Floriani: Musical Missionaries for Sacred Music
An interview with the male vocal ensemble’s founder and director, a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College
Giorgio Navarini is founder and director of the male vocal ensemble Floriani, a Catholic a cappella schola dedicated to restoring sacred music in America. Navarini discussed with the Register their missional approach to sacred music, which, as their mission states, is focused on “serving the Church and saving the culture through the beauty of sacred music.”
Can you tell me a little about your ensemble? How did you come to form it? What is its primary work?
I began Floriani 10 years ago, while I was a student at Thomas Aquinas College. We started as a barbershop quartet, but because I was familiar with chant and polyphony, I was asked to direct the music for some solemn high Masses, at which point we started getting invited to various other parishes for other Masses. Then I wondered if we could do this for life, as musical missionaries.
On a pilgrimage to Rome, we were able to sing as a group in all four of the major basilicas. Hearing your music in the places it was meant to be sung really helped us understand how majestic and captivating the music was. We had a lot of onlookers interested and moved by hearing this music in its proper place. Then, during COVID, we decided to go for nonprofit status due to the missionary aspect of things. Then our first endeavor was to work with St. Anne’s parish in Phoenix, Arizona.
This is very much a full job for us — almost double for me. We are seeing a sacred music renaissance in the U.S. So many want beautiful music; so many are tired of the post-Vatican II era that we are beginning to come out of.
The story behind our name is quite interesting. After graduating TAC, I was working at a summer camp, and on a day off, a friend and I went for a swim in a big river. I was sucked into the rapids through a tunnel of rock. [Then] in the middle of the river, I could breathe and scream again, but I’m going about 25 feet a second. There was a father and son on the bank who noticed me and shouted to me to swim to them, which I managed to do.
On the shore, I fell on my knees and suddenly felt this impulse to pray to St. Florian and give thanks: I chose him as my confirmation saint, thinking him a cool Roman martyr. But after this incident, I discovered not only is he the patron of firefighters, he’s also the patron of drowning victims, and he himself was martyred by drowning. So I asked my fellow singers if we could name our group after St. Florian, and they were all for it.
What makes sacred music “sacred”? There are evidently a number of styles considered “sacred”: What do they have in common?
The music itself is directed to the worship of God, a higher end. It has to be of the highest quality and its primary instrument is the voice: Only the voice is the instrument of God’s own image and, therefore, the highest of instruments.
With that, there are certain qualities inherent in sacred music, namely, the very music itself has to evoke a transcendent experience in the listener. This is an experience that evokes reverence, awe, and I think that is an aspect that can be missed when we talk about sacred music. The sound itself needs to evoke something like an out-of-body experience.
It evokes a certain state in the listener.
In Interstellar, the primary instrument is the pipe organ. The soundtrack composer, Hans Zimmer, said in an interview that he picked the organ because it was the only instrument capable of displaying the grandeur of the universe. Zimmer is not a Catholic, he’s a Hollywood musician, so it’s amazing that he said that about an ecclesiastical instrument. And if that is true of the organ in regard to the greatness of the universe, what of the voice for portraying divine things?
All of your singers are alumni of Thomas Aquinas College. How do you think your liberal arts formation influences your musical apostolate?
This formation is pretty essential to our mission in general. In our concerts, we are often weaving together history, philosophy and theology along with the music. We are not only a performing ensemble but also a teaching ensemble. We make sure that everyone who leaves our concerts has a new knowledge not just of music but of its purpose, its relation to the liturgy, and ultimately to God. The liberal arts formation really helps with that integration.
Rather than devoting yourselves only to performance and recording, you have developed several workshops and educational materials, including a podcast. Can you tell us more about how these were developed and what you’ve accomplished with them?
The Chant School podcast is really a basic introduction to more common chants of the Church, simple hymns like the Adoro Te Devote. We’ll break down the Latin and pronunciation, break down parts of the melody so [novice singers] can learn these without difficulty.
We also have an online chant academy, which is aimed at a more in-depth look at chant and sacred music. This is focused on development as a musician and director.
One of the workshops we give is tying Gregorian chant back to the Old Testaments, seeing the connection of certain chants to Temple chants. We title this talk, “What Would Jesus Have Sung”; and we go through various Psalms, showing commonality between various Hebrew tunes and Gregorian chants. Probably the most famous example is the tone of Psalm 114, the tonus peregrinus. There are numerous variations among the Jewish traditions, but quite easy to identify their melody as an ancestor of today’s Gregorian melody.
Another commonality is melismatic chanting, with many notes on one syllable [such as Angels We Have Heard on High]. One example is the music used for the description of Moses seeing God in the burning bush. In certain manuscripts we can see multiple notes to a syllable, which is a particular feature of Gregorian chant. We base ourselves on the discoveries of Suzanne Haïk-Vantoura, who deciphered various cantillation marks in the Hebrew Bible.
What are some upcoming events for Floriani? How can someone support your work?
If parishes are interested in introducing their congregations to a new experience of sacred music in the liturgy, we are a traveling ensemble and do go to various parishes for this purpose. Often, we couple liturgies and concerts at several parishes, which all pitch together to fund a weekend of liturgies and concerts.
We’d love to meet individually with donors who want to support our work in a significant way and share with them some of our future plans.
We have a new album in the works, which will be chants of deliverance. We’ve worked with several exorcists in the U.S. who have told us about particular chants and Psalms that tend to be most effective during exorcisms. Some of these are Psalms in the traditional exorcism rite, but some are other sacred texts exorcists tell us are particularly effective. One example is the Dies Irae, which we’ve been told is very powerful in exorcisms. So this album will be for all those who feel oppressed in some way and anyone seeking spiritual rest in general.