Monday, August 10, 2009

Music at St. Peter's: The Transformation

It was my pleasure to enjoy a long chat with Fr. Pierre Paul, director of music at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. He has held this position since 2008, having been director at the North American College. After leaving that position, he came back to home in Trois-Rivières, Quebec, only to be called back to head the music program at St. Peter's under the guidance of Benedict XVI.

Since then, he has embarked on a spectacular program that amounts to the musical application of the principle of the hermeneutic of continuity. What was holy then is holy now. He has infused the entire program at the Vatican with a new love of excellence and idealism by embracing the program legislated by the Second Vatican Council, taking seriously the call for Gregorian chant to assume the primary role in liturgy.

This has meant, in the first instance, and above all else, using Gregorian ordinary settings for all Masses. For ordinary time, he is using Mass XI or Obis Factor. For Advent and Lent he is using Mass XVII (Kyrie Salve), switching out the Kyrie for respective seasons.

For Easter, he chooses Mass I (Lux et Origo), along with Mass IV (Cunctipotens Genior Deus) for the Feast of the Apostles. He also uses Credo I, III, and IV, and, periodically, the whole of Mass IX (Cum Jubilo). He is trying minimize the use of Mass of the Angels, though it is still programmed for large international Masses since this is the one that most people know.

These are all huge advances, and he is thrilled to hear that people are singing with gusto! Actually, people are singing as never before. He is careful to print large booklets for every Mass with translations. He is dedicated to making sure that he does not use modern notation in the booklets. He believes in neumes, the notation of the Church, because he regards them as easier to sing than modern notes and because they convey the sense that the music of the Church is different from other forms of music

The biggest advances have been made in the area of propers, which had long been displaced by hymns that are extraneous to the Mass. The Introit of the day is sung at every Mass as the celebrant approaches the altar, following a hymn or organ solo. The communion chant is always sung with Psalms from Richard Rice's editions posted at

This is a major step and a restoration of a very early practice for Papal Masses. The offertory antiphon is also sung periodically and increasingly so as more and more singers can handle the material. For the Psalm, St. Peters is alternating the use the of the Gradual Psalm from the Graduale Romanum and the simpler Psalms from the Graduale Simplex.

Just now, the choirs are moving into the polyphonic repertoire of the Italian masters such as Palestrina and Victoria, and will be increasingly exploring polyphonic propers along with new compositions.

Other major changes made by Fr. Paul include instituting rehearsals on Wednesday nights. Yes, you read that right. The choir didn't used to rehearse. Now they do. What's more, he invites Dom Saulnier from Solesmes, now living in Rome and teaching at the Pontifical Institute for Sacred Music, to teach weekly chant training seminars. This is a complete switch from the past. The new closeness between Solesmes and St. Peters will intensify later this year when Solesmes releases an in-print version of the first volume of the Antiphonale for the Liturgy of the Hours, which will then be used in published form for Vespers at the Vatican.

Fr. Paul has instituted new standards for visiting choirs. As he says, "it cannot be just any choir. It must be a liturgical choir." This means the he listens to recordings of their work before any guest choir sings at St. Peters. They must clear the repertoire in advance. And whatever they sing must fit in with the musical structure as it is developing at St. Peters. So if there is a motet to sing, it can only be sung following the propers of the Mass.

This change has made a huge difference in not only advancing the music in the Vatican but in encouraging the right trends in all parts of the world. It is an honor to sing at St. Peter's and Fr. Paul's work to raise the standards are having an effect.

Several aspects of this extended talk surprised me. One was how much time Fr. Paul spends doing programs. He is constantly online download material, scanning material, and dragging and dropping graphics and worrying about things like image resolution and spacing. He has nowhere near the level of help one might expect. In other words, his job is pretty much like that of every parish musician.

Another surprise to me is how he, in an entirely humble way, seems not entirely sure about the influence of what he is doing at St. Peter's and what the long-term implications are. But of course the truth is that what happens here serves as a model for parishes and cathedrals around the world. The trends at the Vatican eventually come to pervade the whole Church, and this is where his long-term influence is going to be felt most profoundly. Essentially, what he is doing is progressing toward a unity of the present with the past heritage of Catholic music, preserving while re-invigorating, and innovating toward the restoration of an ideal.

For his wonderful work in this area, all Catholics the world over are very much in debt to Fr. Paul!

There are surely bumps along with the way and some opposition to deal with, though Fr. Paul doesn't speak about these aspects. For his part, what inspires him is that it is a well-known fact that the Pope himself is thrilled with the great progress he is making and can't be happier about the direction of change. He works every harder toward the goal, hardly ever going to sleep before midnight and then rising at the crack of dawn to work some more.

The singers are excited by the new emphasis on excellence above all else, and are willing to work harder than ever. They are coming to rehearsal ready to sing and happy for the privilege of doing what they are doing. The same is true of the cantors, who are given new responsibilities and are held to higher standards.

The glorious thing that is happening here comes down to this: the program is giving back to Catholic their native music and freeing up the universal musical voice of the faith. This amounts to a major step toward the unity of the faith all over the world. Nothing could be more essential in a secular culture defined by its aesthetic fracturing. We need this major step to help us pray together and come together in one faith. He is not only a humble visionary but a man of great courage with an eye to the future of sacred music.

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