Sacred Music in Crisis

Interview With Former Director of Sistine Chapel Choir

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By Carmen Elena Villa

ROME, JAN. 19, 2011 ( Cardinal Domenico Bartolucci, who served for over 40 years as director of the Sistine Chapel Choir, says that although sacred music is currently in crisis, there are signs of hope.

He was a child prodigy, having composed his first Mass at age 12; his best known Mass is the «Misa Jubilei,» written in the Holy Year 1950.

The prelate, now 93 years old, was one of the new cardinals created in the Nov. 20 consistory.

ZENIT spoke with the cardinal about his years as director of the choir, and his views on sacred music at this time.

ZENIT: How did you receive this appointment?

Cardinal Bartolucci: I didn’t expect it. It’s true that it is a sign of love of the Pope for sacred music, an evident reclaiming, especially at this moment of crisis.

Previously, music was the soul of the liturgy. Even in countries — I am Tuscan, from a small village called Borgo San Lorenzo — everyone sang in the squares, in churches, in processions and heard musical bands.

Today there are very talented youths, but the musical formation is often very inadequate. I don’t know who is to blame, but at present the stadium and discotheques prevail and everything is reduced to the market.

ZENIT: How did you discover your vocation to music?

Cardinal Bartolucci: Since I was small I grew up with my father who was a passionate singer of the Church.

Music was very important in the seminary, although in my case the superiors kept me from it because they feared that I would be distracted from the study of Greek and Latin. Then I came to Rome and here I was enchanted by the vitality of the musical chapels of the basilicas.

I was appointed vice-maestro of St. John Lateran and later maestro of the Liberian Musical Chapel of St. Mary Major as successor of Licinio Refice, in 1955. I was appointed vice-maestro of the Sistine with Don Lorenzo Perosi. I was with him for four years, and after his death in 1956 Pius XII appointed me permanent director of the Sistine Pontifical Musical Chapel.

Despite this, when I was 80 they relieved me of the post. I wasn’t told about this; I found out when my successor was appointed.

ZENIT: What was this period like as director of the Sistine Chapel Choir?

Cardinal Bartolucci: The Sistine had great vitality until the council. I remember the very beautiful functions with Pope Pacelli and with Pope John XXIII.

After the liturgical reform our contribution to the Papal liturgies was cut back. We were saved by the concerts throughout the world where the patrimony of the chapel could be maintained: We traveled to Austria, Germany, Ireland, France, Belgium, Spain, the Philippines, Australia, Canada, the United States, Turkey, Poland and Japan.

ZENIT: What was Pius XII’s interest in sacred music?

Cardinal Bartolucci: Pope Pacelli loved sacred music and on occasions, to rest, he would play the violin.

With him many times functions were held in the Sistine Chapel. He was an extraordinary figure, of great culture and humanity.

ZENIT: And in Pope John XXIII’s time?

Cardinal Bartolucci: The Sistine Chapel owes much to John XXIII. My plan for reform was approved under his pontificate because of his own interest. With Perosi [former director of the choir] things, sadly, because of his illness, were degrading. For example, the chapel didn’t have a fixed structure of singers, headquarters or an archive.

Thanks to Pope John XXIII we reconstructed everything virtually from nothing and were able to create the Schola Puerorum exclusively for boys. At Christmas with the boys we sang in front of the manger in the Pope’s apartment. It was moving.

ZENIT: Do you think sacred music will be able to go back to what it was?

Cardinal Bartolucci: Time will be needed. The maestros of other times are no longer there because the need for their existence is no longer seen. We live in hope.

Benedict XVI loves Gregorian chant and polyphony very much and wants to recover the use of Latin. He understands that without Latin the repertory of the past is destined to be filed away.

It is necessary to return to a liturgy that makes room for music, with a taste for the beautiful, and also to return to true sacred art.

ZENIT: What do you think of the singing and the assembly during liturgical celebrations?

Cardinal Bartolucci: It is necessary to be careful and not generalize. I’m not against the people’s singing — of which some have accused me.

What is more, already before the council I wrote songs of the people for the liturgy in Italian. They were very widespread in the parishes.

Hence, there are contexts where a Schola Cantorum is required or in any case a choir that can do true art. Let us think, for example, of the repertory of Gregorian chant that requires true artists to be done as it should be, or to the great polyphonic repertory.

In these cases the people participate in all the rights, being nourished and listening, but it is the singers who put their professionalism and competence at the service of others. Sadly, in these years of novelty, many have thought that to participate means to «do any old thing.»

ZENIT: Who are your favorite authors or your sources of inspiration?

Cardinal Bartolucci: For sacred music, the great patriarchs are Palestrina and Bach.

Palestrina was the one who first intuited what the perfect adjustment of polyphony to the sacred text means. It was no accident that the Council of Trent referred to him to establish the canons of sacred music. Bach is also great but reflects more the spirit of the Nordics.

In any case, both show that music is made with the great songs of the Church.

The West has a very rich musical history that has been taken up by many Eastern cultures. The need exists today to recover it and to give it the style and space in the place in which the liturgy was established.

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