WASHINGTON — After the Choir of the Sistine Chapel, known as the “Pope’s Choir,” finished a performance a few years ago, a member of the audience told the director, Maestro Massimo Palombella, a Salesian priest, that the singers lacked only one thing to be truly heavenly — wings.
This month, Americans will have an opportunity to hear one of the oldest choirs in the world live and in person when the choir brings a program of Renaissance polyphony and Gregorian chant to three U.S. cities. It will be the first trip for the choir, officially known as the Cappella Musicale Pontificia, to the U.S. in three decades.
The Sistine Chapel Choir will sing at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York Sept. 16, on the campus of The Catholic University of America at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, which seats around 2,000 people, in Washington, D.C., Sept. 20, and at the Detroit Opera House Sept. 23.
Grayson Wagstaff, dean and professor of musicology at the Benjamin T. Rome School of Music at CUA, called the tour “historic” because the choir has not been to the U.S. for 30 years and also because Msgr. Palombella has rejuvenated the choir by performing works from the Vatican Archives, especially pieces from the “golden era” of the late 15th and 16th centuries in the Renaissance style of polyphonic sacred music.
Wagstaff said that he hoped the tour would serve as an inspiration for Catholic parishes in the U.S. that might want to turn more to the Church’s rich musical heritage.
“This tour is in many ways a debut for this choir on a global stage,” said Tim McDonnell, director of choral studies and of the Institute of Sacred Music at the Benjamin T. Rome School of Music at CUA. The Renaissance choir, McDonnell noted, has undergone its own renaissance in recent years under the direction of Msgr. Palombella, who was appointed by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010. And with two albums recorded for the prestigious Deutsche Grammophon label and a laudatory profile on CBS’ 60 Minutes in December, the choir is now gaining critical acclaim.
Composed of 22 adult male professional singers, the choir also features 30 boy singers (“Pueri Cantores”) who are selected through an arduous process of auditions and attend a special school in Rome during their five-year commitment to performing in the choir.
McDonnell further noted that the choir is the “last remnant of what was the papal court.”
While some sources date the choir to the early centuries of Church history, McDonnell said that it can more accurately be traced to the end of the Avignon papacy in the 15th century, when Pope Martin V returned to Rome in 1417, exactly 600 years ago.
“When the Pope came back to Rome,” McDonnell said, “most of the Vatican — most of Rome — was in ruins.” The plan for rebuilding Rome featured an emphasis on music for papal liturgies.
In the 16th century, the Sistine Chapel Choir came into prominence with the major composers writing for, and often singing in, the choir. And in 1483, the Sistine Chapel replaced the dilapidated chapel that stood in the same location near St. Peter’s Basilica.
Michelangelo, who was commissioned by Pope Julius II, painted the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling, which depicts Old Testament scenes from Creation to the Flood, between 1508 and 1512. Michelangelo added his famous Last Judgment to a Sistine Chapel wall in 1536.
Since those early days, the chapel choir has become so closely associated with the papacy that McDonnell described the 2017 tour to the U.S. as “almost like a papal tour without the pope.”
Compositions by Pierluigi de Palestrina, celebrated as the “Prince of Roman Polyphony,” remain a staple of the Vatican-based choir’s repertoire. In the 16th century, Palestrina composed music specifically for this choir.
“Palestrina was writing when the paint was still wet … [on] these incredible frescoes” in the Sistine Chapel, baritone Mark Spyropoulos told 60 Minutes correspondent Charlie Rose.
And when the choir sings Palestrina, Spyropoulos added, “It’s not like looking at a fresco; it’s the equivalent of being in a fresco.”
The Vatican Archives boast the most extensive collection of Renaissance music in the world. And Msgr. Palombella reportedly has free run of this vast collection, where he can rummage through original sources, with an eye (or ear) to achieving greater authenticity.
An article in the U.K. Guardian dubbed Msgr. Palombello the “Indiana Jones of Renaissance polyphony” after he ferreted out an original edition of Allegri’s Miserere that indicated the piece has been performed incorrectly for several hundred years. Indeed, for some period before Msgr. Palombella was appointed director, the famous choir had gained a reputation for a lack of discipline. The choir sometimes sang too loudly, earning the unflattering nickname of the “Sistine screamers.”
When Msgr. Palombello took charge, he instituted a more rigorous training regimen, requiring three hours of training a day.
When the choir’s second Deutsche Grammophon CD, which featured Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli (Pope Marcellus Mass) and motets, came out last year, the Vatican assembled music notables to discuss the release.
At that time, Archbishop George Gänswein, prefect of the Papal Household, said that when listening to the choir’s performance of Palestrina, “[O]ne is immediately aware not only of the spiritual reasons for such refined and sublime music, but also of the great commitment by the director and the singers of the choir in perceiving and rendering the original inspiration.”
“With this [the Pope Marcellus] Mass, the ‘Prince of Roman Polyphony’ has successfully sought to respond to what the Council of Trent asked of liturgical music: that is, the intelligibility of the text united with the quality of the music,” the longtime secretary of Pope Benedict XVI said.
“This challenge remains pertinent today,” he continued, as the Church experiments with “new ways of implementing and proposing great music in the context of the liturgical reform of Vatican Council II.
“In this way, the aims of this CD, which is presented as a cultural operation, go far beyond in their endeavor to contribute to communicating the essence of the Catholic Church’s mission, which is to evangelize, that is, to announce the good news also through beauty, the way to God, and to invite the search for good, the quaerere Deum, which is inherent in art and in religious music,” said Archbishop Gänswein.
“This is intended to express that outbound Church of which Pope Francis speaks,” he added, “a Church that is not afraid to speak the language of man and his needs, of which music is a high and universal expression.”
Upon becoming Pope, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI gave the choir a very personal memento: his piano, which is used in practices. This special gift from an accomplished pianist underscored the German pontiff’s deep commitment to the renewal of sacred music.
“Sometimes it takes a generation to turn around a choir,” said McDonnell, marveling at the remarkable pace of change under the new director.
McDonnell called the forthcoming tour “a really great message for the Church. We have had numerous documents and speeches about the importance of music, but this is a tangible example of what Catholic music can be to the world. Instead of a papal document, we have a papal demonstration about Catholic music with this choir.”
Indeed, the September tour of one of the Church’s oldest choirs comes at an opportune moment for Catholic University, as it continues to advance its own plans to raise the profile of the arts within the Catholic tradition.
Provost Andrew Abela said, “Hosting the Sistine Chapel Choir is part of Catholic University’s larger initiative to foster a new Renaissance in the arts, grounded in the love of beauty that is at the heart of the Catholic intellectual tradition.”
Charlotte Hays writes
If You Go
Event: Sistine Chapel Choir in concert
When: Sept. 16, St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York; Sept. 20, Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.; Sept. 23, Detroit Opera House
Tickets: New York — Suggested donation is a minimum of $50 per ticket; Washington — free and open to the public on a first-come, first-served basis, though donation opportunities that include reserved seating and a private dinner with members of the choir and the Catholic Arts Council are available; Detroit — $54-$179 ticket range.
For More Information SistineChapelUSTour.com
UPCOMING ON EWTN
EWTN will be taping the D.C. concert to produce a 90-minute special In Concert hosted by Dr. Jacqueline Leary-Warsaw with interviews and additional footage of the choir.
Saturday, Oct. 21, 6:30pm ET
Sunday, Oct. 22, 1:30pm ET
Friday, Oct. 27, 10pm ET