Three cities in the United States were blessed by the visit of one of – if not the – oldest choirs in the world: the Cappella Musicale Pontificia, known more commonly as the Sistine Chapel Choir and also called the “Pope’s Choir.”  The Sistine Chapel Choir performed at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York on Sept. 16 (at the same time as a visit by the relics of Saint Padre Pio), at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 20, and at the Detroit Opera House on Sept. 23.

The first visit to the U.S. in three decades by the papal choir, this was a rare opportunity not only to enjoy Renaissance polyphony and Gregorian chant and to hear the same choir that sings at papal Masses, but also to see a living embodiment of renewal and beauty. As President John Garvey of The Catholic University of America told the Register, “This is a choir that was begun by Pope St. Gregory the Great in the 7th century and it’s still around. People are still listening to its music. It’s a sign of how enduring really beautiful things are.”

Beneath the Last Judgment

Enduring is a word most apt for the Sistine Choir, currently comprised of 22 adult male professional singers and 30 boy singers (“Pueri Cantores” or “child singers”) chosen for their great talent and who attend a special school in Rome.

The popes have long encouraged the arts – including music – and they have also been blessed with their own choir. In fact, the earliest root of the papal choir was the schola cantorum (the school or guild of singers) established under Pope St. Sylvester I, the pope during the time of the Council of Nicaea in 325.  More definitive shape was provided by Pope St. Gregory I who had two choirs, one at St. John Lateran (the cathedral church of Rome) and another at the Basilica of St. Peter that became a pool for candidates  for the Lateran choir.

The choir’s history became more complicated with the journey of the popes to Avignon, France, in the 14th century as the Avignon pontiffs preferred to have their own singers, while the papal choir remained in Rome awaiting the hoped for return of the popes. That finally came in 1377 when Pope Gregory XI went back to the Eternal City and combined the papal choir from Avignon with the one in Rome. His death the next year was followed swiftly by the Great Western Schism (1378-1417) that divided Christendom for the next decades and which was ended only by the Council of Constance that elected Cardinal Oddone Colonna as Pope Martin V in 1417.  Martin arrived in Rome in 1420 to find it in a deplorable state, and he set out to resurrect the fortunes of the city and begin the great Renaissance era that is still so visible today.

One of the structures of that period of building was the Capella Sistina, the Sistine Chapel, constructed by Pope Sixtus IV (1471-1484) to celebrate most of his papal liturgies. The papal choir, by then called the “capella pontificia” became known as the "capella sistina," or the Sistine Choir. It has borne that name ever since. Since the early 16th century, the singers have performed beneath the chapel’s stunning frescoes by Michelangelo, including the famous “Last Judgment” that he completed in 1536.

The golden age for the choir began with its new home. In the exciting time of the Catholic Reform in the 16th century, it benefited immensely from the compositions of such masters of Renaissance polyphony as Pierluigi da Palestrina, who also epitomized the exuberance of the Catholic Reform and was a perfect example of the choir’s capacity for rejuvenation.  

Moving into the Modern World

Renewal was certainly needed early in the 21st century when the choir had been given the nickname of the “Sistine Screamers” by critics for its overly theatrical and operatic performances. In 2010, Pope Benedict XVI named Maestro Massimo Palombella the new choir director, and he went to work recapturing the legacy and the details of the vast blessings of music housed in the Vatican’s collections.  The result has been the celebration of a new vigor for the choir, and part of the revitalization was the decision for the choir to set out on tour. The trip follows on the heels of two albums recorded for the prestigious Deutsche Grammophon label and a profile on CBS’ 60 Minutes last December that became an instant classic.  

The performance at The Catholic University of America was constructed not only for the beauty of its music but to impart some valuable catechesis.  Dr. Tim McDonnell, director of choral studies and of the Institute of Sacred Music at the Benjamin T. Rome School of Music at CUA, noted to the Register, “The way the concert was arranged was to take a kind of tour of the liturgical year through these musical pieces and so contextualizing that with commentary and to see the thread of the liturgy for which this choir was founded was a really impressive way to introduce us to the choir and to this music.”

The music itself, ranging from Gregorian Chant to Palestrina to the late 16th century composers Tomás Luis de Victoria and Orlande de Lassus, also pointed to the immense treasure of music at the disposal of the choir and the Church and the way that it is ever meaningful.

Dr. Nora Heimann, Associate Professor of Art History and Chair of the Department of Art at CUA, noted, “In reading the program, I was reflecting on the ways in which the choir has really tried to move into the modern world,” but she added, “this music that brings us back to where we come from does it with such joyfulness…One could think Catholicism after the Reformation as having to retrench but it doesn’t. It expands its arms as Bernini’s design [for the grand colonnade of St. Peter’s Square] does so exuberantly. And I think this concert which was packed…was really an affirmation of what we love and what we are and what we believe in and of the importance of beauty and of the arts and finding ourselves and our faith.”

That theme of beauty is essential in recapturing the place of the Church in the public arts. “I think we make a great mistake in dealing with young people,” President Garvey said, “underestimating their ability to appreciate beautiful things. I think they’re drawn to the Mass, drawn to the basilica; they are drawn to God by beautiful things. Hearing beautiful music is a way of drawing them in.”

The visit by the papal choir coincides then with a new initiative by Catholic University to foster what CUA Provost Andrew Abela described to the Register as “a new Renaissance in the arts, grounded in the love of beauty that is at the heart of the Catholic intellectual tradition.” That includes the start of the new Catholic Arts Council dedicated to assisting the University’s Benjamin T. Rome School of Music, the Department of Drama and the Department of Art in the promotion of the arts.

Dr. Heimann said it eloquently that just as the Sistine Choir itself underwent its own successful renewal, the birth of the Catholic Arts Council “is an attempt for us to find our own renewal. We have deep rich roots of the arts here in music, in drama, in the visual arts. We have had great and famous people do wonderful things at this university and we look to the future now to do more of it…we are viewing it as a moment to take stock of ourselves and go forward with renewed energy.”

For more information on the Catholic Arts Council.

UPCOMING ON EWTN

EWTN will broadcast a 90-minute special In Concert hosted by Dr. Jacqueline Leary-Warsaw with interviews and additional footage of the choir.

Air Dates:

Saturday, Oct. 21, 6:30pm ET

Sunday, Oct. 22, 1:30pm ET

Friday, Oct. 27, 10pm ET