. The OF Mass ‘featured’: full sung Gregorian ordinary, including Credo III (Missa de Angelis), chorus (congregation) counter choro with a cantor. A responsorial psalm, also chorus counter choro, in French but to a psalm tone. Regina Caeii at the end. I have to say that, although a devotee of the EF, I found that Sunday Mass very moving, and despite having no French I felt very much at the heart of the Church that day.

  27. Peter in Canberra says:

    Benedictgal said: “can’t expect Pope Benedict XVI to wave a baton and fix a festering problem that took over 40 years to develop”

    Yes but it actually took longer than 40 years to develop. One might ask if Pius X’s ‘vision’ for Church music was ever grasped by the bulk of his clergy let alone realised. Perhaps if it was we wouldn’t have had the Second Vatican Council? (there were a couple of world wars in there of course and some of the greatest social upheaval in a millenium).

    There was some pretty awful ‘popular’ hymnody around well before the council.

  28. Andrew says:

    Re: letter to Cardinal Zenon Grocholewski:

    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.

    The letter is now posted on the Vatican website.

  29. Centristian says:


    “Yet when in St Peter’s we get the same squawking choristers who are shifting, wriggling and looking all around them while singing. Their discipline is totally absent. There is no grand organ music that could be the height and power of the liturgy there.
    The vatican ought be the centre and powerhouse of the Church’s music. Sadly this is not the case and I have to ask again, why not?”

    I have had this conversation with friends who are American priests and seminarians who have lived and studied in Rome. They call the Sistine choir the “St. Peter’s Screamers”. I, myself, have never been to Rome; I’ve only heard the choir on TV when papal Masses are broadcast, but they sound absolutely horrendous.

    Wondering that the pope’s own once renowned musicians should fail so miserably to measure up in any way to a choir like the Tallis Scholars or even much less renowned ensembles of a similar character, I have heard it speculated that it is more of an Italian issue than anything else. That screechy warbling that so characterizes the Sistine Chapel Choir can be blamed, perhaps, on the Italian attachment to opera over chant or polyphony.

    It makes sense to me that the polyphony heard at Westminster would be superior to that heard at St. Peter’s given the strong tradition of choral music in England and in the Church of England, a tradition preserved throughout the Anglican Communion in fact. You don’t need to go to England to hear beautiful English choral music, you can go to any larger Episcopalian Church in the USA. And just about any of their choirs would be more adept at presenting that sort of sacred music than would the Sistine Chapel Choir, unfortunately.

    Is it just an “Italian thing”? Who knows. I’ve heard it said that the Sistine choir hasn’t been any good since the Renaissance. I have no way of verifying that, of course, but I’m not sure that it would surprise me if that were true. I think many of us tend to imagine that at St. Peter’s, at least before the Council, all was brilliance and magic, sublime splendour and perfection. And if you look at still shots of papal ceremonies of yore, it’s easy to see why we come away with that impression: the vestments, the appointments, the paraments, the uniforms, the swags, the canopies, the ostrich feather fans: it’s all just too magnificent.

    But thanks to the magic of YouTube, once can take a look at video of some pre-Conciliar ceremonies at St. Peter’s and, in doing so, come away with, perhaps, a more accurate look at what those ceremonies were really like. As it happens, they often were loud, indecorous (lots of screaming and cheering from the congregation), unpolished (you’d think no clergyman in Rome knows how to walk a straight line looking at some of the processions), unrefined (movements are hurried and jumpy and ill-considered rather than slow and deliberate; there is not much in the way of precision in these ceremonies), and characterized by awful music.

    As a matter of fact, the solemnity at St. Peter’s, as far as general decorum is concerned, seems to be much improved over what it was when, say, John XXIII was crowned pope. There might not be all the papal eye candy of yore–the sedia, the flabelli, the tiara, the crimson swags and canopies and so on–but they do seem to have calmed down quite a bit.

    Finally, I do think the charge that “it’s an Italian thing” may have some merit to it. Those of us reading this who are Anglophones probably tend to look at church and liturgy and solemnity in a rather English way. We expect slow, precise movements, a certain level of stiffness and gravity of decorum, and crystal clear choral splendour. Italians however, may be a bit more exuberant and demonstrative and perhaps somewhat more operatic in their approach to music, to liturgy, and to ceremony in general.

    Alas Rome, I’m afraid, is and always will be in Italy.

  30. puma19 says:

    Centristian – voila!! indeed, I am not so sure about Italian Opera. There is really only one famous place, being the Milan Opera and all the great singers are not always Italian – Sutherland, Callas not to mention of course Pavarotti (an Italian). But I liked the point you made that the Sistine Choir hasn’t been any good since around 1500. Thats a long time. But I think its deeper – there is only one choir at the Vatican – The Sistine screamers. There is no other and you have to ask why not. Not even great organ or organists like Paris or London or Germany. Why not? Surely if the pontiff experiences great liturgical music when he travels, could he not just call in the Director of Music and ‘have a few words’???? Aren’t members of the College of Cardinals raising this matter?
    I too have lived in Rome and have worked in the Vatican and over all the years never seen any progress so that I could say ‘wow !!! what great music. It seems during BXVI’s 6 years there are many great concerts put on for him the Sala Paul VI but next door in the basilica, niente!!
    Pourquoi? We have a treasure-trove of great music. Perhaps some of the choirs from London and Paris ought be seconded to the vatican for major ceremonies.

  31. Henry Edwards says:

    From viewing papal Masses telecast from within St. Peter’s Basilica (not the outdoor ones in the plaza) just within the past year, it seems to my amateur ear that–contrary to what Mr. Magister apparently would say–there’s been a very considerable improvement in the Sistine choir since it’s new director was appointed. Am I wrong?

  32. robtbrown says:

    Centristian says:
    Finally, I do think the charge that “it’s an Italian thing” may have some merit to it. Those of us reading this who are Anglophones probably tend to look at church and liturgy and solemnity in a rather English way. We expect slow, precise movements, a certain level of stiffness and gravity of decorum, and crystal clear choral splendour. Italians however, may be a bit more exuberant and demonstrative and perhaps somewhat more operatic in their approach to music, to liturgy, and to ceremony in general.

    Alas Rome, I’m afraid, is and always will be in Italy.

    Yes, also in Italy were great composers, among which are Allegri, Palestrina, Corelli, Boccherini, Verdi, Puccini.

    I spent 8 years in Rome, and the Sistine Choir is bad. Partly it’s because they don’t understand how to sing Gregorian Chant (which is used at the 5:00 mass), and partly, when it’s polyphony, it’s because they are Pavarotti wannabees.

  33. Centristian says:

    Henry Edwards:

    I’m also of the impression that there has been an improvement recently. Watching the Holy Week services broadcast from St. Peter’s this year, it did seem to me that the music was, in fact, rather less horrendous than I remember it always being. Some of it was actually quite lovely.

  34. rakesvines says:

    Speaking as someone who had SDB after his name, I must say that those initials for Salesians of St. John Bosco qualifies one to be first and foremost an apostle of the young. But that is not to say that SDBs know nothing about the Liturgy. In fact, back in the 1800s, St. John Bosco’s Masses were so moving, specially with the help of his boys choir, that the cardinals were in tears hugging their prier dieus because, they felt they had momentarily been transported to heaven. But that was then.

    Another thing though about SDBs are so devoted to the pope that are accussed of being more papist the pope himself. I don’t know if that is why they’re getting offices there in the Vatican. Just FYI.

  35. stephugh says:

    Has anyone heard of Musica Sacra – Church Music Association of America? Are they the leading organization of Sacred Music in the U.S.? Upcoming conference in June in Pittsburgh.

  36. benedictgal says:


    Don Bosco was a stickler for following liturgical norms. Sadly, this has not translated well, at least here in South Texas. It disturbed me greatly when the Salesian sisters began advocating “liturgical dance” and P&W music. This is something that Don Bosco would never permitted. The reason why I am so loyal to Pope Benedict XVI is due to what the sisters (when I was younger) had instilled in me. Loyalty to the Holy Father also involves loyalty to the Church’s liturgy.

  37. robtbrown says:

    rakesvines says:

    Speaking as someone who had SDB after his name,

    Did you know any California SDB’s?

  38. rakesvines says:

    Mel Trinidad, the Portugese guy, John Roach, Vinnie something. I was with the Eastern Province.

  39. rakesvines says:

    @robtbrown: Mike Baptista.

  40. Sam Schmitt says:

    Magister’s “analysis” is hardly “blistering.” Sound more like carping and complaining to me.

    Pius X did act with admirable celerity in issuing his motu proprio on church music, but that doesn’t mean that the proposed reforms were implemented with equal dispatch. Many took decades or never took root at all and no one was excommunicated for singing opera arias at mass.

    Of course Benedict could be “doing more” for liturgical music, but that could be said of any number of issues confronting the church. To berate Benedict for not doing more in his first 6 years after 35 years of liturgical stagnation (to put it charitably) under Pope John Paul II strikes me strange and counter-productive. Benedict’s way has ever been to propose instead of impose, and one can argue that laying down the law about certain matters will have the opposite effect. I do now that there are things going on in my parish that would not have happened 5 or more years ago. Is this because of Benedict? I believe that he is having a deeper and longer-term effect than Magister recognizes – and all according to Benedict’s plan.

    At the same time, it would be refreshing if the Sistine Chapel Choir could rise to the level of the typical amateur church choir – at least occasionally.

  41. Tony from Oz says:

    Given the Vatican is cash poor, would it not be possible for a lay group to propose a Papal Music Choral Fund/Trust to supplement, if not replace (imagine the politics of that!?!), the Sistine Chapel choir. Through benefactions made to such a fund from individuals and sacred music associations worldwide [much like Peter’s Pence, but for music], choristers might be trained, or even the odd choir imported, for papal Masses at St Peter’s.
    This would be something practical to do.

    I also understand that, given the debased religiosity of the Romans, the only dudes who put their hand up to sing in the Sistine are choristers from the Roman opera – with predicatable results. I know not whether they are each paid a stipend or not, but perhaps it is a ‘Roman prestige thing’, too; and that aspect/appeal would always have been a part of an inherent dynamic of being in the Sistine Chapel Choir down the ages, I suspect – a choral equivalent of Cardinal Nephews, and who knows how many appalling singers have found themselves a berth through knowing some cardinal or another?! I therefore suspect that the politics of reform of the Sistine Chapel choir would put Curial reform in the shade.

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