A Palestrina mass was sung t St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome this evening, reflecting Pope Benedict XVI’s longstanding efforts to bring polyphony back into the liturgy, reports Sandro Magister in his authoritative chiesa.com website. Benedict has profound insights into sacred music and its importance in Christian religious life; I quoted him in my November essay, “Sacred Music, Sacred Time.” I have been following Benedict’s statements on music for almost thirty years. They were the first reason for my deep interest in this remarkable thinker.

ROME, November 16, 2009 – Among the arts to be represented in the Sistine Chapel next Saturday, November 21, at the highly anticipated meeting with Pope Benedict XVI, music is perhaps the one that has suffered the most from the divorce that has taken place between artists and the Church.

The distress in music has been the first to afflict the Church. Because while the masterpieces of Christian painting, sculpture, and architecture still remain accessible to all, even if they are ignored and misunderstood, great music literally disappears from the churches if no one performs it anymore.

And one can effectively speak of an almost generalized disappearance when it comes to those treasures of Latin liturgical music that are Gregorian chant, polyphony, the organ.

Fortunately, however, during the same days when pope Joseph Ratzinger will be seeking to reestablish a fruitful relationship with art, the organ and great polyphonic music will return to give the best of themselves in the basilicas of Rome.

They will again be heard not only in the form of a concert, but also in the living environment of liturgical action.

The culmination will be on Thursday, November 19, at the hour of evening when the setting sun blazes through the apse of Saint Peter’s. That evening, making his solemn return to the basilica to conduct a sung Mass, will be the greatest living interpreter of the Roman school of polyphony, the one that has come down from Giovanni Pierluigi of Palestrina – whom Giuseppe Verdi called the “everlasting father” of Western music – to our own day.

This interpreter of undisputed greatness is Domenico Bartolucci, for decades the “permanent maestro” of the Sistine Chapel choir, the pope’s choir, and now, at age 93, still a miraculously adept director of Palestrina.

Bartolucci is a living witness of the elimination of liturgical music from the West, but also of its possible rebirth. The last time he conducted a complete Mass by Palestrina at Saint Peter’s was all the way back in 1963. The last time he conducted the Sistine Chapel choir was in 1997. That year he was brutally dismissed, and without him the choir fell into a modest state.

But now comes its return – powerfully symbolic – to the basilica built over the tomb of the prince of the apostles.

Some of the musical choices are curious, though.
The context within which Bartolucci will return to conduct a Mass at Saint Peter’s is that of the International Festival of Sacred Music and Art, which is held each fall in the basilicas of Rome, and is marking its eighth edition this year.

The program this year has two focal points: Roman polyphony, and organ music.

The Wiener Philarmoniker is a constant presence at the Festival of Sacred Art and Music. Of all the major orchestras of the world, it is the one in which sacred and profane music are most closely intertwined.

For the next edition of the festival, the Wiener Philarmoniker has already agreed to perform Bruckner’s ninth symphony and a selection from Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” in the Roman basilica of Saint Paul’s Outside the Walls, on October 26, 2010.

Wagner’s paean to sex and death is an overripe plum that I never have been able to listen to all the way through. It is one of those icons of art that (like Bergmann’s “The Seventh Seal”) are inferior to their later lampoons. Wagner’s use of musical ambiguity in “Tristan” is masterful—witness the difficulty that theorists have had analyzing the so-called Tristan chord, which is not a chord at all but a freeze-frame of passing motion. But there is no major work of Western music that is more un-Christian, excepting some of Wagner’s other operas. Why this would turn up on a Vatican-sponsored program at a Rome church is beyond my reckoning.

Brahms and his circle abominated the “New German Music” of Wagner and Liszt, a view that informed the work of the great Viennese music theorist Heinrich Schenker. I argued briefly in the “Sacred Music” article that the use of time in Wagner undermines the teleological structure of classical music—which is precisely what makes it so appropriate to Christian worship.

That’s water under the bridge. If I ever have the opportunity to speak to Benedict XVI, I will talk to him not about Wagner, but about the First Morocco Crisis of 1905.