Cantate Domino: Secrets of the Vatican

The Sistine Chapel Choir sing Allegri as you’ve never heard it before. Click to enlarge, or view the feature in its original home via Wayback Machine.

Copyright © 2015 Universal Music Group  Reproduced here with the permission of Universal Music Group
Copyright © 2015 Universal Music Group
Reproduced here with the permission of Universal Music Group

Cantate Domino: Secrets of the Vatican by Christina Kenny

Pope Francis’s personal choir made history this week with the release of the first, papally-endorsed commercial album to be recorded inside the historic Sistine Chapel. Christina Kenny headed to the Vatican to find out more about the ensemble, their dynamic new director and a very special world premiere recording of Allegri’s Miserere.

‘We are, without doubt, the oldest choir in the world.’ It’s a big claim, but one that Monsignor Massimo Palombella can feel fairly comfortable in making. After all, there is evidence that the ensemble he directs – the Sistine Chapel Choir – has existed in one form or another for over 1,600 years.

The Pope’s personal choir has evolved considerably since the days of the schola cantorum who attended Sylvester I in the fourth century AD, though. Now numbering some 50 singers (30 ragazzi or boy choristers plus 20 professional tenors and basses) the choir has flourished through the ages from the earliest days of plainchant right through the golden age of the Renaissance, when composers like Palestrina and Allegri sang from the chapel’s cantoria. Ancient graffiti from this singers’ gallery also includes the signature of Josquin des Prez, who was a member of the choir from 1489 to 1495. Then came the Baroque and the age of the castrati, that most controversial of voice types (the support of which the Vatican has been called on to apologise for in recent years).

Fast-forward to the present day, and the Sistine Chapel Choir are launching Cantate Domino – La Cappella Sistina e la musica dei Papi, an album of music from the Renaissance that they still perform for papal celebrations today. Though the choir already has a number of live recordings to its name, this is the first time the Vatican has granted permission for a commercial recording to be made on its home turf, the Sistine Chapel itself.

This vast space – home to frescoes by Michaelangelo and a host of other famous Renaissance artists – sits at the heart of the Apostolic Palace, the Pope’s official Vatican residence. That image of God reaching out to touch the fingertips of an extremely buff Adam? It’s in there, as is Michaelangelo’s The Last Judgement: a great wash of lapis lazuli studded with the souls of the heaven-bound and those on their way to the pit.

For the first time, listeners outside the Vatican’s walls will be able to hear a studio-quality recording of music performed not only by the choir for which it was composed, but in the space it was designed to be heard in. ‘The Sistine Chapel has a special connection with music of the Renaissance,’ says Palombella. ‘Victoria, Palestrina, Lasso, Morales, Allegri – these composers all sang in the Sistine Chapel in the past, so this recording is in keeping with the very identity of the choir.’

Hardly anyone alive today will have heard the Miserere as Allegri originally conceived it
The Deutsche Grammophon-recorded album even includes a world premiere, but it’s not one you’d expect. Allegri’s Miserere may have been topping the classical charts for years, but the Sistine Chapel’s performance of the work in its original form (from the Sistine Codex of 1661) is, unbelievably, the first of its kind. Hardly anyone alive today will have heard the Miserere as Allegri originally conceived it. The version that most of us know – below, with its thrilling high C in the semichorus – is from a much later transcription.

‘The version of the Miserere that most people are familar with is based on a later transcription, most probably the one made by [former choir director] Lorenzo Perosi at the beginning of the 20th century,’ says Palombella. ‘That version has the additions of many Vatican singers, but we have now recorded the true, Renaissance Miserere.

‘It’s very simple, very clear, and we are singing it as authentically as possible, given what we know about the choir’s history. The soloist on the recording sings from the Salla Regia next to the Sistine Chapel, and we have also used two male cantuses [countertenors] in the semi-chorus rather than boy singers, because this is most probably how it was done in the past.’

Allegri’s famous setting of Psalm 51 is already the stuff of legend – not least because of the widely-circulated tale about Mozart allegedly defying papal law by smuggling it out of the Vatican using memory alone. According to the story, the 14-year-old Mozart heard the Miserere during Mass on a visit to Rome in 1770 and wrote it down from memory that evening. Is it true?

‘I can believe the Mozart story is true,’ says Palombella, ‘but mostly because it’s very easy to transcribe the Miserere! The harmony is always the same, and it’s repeated many times. But the part about the music not being allowed to leave the Vatican is probably a myth. It is true that music was written specifically for the Sistine Chapel, and that there was a sort of copyright, but if a pope was asked to have the scores sent somewhere else, generally he accepted.’

Palombella’s 2010 appointment has marked somewhat of a change in direction for the Sistine Chapel Choir. Baritone Mark Spyropoulos, the choir’s first ever English singer, thinks that his own appointment late last year may be linked to the inspiration his new boss has taken from English cathedral choirs.

‘Part of the the reason I’m here is that Maestro Palombella has been really impressed by the British choral tradition,’ he says. ‘For a long time, the leading recordings of these Italian Renaissance works have all been by North European choirs. British choirs in particular have a great reverence for this music: they sing it very well and in fact have been leading in its production. But I’m finding that Italians sing it with a different kind of authenticity. It’s a level of expression that I’m not used to and that I’ve never come before across in British choirs.’

The Maestro seems to agree with Spyropoulos’s assessment. Asked what makes them unique, he says: ‘I think that this choir has the precision and the clarity of an English choir, with the warmth and softness of an Italian choir.’ Certainly, the choir sounds fairly polished on disc (much more so now than on previous recordings): a curious lack of attack more than made up for by richly detailed dynamic contrast and some deeply expressive phrasing. In concert, the ensemble come across as responsive, expressive and extraordinarily well-disciplined. No-one even glances at the incredible frescoes: the singers stand poised, eyes locked on Palombella throughout long, melismatic phrases that would see many English cathedral choristers lashed to their scores. It’s clear that they know the music inside out.

‘It’s a wonderful job,’ admits Spyropoulos, who is still getting used to the acoustic. Like other opera-trained singers in the choir, he has learned to modify the resonance of his voice to match the acoustic of the Chapel and that of St Peter’s Basilica, the choir’s more regular haunt, where they perform with a sound system designed to replicate the acoustic of the Sistine Chapel. ‘It’s a beautiful, warm acoustic, but you just can’t get away with bad choral singing here. Sound splashing around all over the place might not matter so much in some places, but it really does here.’

The good news is, you need not go to Rome to test his theory.

The Sistine Chapel Choir’s Cantate Domino – La Cappella Sistina e la musica dei Papi is available now via Amazon, iTunes and Spotify.