There is a sort of musical paralysis, in Rome, around the celebrations of the pope. Benedict XVI's thought on liturgical music is very well known, it has been presented in his writings, very critical of the decline that has taken place. But almost nothing has changed, in more than three years of pontificate. The Vatican still has no office with authority on sacred music. The Sistine Choir, conducted by Monsignor Giuseppe Liberto, is a shadow of its glorious former self. And when the Sistine Choir is not singing at the papal Masses, what dominates is the theatrical style of Monsignor Marco Frisina, director of the choir at the Lateran, the cathedral basilica of Rome.
In this sense, too, the International Festival of Sacred Music and Art taught a lesson. To perform the Masses and motets of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, Tomás Luis de Victoria, Luca Marenzio, Claudio Monteverdi – in short, the illustrious choir directors at the cathedrals of Rome and of Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries – the choir of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, conducted by Peter Latona, came from the United States, and from Germany the choir of the cathedral of Speyer, conducted by Leo Krämer.
It is not that Rome and Italy lack valid performers of this great polyphonic music. On the contrary, the most ingenious performer of Palestrina in the world is certainly Monsignor Domenico Bartolucci. But Bartolucci conducts Palestrina in the concert halls, and no longer at the papal Masses with the Sistine Choir, which he conducted until he was rudely removed in 1997. It is difficult to find a church choir in Rome and in Italy today that could perform the works of these composers in the live setting of liturgical action.
If it takes a festival to permit such marvels to be savored again, it's a sign that there's still a long road ahead.
Probably the best city I can think of for liturgical music has to be London and most of that is Anglican. What is it about Catholics that they have no interest in their musical heritage and feel more at home with the infamous ``clapping Gloria` than the simplest Gregorian chant?