In one form or another, the headlines all read, "Pope Forbids Guitars" (although my favorite variation appeared in the Irish News : "Pope’s Rock Rap Hits Just the Right Chord").
But Benedict XVI didn’t really ban guitars, or any other instrument. He just urged that music for the Mass should be modernized within a path already set by Gregorian chant and Renaissance polyphony. And his comments were off-the-cuff, delivered after a concert held in his honor by the newly appointed director of the Sistine Chapel choir, Domenico Bartolucci. And Fr. Bartolucci wasn’t really newly appointed either: He directed the choir from 1956 to 1997, when he was forced into retirement. But both the pope’s comment and Bartolucci’s reappointment are seen as the beginnings of an effort to reform music at the Vatican and in the Catholic Church at large.
It’s about time. The music is a mess. And I’m not talking about whether or not to have Gregorian introits or polka credos. The whole world got to hear the Sistine Choir (which traditionally sings for papal services) at the requiem Mass for John Paul II and Benedict XVI’s first Mass¯and the singing was bad enough to embarrass an atheist. The choir sounded as if it had been trained by those Roman cats. Shrill and out of tune, American high school madrigal groups sing better¯something that did not go unnoted on music blogs.
It’s a scandal. The choir of the Sistine Chapel, simply because it is the Sistine Chapel, should be the best choir in the world. After all, it is basically where modern choral music was invented ( a cappella , meaning choral singing without instrumental accompaniment, comes from "as at the chapel," meaning the Sistine). But the way they sound now, several dozen Eric Claptons playing along would be a blessing. Fr. Bartolucci’s first job is to get them to know the difference between major thirds and perfect fourths and those pesky spaces in between. Then they can learn to blend. And then they can sing chant and the wonderful new music growing out that that tradition the pope wants to encourage. Someday it would be great to have the Sistine as the model for splendid worship music and make the services available daily by podcast. But that won’t happen soon. Rome can’t unlearn screeching in a day.
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