Capella Sixtina
  • Realizing excessive loquaciousness has derailed me before, I will risk broaching this subject with an audacious hope (or should that be "bodacious pope"?) with Ian W's quote:

    "I was involved in that discussion. I can only speak for myself, but my take wasn't quite how you describe things. As far as my limited experience of the Sistine choir goes, I agree with you that they're not a good advertisement for Catholic liturgical music. As you say, there's a tendency to the soloistic. Also, they have problems with intonation. But ... we shouldn't throw out the baby with the bathwater. There are distinct choral traditions other than the 'English' sound. It should be possible for a choir director to work within one of those traditions, to develop a balance that respects liturgy, place and resource. Any move to uniformity would not only be unnecessary; it would impoverish us all. "

    As Mike knows, I like Francis, have heard the capella "live" here in the states, in my city almost a couple of decades ago. They were on "tour" in the states during Lent, if I recall as late as the week prior to Palm Sunday. They were under Msgr. Bertolucci's direction. The concert consisted solely of the Palestrina settings of the Songs of Solomon. Prior to that, my only serious consideration of them were in masters seminars where recordings, both audio and video, were used as pedagogical examples of what a choral experience should NOT consist of. "Nuff said" there.
    I think it telling that we, at least, can agree that this group is not a "good advertisement" for the Church. This sentiment has just the slightest amount of benign tolerance among catholic musicians, that despite themselves (and I really try to not include the singers individually in this culpability) we credit their continued contributions and efforts to their legacy as the pope's personal ensemble, replete with the legends of Josquin, Lassus, Palestrina, Allegri. And I know, Mike, you have no reason to fret over their performance practice in those eras by comparison to that of the last two centuries. If they suffered internal problems, they certainly were behavioral like every other contemporaneous choir well into the Baroque. But I digress.
    Ian's criticisms also seem a bit bridled and measured: "soloistic" which, of course, breeds issues with "intonation." Not mentioned was the obvious lack of solid vocal development and care the boys should receive (which I saw in living color from the front row.) I'll try to be brief here: it could be argued that the capella does not meet the basic criteria of being a choir, other than it performs only for liturgies in church. This is a grand opera chorus in cassocks and surplices, in my estimation. And yes, one may argue that type of ensemble does fall into the category of a "choral tradition." But I believe an overwhelming majority of choral scholars would regard this "choir's" product as dysfunctional in all major areas of CHORAL proficiency, no matter what western tradition nuances would color the other various regional "sounds."
    Would we endorse the indigenous choral tone of lowlands' Mississippi shape-note singers, or the Bulgarian Radio Women's Chorus, or Ladysmith Black Mambazo as the "baby in the bathwater" and worthy of keeping IN TACT simply because they happened to be ensconsed in five centuries of service tradition at the Vatican?
    I have, through 25 years of ACDA membership and convention attendance, been privileged to hear most of the finest ensembles likely assembled in history, if you measure competence by evolving scholarship keeping pace with the natural human inclination to improve upon performance in art, athletics, invention etc. The Swedish Radio Choir under Ericcson was not a final terminus; what they achieved spawned even more stunning choral ensembles. The Kings College "sound" of Sir David Willcock has yielded many progeny, and in agreement with Ian, not all identical or xerox copies of each other's tonal properties. The bold richness of the Stuttgart Kammerchor under Bernius is full bodied, vibrant but never lists toward an aural assault upon the ear. The purity of some Asian choirs, the Dale Warland Singers, Chanticleer, St. Olafs and Brigham Young University choirs is breathtaking.
    No one has suggested that these schools of thought (choral philosophy ala Howard Swan) move toward bland uniformity.
    But the irony of the notion of moving toward uniformity while discussing the Sistine Chapel Choir is too much to ignore. Their leadership's insistence upon maintaining this clearly chauvinistic approach to corporate singing is deliberately antithetic to the very concept of "uniformity," which has to be the first foundation of truly choral excellence in any genre! It is also antithetic to the successful negotiation of the two native art forms that it is called to serve: chant and polyphony, as any reasonable choral scholar understands them. (Another irony- the fete celebrating the lifelong contribution of Msgr. Bertolucci in which both he and the Holy Father pounded into the collective consciousness the dire need to return to these forms universally; well, yes, the capella under the monsignor sang all Palestrina, all the time! They just did a Gawdawful job of it!)
    And lastly, as long as this ensemble is not fundamentally revamped to reflect universally understood standards of choral beauty, it remains antithetical to the very principles of beauty that Cardinal Ratzinger proposed as a necessary step in returning "beauty" to sacred worship in THE SPIRIT OF THE LITURGY.
    I haven't googled anything prior to these thoughts, but I remember reading in someone's blog that the new Marini has plans in place to initiate such a revamping of this singularly unique ensemble. I hope sooner than later. I would love to hear precision in beauty eminating from them even if via an EWTN/CTV broadcast. Were they such a compelling choir, perhaps the commentators would then keep their traps shut during the communios.
    Thus endeth the rant.
  • Charles, I agree wholeheartedly. There must be SOME objective standards in choral singing, whether it be chant or part music. We can debate the finer points of regional styles and I hope that someday that's the only thing we need worry ourselves with.
  • francis
    Posts: 10,667
    Ecclesiatical vrs. Methodical

    Two camps that are as different as oranges are to apples.

    I always move toward straight tone singing as much as possible when it comes to a cappella polyphony or chant, simply because of the resulting overtones and harmonics that are destroyed when vibrato ('soloistic'?) technique is employed. Also, the harmonic structures are not then shrouded in the ambiguity of shifting pitches when vibrato is introduced.

    I love the sounds of these and I am sure there are many more. Tallis Scholars, Dale Warland Singers, Hilliard Ensemble, Monastic Choir of the Abbey of Notre-Dame of Fontgombault, Rundfunkchor, Cambridge Singers, Carmelite Monks of Wyoming, Chanticleer, Choir of King's College.

    To get off the beat (or perhaps, more on it), Manhattan Transfer and Take 6.

    Now mixing the subject of an "approved ecclesiastical form or tradition of Roman Catholic Choral Singing" to today's methods of choral singing puts us all into a whole 'nother nest of bees that I don't want to get stung with. I sang in a renouned boys choir most of my grade school years, our sound was incredible (I used to hit hi C's!) (btw... for RC liturgies only!). It was the formation of my love for a cappella. Will we ever go back to that? I guess only time will tell!
  • richardUKrichardUK
    Posts: 85
    I remember reading somewhere, recently, that the Holy Father has terminated the contract of the current director of the Cappella Sistina because thier singing is not up to what it should be (huge understatement) Can anyone verify this, or was it the director of the choir of St Peter's Basilica that has been sacked instead?
    The sound of the Papal choir is one that has developed in the "bel canto" singing tradition that largely stems from 19th century operatic techniques. Large vibrato, note swooping, hazy vowel sounds and singers simply not listening to each other, and the very uncertain intonation which results from all of this. Until comparatively recently, this was sort of the "default" Italian choral sound, but things have moved on considerably in earlier music, especially. There are some seriously good small Italian vocal ensembles and chamber choirs whose sound is world class and stands up to the best. One only has to hear Rinaldo Alessandrini's group "Concerto Italiano", the ensemble "La Venexiana" and similar groups (there is another in Naples which I can't remember the name of) to realise how far things have come in the last 10 years or so. Considering the amount of earlier music the Vatican choirs perform, the sound definitely needs to be cleaned up, and some really good younger singers should be recruited, if a raising of standards is what is wanted. Does anyone know if the Vatican choirs are volunteer or professional?
    I should add that my love of choral music was initially fired at St Olaf College where I was an undergraduate, but when I heard Willcocks's and Philip Ledger's King's Cambridge choir, my musical life changed and resulted in my relocating to the UK some years ago to sing professionally.
  • Alas it will be a story about culture when and if the change happens. I predict that the news media in Italy won't admit that the group really needs to be improved. It might be ugly for a few months, but it needs to be done.
  • IanWIanW
    Posts: 756

    Just so long as they don't simply become yet another choir trying to sound like Kings' (who do it much better)! We're all agreed change is required, to improve intonation, blend and clarity. Personally, I hope that includes better controlled vibrato and portamento, rather than their absence. That's partly because they have the opportunity to learn from others' experience and avoid the style-wars that bedevilled the early music scene for so long. Also, it's because they're Italians, singing in The Bishop of Rome's chapel, and it's appropriate for them to develop or adapt their Italian style to better meet the needs of the liturgy, rather than go for some kind of choral year 1.


  • IanWIanW
    Posts: 756

    You wrote Would we endorse the indigenous choral tone of lowlands' Mississippi shape-note singers, or the Bulgarian Radio Women's Chorus, or Ladysmith Black Mambazo as the "baby in the bathwater" and worthy of keeping IN TACT simply because they happened to be ensconsed in five centuries of service tradition at the Vatican?

    The analogies don't quite work. The examples you give aren't in the Catholic liturgical music tradition. The Sistine Chapel choir is, so we're talking about how true it is to the tradition, and how it might improve and develop within it, rather than a complete change of purpose and repertoire.


  • Ian,
    I'm glad we're conversing.
    Actually, the analogies do work if you remember that I'm discussing choral pedagogy, not regional parochialism that must be treasured for whatever rationale one applies.
    Neither Mike nor I, or RichardUK for that matter, ever proposed changing the capella's purpose and repertoire. But I do think that it's not quite accurate for a number of reasons to call the Capella Sixtina an "Italian Choir," which implies a number of questions. The Vatican lies within Rome, Italy. The Pope is the Bishop of Rome. The Capella Sixtina is the Pope's personal choir, therefore it, too, should be "Italian?" These aren't false premises; they're incomplete. The legends of Lassus and Palestrina being swooped from their burgs and sent to Rome represent the universality of the tradition of this particular choir over centuries. 200 or so years ago, one couldn't even speak of an Italian choral tradition; one could speak of Milanese, Venetian, Roman, and so on. However, Richard's well-stated point about the infusion of Bel Canto techniques into all things vocally Italian, I think, abets my point that once the opera chorus mentality took root in this choir, it hunkered down under the protection of the largely Italian curia, totally oblivious and unconcerned about the artistic credibility that our current pope champions.
    The choir will not be replaced. Actually, under old Marini and I'm sure at the behest of the late JPII, Capella Sixtina was sent out to tour the hinterlands like my hometown during Lent(!) so the purer, truer traditional sonorities of other visiting Catholic choirs could refresh the glory of St. Peter's space.
  • IanWIanW
    Posts: 756

    Me too.

    My point about the analogues was that we're discussing a Catholic liturgical choral tradition, whereas the ensembles or kinds of ensemble you name having nothing to do with that tradition. The Sistine choir has absorbed certain elements from outside the tradition, but that's true of most liturgical art, east and west. The argument then, is different to what your analogues imply. It rests on the question: to what extent are those elements and their execution compatible with the tradition? I believe the things that cause us to grit our teeth when we listen to the Sistine Choir are more to do with problems of execution, both in the sense of musical failings, and a lack of sensitivity to the needs of the liturgy; and that they are best addressed through refinement and development, rather than root-and-branch replacement with somewhere else's choral tradition.

    And despite the virtues of an infusion of new blood and ideas from elsewhere, the choir is an Italian one, and we should have regard to that while discussing ways in which its failings might be rectified.


  • Hi Ian,

    I take your point that the choir is Italian and has been for some time. Charles, however, is right that it has not always been that way. Looking over the rolls of the 16th century, the majority of singers were about equally mixed Flemish, Spanish, German and Italian. French musicians seem to have stayed away unless you count the former Burgundians. If someone asked me -- and I know they won't -- I'd like to see that international mix happen again. The Sistine choir should feature the very best Catholic singers from around the globe and by extension, have its very own approach based on the director at that time. The premier choir of the Church universal should not be bound by local tradition IMO. This would be an opportunity for a great choral director to create a style based on his own views choral singing. If it comes out more English than Russian, that's OK. As much as I like the English tradition, it's often not flexible enough for polyphony. The early music ensembles today are not purely English IMO. Rather they have adapted to the musical demands.

    In any case, the discussion is a good one.

  • Points taken. I'm thinking we're actually agreeing on principle, but looking at the problem from opposite sides of the threshold. Yes, the choir _is_ Italian, but I'm not quite prepared to say that it should necessarily remain exclusively that. It certainly was not in antiquity.
    Urbi et orbi.