Wednesday, September 2, 2009

I Had a Dream: The Music of Palestrina and Gregory the Great Had Come Back

An exclusive interview with maestro Domenico Bartolucci. Who strangled Gregorian chant and polyphony – and why. And how to bring them back to life. Benedict XVI? “A Napoleon without generals”

by Sandro Magister

ROMA, July 21, 2006 – The concert conducted in the Sistine Chapel at the end of June by maestro Domenico Bartolucci, in Benedict XVI’s honor and with his attendance, has certainly marked a turning point in the dispute over the role that music has, and will have, in the Catholic liturgy.

But for now, it is a merely symbolic turning point.

The new direction has been indicated with authority. “An authentic renewal of sacred music can only come follow in the pathway of the great tradition of the past, of Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony,” Benedict XVI said on that occasion. This is a pope whose “great love for the liturgy, and thus for sacred music, is known to all,” Bartolucci emphasized in his greeting of introduction.

But the goal still seems a long way off. Bartolucci, in his nineties, is a first-rate witness to the misfortunes that have plagued sacred music over the past half century. An outstanding interpreter of Gregorian chant and of the polyphony of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, he is at the same time the victim of their near annihilation.

When the curia of John Paul II planned and carried out the dismissal of Bartolucci as director of the papal choir of the Sistine Chapel, only Joseph Ratzinger, then a cardinal, was on his side.

Now, with the election of Ratzinger as pope, there is a real chance that the course of this drama will be reversed, and that Gregorian chant and polyphony will be returned to their central place in the Church. But neither Benedict XVI nor Bartolucci are so naïve as not to perceive the extreme difficulty of this undertaking.

For the Church to draw once more from the treasury of its great sacred music, there is, in fact, the need for a formidable effort of reeducation, and for liturgical reeducation even before musical.

This is what Bartolucci makes clear in his interview with “L’espresso” no. 29, 2006, reproduced in its entirety below.

In it he says, among other things:

“I am an optimist by nature, but I judge the current situation realistically, and I believe that a Napoleon without generals can do little.”

That Benedict XVI is, in this field, a “Napoleon without generals” was seen, for example in the vigil and Mass he presided over and celebrated in Valencia last July 8-9, organized by the Pontifical Council for the Family and by the Spanish bishops’ conference.

The vigil slavishly followed the canons of the television shows, with presenters, guests, comics, singers, and dancers.

And the songs at the Mass reproduced the “popular” style that invaded during the pontificate of John Paul II: a style unceremoniously described and assessed by Bartolucci in the interview that follows.

Here, then, is the barnburner interview, conducted and transcribed by the expert in classical music for the weekly “L’espresso,” Riccardo Lenzi:

When the cantor was like a priest

An interview with Domenico Bartolucci

Q: Maestro Bartolucci, no fewer than six popes have attended your concerts. In which of them did you see the most musical expertise?

A: In the most recent one, Benedict XVI. He plays the piano, has a profound understanding of Mozart, loves the Church’s liturgy, and in consequence he places great emphasis on music. Pius XII also greatly loved music, and played the violin frequently. The Sistine Chapel owes a great deal to John XXIII. In 1959 he gave me permission to restore the Sistine which, unfortunately, was in bad shape, partly because of the illness of its previous director, Lorenzo Perosi. It no longer had a stable membership, a musical archive, or an office. So an office was obtained, the falsettos were dismissed, and the composition of the choir and the compensation for its members were determined, and finally it was possible to form the children’s choir as well. Then came Paul VI, but he was tone deaf, and I don’t know how much of an appreciation he had for music.

Q: Was Perosi the so-called restorer of the Italian oratorio?

A: Perosi was an authentic musician, a man utterly consumed by music. He had the good fortune of directing the Sistine at the time of the motu proprio on sacred music, which rightly wanted to purify it from the theatrics with which it was imbued. He could have given a new impulse to Church music, but unfortunately he didn’t have an adequate understanding of polyphony in the tradition of Palestrina and of the traditions of the Sistine. He also entrusted the direction of the Gregorian chant to his vice-maestro! His liturgical compositions were frequently noteworthy for their superficial Cecilian style, far from the perfect fusion of text and music.

Q: Perosi imitated Puccini...

A: But Puccini was an intelligent man. And his fugues are greatly superior to those of Perosi.

Q: Was Perosi in some sense the harbinger of the current vulgarization of sacred music?

A: Not exactly. Today the fashion in the churches is for pop-inspired songs and the strumming of guitars, but the fault lies above all with the pseudo-intellectuals who have engineered this degeneration of the liturgy, and thus of music, overthrowing and despising the heritage of the past with the idea of obtaining who knows what advantage for the people. If the art of music does not return to its greatness, rather than representing an accommodation or a byproduct, there is no sense in asking about its function in the Church. I am against guitars, but I am also against the superficiality of the Cecilian movement in music – it’s more or less the same thing. Our motto must be: let us return to Gregorian chant and to polyphony in the tradition of Palestrina, and let us continue down this road!

Q: What are the initiatives that Benedict XVI should take to realize this plan in a world of discotheques and iPods?

A: The great repertoire of sacred music that has been handed down to us from the past is made up of Masses, offertories, responsories: formerly there was no such thing as a liturgy without music. Today there is no place for this repertoire in the new liturgy, which is a discordant commotion – and it’s useless to pretend that it’s not. It is as if Michelangelo had been asked to paint the general judgment on a postage stamp! You tell me, please, how it is possible today to perform a Credo, or even a Gloria. First we would need to return, at least for the solemn or feast day Masses, to a liturgy that gives music its proper place and expresses itself in the universal language of the Church, Latin. In the Sistine, after the liturgical reform, I was able to keep alive the traditional repertoire of the Chapel only in the concerts. Just think – the Missa Papae Marcelli by Palestrina has not been sung in St. Peter’s since the time of Pope John XXIII! We were graciously granted the permission to perform it during a commemoration of Palestrina, and they wanted it without the Credo, but that time I would not budge, and the entire work was performed.

Q: Do you think that the assembly of the faithful should participate in singing the Gregorian chant during liturgical celebrations?

A: We must make distinctions in the performance of Gregorian chant. Part of the repertoire, for example the Introits or the Offertories, requires an extremely refined level of artistry and can be interpreted properly only by real artists. Then there is a part of the repertoire that is sung by the people: I think of the Mass “of the Angels,” the processional music, the hymns. It was once very moving to hear the assembly sing the Te Deum, the Magnificat, the litanies, music that the people had assimilated and made their own – but today very little is left even of this. And furthermore, Gregorian chant has been distorted by the rhythmic and aesthetic theories of the Benedictines of Solesmes. Gregorian chant was born in violent times, and it should be manly and strong, and not like the sweet and comforting adaptations of our own day.

Q: Do you think that the musical traditions of the past are disappearing?

A: It stands to reason: if there is not the continuity that keeps them alive, they are destined to oblivion, and the current liturgy certainly does not favor it... I am an optimist by nature, but I judge the current situation realistically, and I believe that a Napoleon without generals can do little. Today the motto is “go to the people, look them in the eyes,” but it’s all a bunch of empty talk! By doing this we end up celebrating ourselves, and the mystery and beauty of God are hidden from us. In reality, we are witnessing the decline of the West. An African bishop once told me, “We hope that the council doesn’t take Latin out of the liturgy, otherwise in my country a Babel of dialects will assert itself.”

Q: Was John Paul II somewhat accommodating in these matters?

A: In spite of a number of appeals, the liturgical crisis became more deeply entrenched during his pontificate. Sometimes it was the papal celebrations themselves that contributed to this new tendency with dancing and drums. Once I left, saying, “Call me back when the show is over!” You understand well that if these are the examples coming from St. Peter’s, appeals and complaints aren’t of any use. I have always objected to these things. And even though they kicked me out, ostensibly because I had turned 80, I don’t regret what I did.

Q: What did it once mean to sing in the Sistine Chapel?

A: The place and the choir formed a unity, just as music and the liturgy formed a unity. Music was not a mere ornament, but it brought the liturgical text to life, and the cantor was something like a priest.

Q: But is it possible, today, to compose in the Gregorian style?

A: For one thing, we would need to recover that spirit of solidity. But the Church has done the opposite, favoring simplistic, pop-inspired melodies that are easy on the ears. It thought this would make people happy, and this is the road it took. But that’s not art. Great art is density.

Q: Don’t you say any composers today who are capable of reviving such a tradition?

A: It’s not a question of aptitude; the atmosphere just isn’t there. The fault is not that of the musicians, but of what is asked of them.

Q: And yet the monks of Santo Domingo de Silos have sold millions of CD’s of Gregorian chant. There’s also the Third Symphony of Henryk Gorecki, with its medieval references...

A: These are consumer phenomena that hold little interest for me.

Q: But there are authoritative composers who have put the faith at center stage, like Pärt or Penderecki...

A: They don’t have a sense of the liturgy. Mozart was also great, but I doubt that his sacred music is very much at its ease in a cathedral. But Gregorian chant and Palestrina match seamlessly with the liturgy.

Q: In effect, Mozart’s letters don’t convey any great religious sentiment. And yet, in the “et incarnatus est” of his Mass in C minor, that soprano phrase from the wind instruments perfectly explains to us the mystery of the incarnation...

A: Don’t forget that Mozart’s father was a Chapel Master. And so, whether he wanted to or not, he breathed deeply of the air of the Church. There is always something very concrete, especially in a man’s childhood, that explains such spiritual depth. Think of Verdi, who as a child had a priest as his first music instructor, and played the organ at Mass.

Q: Do you feel a bit lonely, with no heirs?

A: There’s no one left. I think I’m the last Chapel Master.

Q: But in Leipzig, at the church of Saint Thomas, there is the sixteenth Kantor since the time of Bach...

A: In Germany, in the Protestant arena, the children of the composer of the Brandenburg concerti jealously safeguard their identity. Verdi rightly said that the Germans are the faithful children of Bach, while we Italians are the degenerate children of Palestrina.

Q: Speaking of Verdi, great sacred music isn’t always compatible with the liturgy....

A: Certainly. Verdi’s Requiem Mass cannot be called a Mass suitable for the liturgy, but think of the power with which the meaning of the text comes through! Beethoven, too: listen to the opening of the Credo. It’s entirely different for the Cecilian movement. These are the masterpieces of sacred music that have a rightful place in concert performances.

Q: Bruckner was also very inspired...

A: He has the defect of being longwinded. His Mass for wind instruments, the one in E minor, is rather tedious.

Q: Was Mahler correct in saying that he was “half god and half simpleton”?

A: That’s right. He had some extraordinary moments, such as his masterful treatments of the arch. But then he began to exaggerate, and then...

Q: And do you like Mahler?

A: He’s like Bruckner – some beautiful moments, but rather repetitive. One would like to shout at him at a certain point: knock it off, we get it!

Q: According to Ratzinger, there is music as a mass phenomenon, pop music, which is measured by the values of the market. And then there is the educated, cerebral music that is destined for a small èlite...

A: This is the music of the moderns, from Schönberg on, but sacred music must follow the spirit of Gregorian chant and respect the liturgy. The cantor in the church is not there as an artist, but as a preacher, or as one who preaches by singing.

Q: Do you envy the Eastern Churches at all?

A: They have not changed anything, and rightly so. The Catholic Church has renounced itself and its particular makeup, like those women who have plastic surgery: they become unrecognizable, and sometimes there are serious consequences.

Q: Was it your father who brought you close to music?

A: He was a workman at a brick factory in Borgo San Lorenzo, in the province of Florence. He loved to sing in church. And he loved the romanze of Verdi and Donizetti. But at that time, everybody sang: the farmers while they were dressing the vines, the shoemakers while they were working a sole. There were bands in the piazza, during the holidays music directors came from Florence, and the area theatre had two opera seasons each year. It’s all gone now.

Q: In Italy, the authorities have cut off financing for the orchestras and theatres...

A: They were right to do so. Those organizations have too many people who are just dead weight. Take, for example, the administrative offices: at first there were four or five persons, now there are twenty or twenty-five.

Q: In what sense can Palestrina, Lasso, or Victoria be considered relevant?

A: For their musical density. Palestrina is the founding father who first understood what it means to make music; he intuited the necessity for contrapuntal composition linked to the text, unlike the complexity and the rules of Flemish composition.

Q: For the philosopher Schopenhauer, music is the summit of all the arts, the immediate objectification of the Will. For Catholics, can it be defined as the direct expression of God, as the Word?

A: Music is Art with a capital “A.” Sculpture has marble, and architecture has the edifice. You see music only with the eyes of the spirit; it enters within you. And the Church has the merit of having cultivated it in its cantories, of having given it its grammar and syntax. Music is the soul of the word that becomes art. It most definitely disposes you to discovering and welcoming the beauty of God. For this reason, now more than ever the Church must learn to recover it.


On the June 24 concert in the Sistine Chapel, conducted by maestro Bartolucci in honor of Benedict XVI and in his presence:

> A Change of Tune in the Vatican – And Not Only in the Secretariat of State (27.6.2006)


More on music and liturgy, on this website:

> Gregorian Chant Is Returning from Exile. Maybe (7.12.2005)

> Gregorian Chant: How and Why It Was Strangled in its Own Cradle (25.11.2003)

> Liturgical Music: “Here Is the Reform that the Church Needs” (6.8.2003)

> Polyphonic and Gregorian Chant. The Last Bastion at Rome’s Basilica of St. Mary Major (20.5.2003)

> Caso Bartolucci. Maestro, qua si cambia musica (3.6.2002)


English translation by Matthew Sherry:

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