Language of Unity

Westminster Abbey, Sistine Chapel Choirs Bring Diverse Cultures to Beauty

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By Edward Pentin

ROME, NOV. 22, 2012 ( “Music really is the universal language of beauty which can bring together all people of good will on earth,” Pope Benedict XVI once said, and over the past few months in Rome and London, he has seen this become a remarkable reality.

Two genres of sacred music recently came together for the first time in history, helping to point the Church toward unity.

Earlier this year, the Anglican Westminster Abbey Choir came to Rome to sing with the Cappella Musicale Pontificia Sistina — the choir of the Sistine Chapel — the Pope’s official choir. Both choirs performed at the papal Mass on the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul in St. Peter’s Basilica on June 29.

The performance, an historic occasion viewed as having great significance for Anglican-Catholic relations, was the first time the Sistine Chapel Choir had sung alongside another choir for a service in its 500-year history. The evening before the papal Mass, both choirs also gave a private recital in the Sistine Chapel.

Included in the program was “Tu es Petrus,” written especially for the Sistine Chapel Choir by the contemporary English Catholic choral composer, Colin Mawby. The work was performed again Oct. 28, at the closing Mass of the synod of bishops on the new evangelization, and further performed by the Sistine Chapel Choir during a private recital Nov. 11 in the Chapel in the presence of the Holy Father. The Pope’s brother, Monsignor Georg Ratzinger, was also present and the Choir also sang one of his compositions. Another concert was held that same evening, in the Basilica of St. Mary Major. 

“I was totally amazed by this,” Mawby tells ZENIT. “It was totally extraordinary.” 

The collaboration is a fruit of Pope Benedict’s visit to the UK in September 2010. After noting the beauty of the singing at an ecumenical Evening Prayer service at Westminster Abbey, the Holy Father invited the Abbey Choir to Rome. 

The exchange of choirs actually began in May this year, when the Sistine Chapel Choir performed in Westminster’s Catholic Cathedral. It was at that event that the choirmaster of the Sistine Chapel Choir, Monsignor Massimo Palombella, decided to invite Mawby to come to Rome. Highly regarded as Britain’s foremost living Catholic choral composer, Mawby writes music for both Anglican and Catholic choirs.

“I met Monsignor Palumbello there,” Mawby recalls. “He said would I like to come to Rome for the visit of the Westminster Abbey choir, so we talked a bit and I agreed to write the ‘Tu es Petrus’ for the Sistine Choir.”

Mawby once conducted the Westminster Cathedral Choir himself, more than 35 years ago, so conducting them again in St. Mary Major was another memorable moment that was “very deeply moving.”

Pope Benedict has often praised the value of music in the life of faith. Recently, he pointed out how sacred music can bolster people’s faith and help lapsed Catholics rediscover the beauty of God. 

“Music and singing that are done well can help (people) receive the word of God and be moved in a positive way,” the Pope said in an address, given Nov. 10 to members of the Italian St. Cecilia Association. “Sacred music can, above all, promote the faith, and, what’s more, cooperate in the new evangelization,” he added.

The Church celebrates the feast day of St. Cecilia today (Nov. 22). The second century saint is traditionally honored as the patron saint of musical performers.

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A listening ear

The Sistine Chapel Choir came into existence when the Chapel was completed in the 15th century under Pope Sixtus IV. 

Music historians argue that the high artistic aims of Sixtus IV have rarely been attained since then, mainly due to the rarity of truly great choirmasters. It excelled under the 16th century pope, Leo X, himself a musician, and the Chapel choir’s interpretation of the greatest works of polyphony became the model for the rest of the world. 

Yet despite its fluctuating proficiency, it has sought to maintain the highest model of liturgical music and performance. It set the standard, for example, in Gregorian chant for the rest of Christendom and, some argue, it still does. 

But in the recent past, it has not always enjoyed widespread acclaim. Some have described the choir as out of tune, disordered, and sounding as if each chorister believes he is making a solo performance. “It’s mediocre at best,” said one commenter on a blog. Others unkindly refer to the choir as the “Sistine Screamers.”

Colin Mawby, however, is quick to defend the choir, and his defense is worth noting. To his expert musical ear, the reason people sometimes dislike the choir’s singing is due chiefly to a difference in culture. “It’s the way the Italians sing,” he says. “It’s foreign to a lot of English ears as indeed English singing is to a lot of Italian ears.”

He says the choir has “changed enormously” over the past 10 years and now he thinks it is “very fine” and Monsignor Palombello, appointed in 2010, “is doing a great job.” Asked about the criticism of “yelling” rather than singing, Mawby again stresses it’s the “Italian method.”

He points out that it is “totally different” to any other choir in that it is almost totally comprised of tenors but almost no altos. “They have a few boy altos whom they use occasionally, but basically it has tenors which gives it its unique sound,” he explains. “It’s a set up peculiar to the Sistine Chapel Choir — they do produce great tenors in Italy and that’s it [the reason].” 

But as a choral conductor, Mawby continues, it means compromises have to be made. “The English go for perfection, diction, intonation — that’s their compromise. The Italians go for passion, they go for fire and in doing that, they lose some of the English singing that makes that distinctive, and vice-versa,” he says.

“Part of my work was working out what was an acceptable compromise between the different things,” he adds. “This is the nature of art. It’s all compromise.”

He recalls first hearing the choir when Father, now Cardinal, Domenico Bartolucci conducted a performance in Loreto in 1963. “I thought it was awful, but then I realized that wasn’t so, because I was listening with English ears,” he says. “It’s all subjective.” 

And in the concerts he contributed to, Mawby says the sound was “superb.” 

“In both concerts they were great,” he says. “OK, there were problems with intonation in places, but there was passion and commitment.” Furthermore, he says the choir’s Gregorian chant, performed in Westminster Cathedral, was the best he’d heard in his life. 

He also values them for their unique nature. “They are literally the servants of the Pope,” he says. “If the Pope wants them to go and sing at the airport, they sing at the airport. If he wants them to sing at the swimming pool, they’ll sing at the swimming pool. That’s what the Pope asks them to do, it’s the nature of their work.” 

He recalls hearing from Cardinal Bartolucci how, at Christmas, Pope John XXIII would have seven or eight choristers come to the papal apartments and sing Christmas carols to the Pope and his family. “I thought that was rather touching, rather lovely,” Mawby says.

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