Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Other Side of the Transition

Just a few days ago, I received a glorious packet of Vespers booklets from St. Peter's at the Vatican, the actual music used under the incredibly wonderful new push for solemnity and beauty at the Vatican, which is setting a standard for the entire world, under the leadership of the visionary Fr. Pierre Paul. He seems to have made several hundred years of progress in a matter of months.

There is a tendency on those of us outside this loop to aggregate all the music that goes on at St. Peter's and within the Vatican generally, and this is a huge mistake. There is progress and majesty in some areas. And there is schmaltz and reaction in other sectors.

Part of the latter is represented by a new CD being promoted as featuring the voice of Pope Benedict. Damian Thompson, who has a remarkable capacity for saying truthful things without varnish and with great style, reviews this CD here:

How dare they subject Pope Benedict to this musical atrocity?

Here’s my Daily Telegraph review of the worst CD I’ve heard for many years – featuring, I’m sorry to say, the voice of the Holy Father:

The release of the album Alma Mater is supposed to be a significant religious and musical event. This is “the Pope’s first CD”, featuring the voice of Benedict XVI as part of an “enchanting blend” of new sacred music by three “world-class” modern composers.

Enchanting? That’s a matter of opinion. But it’s certainly a blend. The choir of the Philharmonic Academy of Rome is singing in St Peter’s; the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra is accompanying it in “the iconic Abbey Road studios” in London; and goodness knows where the quavering snatches of Gregorian chant sung by the Pope were recorded.

The result, we are told, “transcends musical, religious and cultural boundaries”. Actually, what it transcends is every consideration of good taste. Two of the composers, Stefano Mainetti and Simon Boswell, specialise in film scores, and that is the prevailing musical flavour of the album: Catholicism as imagined by Hollywood. Take a line of plainchant, fill it out with the pious harmonies of a deservedly forgotten 19th-century Catholic composer and drizzle kitsch all over them.

Then, lest the enterprise seem too Eurocentric and old-fashioned, add a twist of “world music”. This is presumably where the third composer, the Morrocan Nour Eddine, comes in. We hear an instrument that may or may not be a sitar, twanging away Bollywood-style until it is swamped by luxury strings. (Not for nothing is the RPO regarded as the most opportunistic of the London orchestras.)

How did the producers manage to acquire and mix tapes of the Pope saying prayers in various languages and briefly singing in Latin? It seems like the most terrible indignity to visit on the Successor of Peter, to say nothing of the Blessed Virgin Mary, in whose praise these ancient texts were written.

But then the truth dawns: the appalling Alma Mater has been produced by Geffen Records with the encouragement of Vatican Radio. Unfortunately, that is not as surprising as it might seem. Rome itself frequently confuses solemnity and schmaltz: the last time I was in a papal basilica I had to listen to nonagenarian operatic tenors belting out sacred music just as mediocre as the pieces on this album, albeit without the showbiz overtones.

So there you have it: Gregorian chant meets Hollywood meets the Standard Tandoori, with the enthusiastic participation of the Roman authorities. The Catholic Church may have abolished the Inquisition, but it still knows the meaning of torture.

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