Music, like faith, has no boundaries. Both are languages of the heart. Where music and faith are shared, a little bit of heaven becomes visible on earth. It was a joy therefore to read about the Westminster Abbey Choir’s visit to Rome to sing together with the choir of the Sistine Chapel, the Pope’s official choir, during Holy Mass. The coming together of different musical and church traditions, Anglican and Roman Catholic, is a wonderful example of hope, in times of difficulty for churches and church music. From the Westminster Abbey website:
“Westminster Abbey’s Choir sang for Pope Benedict XVI, with the Cappella Musicale Pontificia ‘Sistina’, the Sistine Chapel Choir, at the Papal Mass marking the Solemnity of St Peter and St Paul in St Peter’s Basilica, Rome, on Friday 29th June, a historic occasion of great significance for Anglican-Catholic relations.
The service was broadcast live across the world and was the first time in its 500-year history that the Sistine Chapel Choir had sung alongside another choir during a service.
The Abbey Choir was invited to Rome by Pope Benedict XVI, following his visit to the UK in September 2010, during which he attended an ecumenical service of Evening Prayer at Westminster Abbey. This reciprocal visit is a further fruit of the Pope’s visit to Great Britain and is a powerful symbol of the communion already achieved between the Anglican and Catholic churches.
The Dean of Westminster, The Very Reverend Dr John Hall said: ‘It is not hard to detect behind this invitation from His Holiness a papal project to restore some of the Church’s musical tradition to the liturgy. The experience of participating in these liturgies in Rome has enriched the Abbey and its Choir and the Anglican tradition of worship.’
The Papal Mass is an important annual liturgy presided over by Pope Benedict XVI, during which the Pallium (an ecclesiastical vestment symbolising Papal authority) is imposed on new Metropolitan Archbishops from around the world.
The night before, Thursday 28th June, Westminster Abbey’s Choir and the Sistine Chapel Choir combined to give a private recital in the Sistine Chapel in the Holy See.
Both choirs began by singing Palestrina’s Tu es Petrus and Magnificat.
The Abbey choir then sang O Clap Your Hands (Gibbons), Hear My Prayer (Purcell), I Love The Lord (John Harvey), Hymn to the Mother of God (Tavener), and Laudibus in Sanctis (Byrd).
The Sistine Chapel Choir sang Tu es Petrus (Mawby). This was the first piece of Anglican music the Sistine choir has ever sung and the composer, Colin Mawby, was in the audience. Both choirs then sang Palestrina’s Credo.
The concert was attended by Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, SDB, Cardinal Secretary of State to His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI, who said afterwards that the concert was ‘a tangible sign of our will to walk side by side.’”
Personally I was curious to find out what the Sistine Chapel choir actually sounds like, since I have heard some serious criticism of people who were surprised that a choir of such importance did not sound as good as one would expect. On their own they sang the most formal and least musically adventurous pieces, such as the plainchant Introitus and communion hymn, which they did well but not remarkably either. Truth be told, and not very surprisingly, I thought the pieces sung by the choir of Westminster Abbey alone shone the most. There were three pieces by William Byrd: Laudibus in sanctis, which was a constant flow of energy; Hodie Simon Petrus, which sounded very focused and joyful; and Ave verum corpus, which was very solemn and moving, and perhaps the most impressive piece of the entire service.
Also, the Thomas Tallis piece Loquebantur in variis linguis was beautifully radiant.
But some of the pieces sung together, such as the Gloria from Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina’s Missa de Papae Marcelli were wonderful as well – though who knows if the fact that James O’Donnell of Westminster Abbey was directing that particular piece could have had something to do with that 😉 Massimo Palombella of the Sistine Chapel directed the Credo of the same Mass setting where the different parts were very well balanced and which features some amazing strong basses at the closing chord. Be sure not to miss the Alleluia either which has an AMAZINGLY low bass part!
Finally, Tu es Petrus by Lorenzo Perosi, a composer closely related to the Sistine Chapel, is a piece of incredible sustained strength, reminiscent of Byzantine chant – fitting for this moment where the Pope is seen praying in front of St. Peter’s grave together with a representative of the Eastern churches.
In times where faith is questioned, it is inspiring to see churches coming together to join in worship. Music is an essential part in that process and hopefully we will see more examples of such exchange, to help build a community of faith that turns the gospel’s message of peace and justice into concrete deeds.
With thanks to Youtube channel PapalMusic
Read the official liturgy program here.