What’s up with sacred music in Rome? Nothing good, it seems.

Sandro Magister has a piece today about what is going with sacred music in Rome, more specifically via the Sistine Chapel Choir and the Pontifical Institute for Sacred Music.

In a word: disaster.

Here is the first part:

Not Sacred Music, but Sounds of Attack
After the choir of the Sistine Chapel, the conservatory of the Holy See is also about to be conquered by those responsible for the musical disarray of recent decades. To silence from the pope

by Sandro Magister

ROME, March 30, 2012 – The last bastion in Rome of the grand liturgical music of the Latin Church, built on the pillars of Gregorian chant and the polyphony of Pierluigi da Palestrina, is in danger of collapsing at any moment.

This bastion is the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music, the musical conservatory of the Holy See, instituted by Pius X a century ago to set the right course for sacred music in the churches all over the world.

It is headed by Monsignor Valentino Miserachs Grau, 69, Catalan, who is also the director of the Cappella Liberiana, the choir of the papal basilica of Saint Mary Major. His predecessor and mentor there was Domenico Bartlucci, the most illustrious composer and interpreter of liturgical music that the Roman Church has had in the past century, the former director of the pontifical choir of the Sistine Chapel, from which he was brutally ejected in 1996, made a cardinal by Benedict XVI in 2010.

There is a profound similarity of outlook, in matters of liturgical music, between pope Joseph Ratzinger and the current leadership of the PIMS. But as already took place in 2010 with the change of the director of the choir of the Sistine Chapel, for the renewal of the presidency of the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music everything is about to be decided – not by the PIMS, but against it – without the personal involvement of the pope.

The reasons for this dissociation of Benedict XVI – willingly on his part, to the rejoicing of many – from practical decisions in a matter so agreeable to him, and maintained by him to be so essential to the mission of the Church, still remain undeciphered.

The fact is that this dissociation of the pope gives the green light in the Church, even at the highest levels, to men and to musical trends that are as far as can be from that “spirit of the liturgy” which informs his entire vision as theologian and pastor.

The case of the Sistine Chapel choir is emblematic. The appointment of the current director, Monsignor Massimo Palombella, took place behind the closed doors of the Vatican secretariat of state, surely among those least competent in the matter. And it has done nothing to restore the choir that accompanies the pontifical liturgies from the disrepair into which it has fallen.

It is not enough, in fact, that the selection of composers and songs is today more in line with the desires of the pope. No less important are the quality of the performances and the vision that inspires them.

Further below on this page is a critical review with the byline of an outstanding musicologist and musician, Alessandro Taverna. His judgments on the choir of the Sistine Chapel directed by Palombella are, naturally, debatable. But when, for example, he points out that by the end of an a cappella piece “the singers [had] dropped a good three steps,” he is presenting a fact, not an opinion.

So then, for the position of head of the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music, an outcome even more fraught with misfortune is approaching.

The name that the secretariat of state is about to have approved by Benedict XVI is that of Vincenzo De Gregorio, the current musical consultant of the liturgical office of the Italian episcopal conference.

Who is De Gregorio? But before that, how has this quasi-appointment come about?


Take note of the roles of Card. Bertone (SDB) and Card. Ravasi.   Also, read down to the bottom where there is a comparison of the Sistina and the Choir from Westminster.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in Liturgy Science Theatre 3000, The future and our choices and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. catholicmidwest says:

    The issue of music at the Vatican is a mess, just like it’s a mess everywhere in the Church. Personally, I’d like to see it jettisoned entirely for its trouble, but I know that’s not proper because music is a form of prayer, and it speaks to many people. I used to be a person for whom music spoke very powerfully, in fact, but my ears have been so abused by churches progressive, traditional and everywhere in between that I can’t even consider it anymore. It’s all just pain to me.

    I don’t think that this will ever get straightened out til we pick up chant and just use that. Relegate all the hymns to devotional use; throw them all out of the liturgy. Period. Let them become the folk music that they really are.

  2. AnAmericanMother says:

    I’m sorry . . . it’s shameful but true: the choir that ought to be a showpiece of the Church is awful. Any decent musician will tell you the same thing. They are called the “Sistine Screamers” for a reason.
    I’m not sure that Westminster Abbey’s choir will embarrass them, they are so bad they probably don’t even realize it.
    Westminster Cathedral Choir toured here last year. They were superb. Our choir went on a “field trip” to hear them and we were all in awe. They had some preciously avant-garde modern music (of which I do not really approve) in their touring repertoire, but it was all perfectly executed and brilliantly performed. Pitch, intonation, diction, everything was picture perfect.
    Our choir sings a lot of English music as well as of course chant and Palestrina. Our choirmaster often points us to examples from the English church, both Anglican and Catholic. Their best choirs – Westminster Abbey and Westminster Cathedral, St. Paul’s, and the colleges like Christ Church and Clare – are the gold standard that the Sistine Choir ought to be.

  3. Mary Jane says:

    “the singers [had] dropped a good three steps…”

    Gosh that is BAD. REALLY bad.

    Our 10-person polyphony choir is rehearsing Allergi’s Miserere Mei Deus for Good Friday (it takes about 12 minutes to sing), and by the time we reached the end and checked our pitch, we had only dropped 1/2 step or so.

    Sounds like the Sistine singers need some work.

  4. Sid says:

    1. AnAmericanMother is correct about English (and Welsh) choirs. The English never lost their choir tradition, one reason they took the lead in the Early Music Revival. Let’s pray that the Anglican Ordinariates will improve Catholic choirs.

    As for the Italians, the nation that gave us Verdi and Vivaldi has, to my ear, fallen on cacophonous times, as least by judging the music one hears in public, via broadcasting, or in church.

    2. Is it true that the best Solemn Vespers in Rome is at St. Mary Major?

    3. The Solemn Vespers at San Marco is sublime. Have a Latin copy of the Litany of Loreto and join in the concluding procession to the chapel in the north transept, where the icon is of the Panagia Nikopoia, the city’s palladium.

  5. ppb says:

    I’ve never quite understood why Sandro Magister does these ‘disaster’ pieces about the Sistine Chapel choir, as if we were in danger of losing some recent golden age. The Sistine chapel choir has been awful for longer than anyone can remember, regardless of the maestro and his views on sacred music. It would certainly be a great thing for the Church if the musical quality got better, but it could hardly get much worse.

  6. traditionalorganist says:

    Maybe it’s time for a “Musical Swiss Guard” with appointments to the English only. Ever since Rossini, Italians could only do Opera.

  7. Johnny Domer says:

    I’d really like to hear what Jeff Tucker says about this issue. He took major exception to Magister’s earlier article criticizing Palombella. Furthermore, it’s quite clear that the kind of music being chosen (including a greater emphasis on the proper chants, Gregorian ordinaries, and even the return of the Gradual) has taken place under Palombella.

    And really, a Sistine choir that sounds good is hardly a Sistine choir at all. Criticizing the Sistine Choir’s for bad performances is like criticizing the White House for being too white.

  8. jatucker says:

    “It is not enough, in fact, that the selection of composers and songs is today more in line with the desires of the pope. ”

    Read that sentence again. What it means is that the SisChap choir has embraced B16’s musical desires. And that’s not enough for Magister?

    I’m sorry but we’ve been down the road before. Magister is playing politics in the well-known way of this world. He has a horse in this race — Bartolucci will be grumpy and disgruntled until the end of time — and he is using his column to push for the one on which he placed his bet.

    It is an indisputable fact that the music at the Basilica in general is VASTLY better than at any point in half a century. They are singing the propers in chant, real Gregorian , and often the music you hear in the Basilica is wonderful, particularly the chant. This has not been true in our lifetimes!! What’s more, no more goofy visiting choirs that sing American pop music. Can we please give some credit where it is due?

    As for the SisChap choir, the problem there appears to go back to the beginnings of the paleolithic period. No news here. Not even PX could fix this problem.

    i took apart the last column by Magister on this subject, and don’t much feeling like doing it yet again.

  9. catholicmidwest says:

    I assume that Sandro Magister has ears.

  10. I don’t know anything about “Vatican insider” type subjects, so I may be way off base in suggesting this, but does anyone else find Sandro Magister’s articles to be…. I dunno, alarmist? Almost hysterical, sometimes? Whenever I read his columns I feel like I’m getting a hugely biased view of things.
    It may be unfair of me to say so, not knowing the situation, but that’s just sort of how I perceive it, and why I generally avoid reading his stuff.

  11. Dr Guinness says:

    Oh come on! These Vatican musicians need to get with the times! Enough of that old fashioned singing… They need to be trained to play the guitar and tambourine badly if they really want to fit in with the musical tradition of the Church (over the last 50 years)…

  12. chantgirl says:

    AnAmericanMother- I have to second that about the Westminster Cathedral Choir. They were awesome last Fall. They are a good illustration of what’s possible.

  13. anna 6 says:

    I find the Magister column very confusing, perhaps due to the translation…but this surely isn’t the first time I have seen him freak out.

    But isn’t it interesting that the Westminster and Sistine Choirs will be singing simultaneously, rather than in a “battle of the bands” style…because we all know who would win that one!

    BTW, I think that Mr. Tucker makes some very important and valid points.

  14. jbpolhamus says:

    I hate to have to say it, but Mo. Bartolucci’s music is turgid and hardly reminiscent of the Gregorian chant tradition. I have played and sung his masses, and it is a disaster. I wish the venerable cardinal nothing but health and long life, and the conducting of all the Palestrina he can muster, but there are better ways to follow tradition in music, to evoke tradition in music, and to build on tradition in music than he was able to manifest. I’m sure Palestrina will not go unheard.

  15. AnAmericanMother says:

    I absolutely bow to Mr. Tucker’s opinion, and I’m glad to hear that Sig. Magister is being a bit alarmist. Although I still think the choir doesn’t sound all that good, especially the tenors (I went and listened to a couple of clips), I am very glad to hear that they are improving, and that there are “no more goofy visiting choirs that sing American pop music”. That embarrassed the heck out of me the last time we were in Rome!
    And, by the way, greetings and thanks for the great Chant seminar you led at our parish (Holy Spirit, Atlanta) during the SE Liturgical Music Symposium (I was the contralto with the absolutely straight Anglican tone, on account of how I was brought up. :-D )

  16. discerningguy says:

    I hope this is just some more hysterical ramblings from Magister.

  17. jeff says:

    “the current musical consultant of the liturgical office of the Italian episcopal conference.”

    Big alarm bells go off in my head when I hear that consultants to ANY episcopal conferences are involved in ANYTHING I care about.

  18. Edward C. Yong says:

    perhaps as a gesture of œcumenical goodwill, St Peter’s should ask Moscow to send them a choir? the Russian choral tradition is second to none in Christendom, and they understand what it means to be singing the liturgy, as opposed to singing at the liturgy.

  19. ContraMundum says:

    I’ve got to agree with you about Russian choirs, but I’m not sure they would work with Western liturgical music. The styles are just too different.

  20. Dave N. says:

    All I know is that when the Sistine Choir comes on, say at the televised Christmas Eve Mass, I have to turn the sound down.

  21. Singing Mum says:

    The selection of music is better, to be sure. The singing of it is still… most often embarrassing. Hopefully that will improve.
    Magister’s take only makes sense if he has a blind (deaf?) devotion to Bartolucci. And that alone disqualifies him from being taken seriously on the subject. When his criticism is combined with calling Bartolucci the most illustrious composer in a century, etc., all manner of red flags should be raised.

  22. AnAmericanMother says:

    We’ve sung with the Greeks here, it’s a similar style to the Russians.
    We can sing with their ‘conventional choir’, which the Orthodox are allowed (as well as an organ) in the U.S., even though they are singing in Greek (that’s a fine time to discover that Classical and Ecclesiastic pronunciations differ – same as with us and Latin). But we can’t sing with their Schola at all. Everything they do is different – – it’s like trying to speak a foreign language.

  23. irishgirl says:

    I have a feeling that the Westiminster Abbey choir is going to wipe the Sistine Chapel choir off the floor.
    I love English cathedral choirs-heard them a lot during my visits over there. Not only at Westminster Abbey, but St. Paul’s Cathedral, York Minster, St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, and King’s College Chapel, Cambridge University. They don’t overwhelm the ears-they have perfect pitch and tone. Whenever I’ve heard the Sistine choir on TV or [now] online I have to turn down the volume-they’re too ‘screechy’. No wonder they’re called ‘The Sistine Screamers’!
    And I’m sure that Papa Benedict enjoyed hearing the Abbey choir when he was there in 2010!

  24. I would agree, irishgirl, about the Westminster Abbey choir. However, it might open eyes (or ears) to hear the Sistine Chapel choir chanting the Gradual (!) before the Gospel at this past Palm Sunday Mass:


    It’s hard to believe how far they come since the days of the Sistine Screamers. It sounds like Jeffrey Tucker is about right in saying that Sandro Magister–reliable on most issues–is basically full of it on this one.

    As a footnote, recall that just 3 months ago at Christmastime, it seemed revolutionary to hear the proper Gradual instead of a responsorial psalm at a Papal Mass. Now, hardly worth a mention in the world’s press.

  25. Xmenno says:

    The music mess in the Catholic Church has been a puzzle to me since my coming into full communion 10 years ago. While my Cathedral parish has absolutely transcendent music 95 percent of the time, every other parish I have visited has music that is quite honestly painful. The disagreements, especially in Vatican circles about music and musician quality amazes me. Are we not hearing the same things, and how can some of us think something is fine, and others think it is abysmal? I grew up in a little Mennonite church of 250 people (people, not families) and we managed exquisite 4-part harmony in congregational singing. There were numerous choirs, ensembles and choruses that sang in worship. Why is it so hard for the Catholic Church to understand the need for beauty and profundity in music and just begin to produce it?

  26. AnAmericanMother says:

    One of the mysteries of the ages.
    I used to be a “high church” Episcopalian, and if anything they are TOO music-proud. We used to joke that the music director told the vestry what he needed for the music budget, and everyone else fought over what was left. It was almost true. Choir was audition only (I sang for 28 years there and still had to audition every year) and people were beating down the doors to get in.
    Our new parish has exquisite classical music: chant, polyphony, some Baroque and a few carefully selected moderns. We have a music director who is brilliant, knows great Catholic music in his bones, and plays the organ like an angel. He’s not one of your brutal taskmasters and is very kind to amateurs like me. BUT it’s almost impossible to get parishioners to join the choir or even sing in the congregation – with a parish of 2000 families the choir is only about 18-20 singers on a good day. Which is great for medieval or Renaissance music, but there is a whole body of music (double choirs or multiple parts as in Weelkes or Durufle) that we can’t handle. The parish is a little larger than our old ECUSA church and in the same neighborhood, so it’s drawing from the same pool of people (educated, professional, middle and upper class). And we’re singing much of the same music, more Palestrina and less 20th c. Anglican composers, plus Gregorian instead of Sarum or Anglican chant, but probably about 80% identical.
    I’ve read Thomas Day’s book, but I’m still mystified.

Comments are closed.