Long, but worth it!
Courtesy of Sandro Magister, full article here: I Had a Dream: The
Music of Palestrina and Gregory the Great Had Come Back
Bartolucci, for those who don't recall, was the director of the
papal choir for decades, going back to Pius XII; he was "dismissed"
(a seemingly harsh thing to do to a venerable old servant) under the
pontificate of John Paul II in favor of a more "hip" and "modern"
director who could incorporate modern music into the papal Masses.
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
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
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
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
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
A: That's right. He had some extraordinary moments, such as his
masterful treatments of the arch. But then he began to exaggerate,
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
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
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.