Inspiration From a Musical Pope

‘Alma Mater’ features Benedict XVI’s voice. The album features nearly 10 minutes of recordings of the Pope alongside eight tracks of Lauretan Litanies, Marian popular chants and modern classical music.

What could bring record producers, famous for working on music by Elton John, Blondie and Dolly Parton, together with Pope Benedict XVI and the former choir master of St. Peter’s Basilica?

The answer is “Alma Mater,” a new CD from Decca released worldwide Nov. 28. The album features nearly 10 minutes of recordings of the Pope alongside eight tracks of Lauretan Litanies, Marian popular chants and modern classical music.

Each track ends with Gregorian chant sung by the Philharmonic Academy of Rome Choir and conducted by Msgr. Pablo Colino, the former chapel master of St. Peter’s.

For 26 years, the Spanish priest was responsible for directing the Cappella Giulia Choir that performs in many of the basilica’s solemn ceremonies. Msgr. Colino discussed the new album, his involvement in the project, and Pope Benedict’s views on liturgical music.

How did you come to be involved in this project?

This whole project started with the Paulines, the Society of St. Paul, a religious institution which evangelizes through the media. The musical director of the Paulines, Father Giulio Neroni, has known me for 30 years, and we have a very good relationship, particularly when it comes to religious classical music. He showed up in my apartment one day and said he had this idea — to use Gregorian chants and modern classical music alongside the words of the Pope and with a musical background composed by contemporary composers, in order to present something of contemporary value and obviously something religious.

These composers [of “Alma Mater”] are very experienced in modern classical music, and I really liked the idea. So I got involved in this project, putting together choir pieces for these compositions.

Is the music on the CD suitable for liturgical use, or is it simply religious music?

Originally, sacred music was also liturgical, but today it can be religious but not for liturgical purposes. It’s a very important question because we refer to this project as paraliturgical, meaning it’s close to being liturgical [a genre not for worship but rather aimed at prolonging the experience of the Mass and to foster a greater love for God].

Today’s liturgies wouldn’t use this kind of music, so it’s important to stress this is paraliturgical rather than liturgical. It’s religious but not liturgical, nor is it profane.

What is your favorite part of the CD, or your favorite track?

All the Gregorian music, certainly. But I love all of it, so it’s difficult to say I like this part more than another because all have been carefully chosen. They’re all the best.

Did you compose any of the pieces?

Basically three composers have created it, but what I have done is to arrange the choir, and then the composers have arranged the music with my choir. It has been difficult but great work to make the choral arrangements fit into the compositions.

You are a great advocate of traditional church music, but this CD seems to have quite a lot of modern styles within it.

Yes, I’ve made several albums of Gregorian music, and this is something different, absolutely. They’re different to what I’m used to. I’m used to doing Gregorian plainchant.

The three composers — English, Italian, Moroccan — don’t have a religious background, so that’s new, but despite this, they’ve managed to fit in all these Gregorian choir arrangements into this music, even into the piece composed by the Moroccan.

Without losing any of the richness of the Gregorian chant?

Yes. There are eight distinct tracks, and each song comprises three movements. There are the words of the Pope, and it’s cleverly divided. The litanies are sung, the Pope speaks or sings, and then there is the final chant. And in the background of all of this is the symphony orchestra.

Do the Pope’s words fit in with music?

Yes, and with the orchestra.

Do you know what the Holy Father thinks of it?

We don’t know exactly, but I’ve been told by his secretary that he really liked it. He hasn’t made an official statement about it, but he’s heard it and is very happy with the result.

Does it conform to his ideas of what religious music should be like?

Yes, absolutely.

You’ve said that this Pope is one of the most musical popes in recent times.

Yes, this Pope is very learned and cultured regarding music. I came here in 1957, and I’ve known six popes — and this current one is the most musical.

Ratzinger — ah, he likes Bach, Mozart; he plays the piano, and I’ve heard him playing Bach. I’m friends with the Pope’s brother, Georg Ratzinger, and he came to Rome about 30 years ago with the Regensburg choir [Msgr. Ratzinger was for many years the choir master of the Regensburg cathedral choir in Germany].

Have you ever performed with the Pope?

No, we’ve only talked about music, but I’ve met him many times when he was a cardinal, and just a couple of times as Pope. The second time I saw him as Pope, there was a tribute to his brother, and I went and told him I really liked his brother’s music, and the Pope said: “Yes, my brother’s very good, but you’re also very good.”

He has a very good singing voice.

I’ve heard him sing a lot, and he has the perfect voice and intonation — perfect.

What is your view of modern liturgical music that has guitar singing and drums?

It’s uncontrollable. For me, the biggest sin of that modern sound is that there’s no order; everybody does what they want. The Pope doesn’t think like I do; he has his preferences, but the Pope can’t just say No to this music.

How much does your faith influence your work, particularly the music that you compose?

It influences it completely. My work in sacred music is only guided by my faith, and I have a strong faith. I’m very happy with the result in this CD; it has met my expectations, and it’s better than I thought.

The other people working on it may not be religious, but I’m very happy with the way others have respected the spirituality of the project.

You need to respect the spirituality of what you do, especially if it’s religious and in a church. So I understand there are people who don’t want to hear that music and so don’t want to go to church.

Do you hope this CD will help the faithful to rediscover the riches of the Church’s musical tradition?

Yes, absolutely. Through listening to this music, even if you’re not familiar with religion, you will be able to know that this is at a superior spiritual level.

Edward Pentin writes from Rome.