Friday, July 21, 2006

"I Had a Dream: The Music of Palestrina and Gregory the Great Had Come Back"

An exclusive interview with maestro Domenico Bartolucci. Who strangled Gregorian chant and polyphony – and why. And how to bring them back to life. Benedict XVI? “A Napoleon without generals.” (Sandro Magister, www.chiesa, July 21, 2006)

Some excerpts:
ROMA, July 21, 2006 – The concert conducted in the Sistine Chapel at the end of June by maestro Domenico Bartolucci, in Benedict XVI’s honor and with his attendance, has certainly marked a turning point in the dispute over the role that music has, and will have, in the Catholic liturgy.

But for now, it is a merely symbolic turning point.

The new direction has been indicated with authority. “An authentic renewal of sacred music can only come follow in the pathway of the great tradition of the past, of Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony,” Benedict XVI said on that occasion. This is a pope whose “great love for the liturgy, and thus for sacred music, is known to all,” Bartolucci emphasized in his greeting of introduction.

But the goal still seems a long way off. Bartolucci, in his nineties, is a first-rate witness to the misfortunes that have plagued sacred music over the past half century. An outstanding interpreter of Gregorian chant and of the polyphony of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, he is at the same time the victim of their near annihilation.

When the curia of John Paul II planned and carried out the dismissal of Bartolucci as director of the papal choir of the Sistine Chapel, only Joseph Ratzinger, then a cardinal, was on his side.

Now, with the election of Ratzinger as pope, there is a real chance that the course of this drama will be reversed, and that Gregorian chant and polyphony will be returned to their central place in the Church. But neither Benedict XVI nor Bartolucci are so naïve as not to perceive the extreme difficulty of this undertaking.

For the Church to draw once more from the treasury of its great sacred music, there is, in fact, the need for a formidable effort of reeducation, and for liturgical reeducation even before musical.
This is what Bartolucci makes clear in his interview with “L’espresso” no. 29, 2006, reproduced in its entirety in Sandro Magister's post. In it he says, among other things: “I am an optimist by nature, but I judge the current situation realistically, and I believe that a Napoleon without generals can do little.” And that is certainly what the Holy Father is at this point, a "Napoleon without generals." Forty years of revolution directed at overturning the mainstays of Catholic tradition have left him with few supporters. There are likely many more who would rather see the last supporter of Renaissance polyphony strangled with the guts of the last supporter of Gregorian chant. While there are many reasons for hope, one would have to be hopelessly naive to think that those who regard the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI as hopelessly reactionary, are not, like the European left-leaning intellectuals who hijacked the last Council, already busy planning their strategy for the next conclave and beyond. Moreover, John Paul II was hardly a liturgical traditionalist! In fact, there's some reason to believe that the symbolic 'turning point' in liturgical music effected by Benedict's pontificate might be little more than a swan song of the great classical tradition of Catholic music -- something like the brief reign of Mary Tudor in England, which briefly restored Catholicism in England, before the tital wave of anti-Catholic persecution under William and Robert Cecil during the reigns of Bloody Elizabeth and her successors obliterated Catholicism in England. Of course, if God can make a camel can pass through the eye of a needle, all things a certainly possible, and there is always reason to hope, and pray, and resist the philistines.

Speaking of which, whom does Bartolucci blame for the strangulation of the Gregorian chant and polyphony? One might wonder whether it was Perosi, the so-called restorer of the Italian oratorio. But of him, Bartolucci says only that he was an "authentic musician," a man "utterly consumed by music." He says that "he had the good fortune of directing the Sistine at the time of the motu proprio on sacred music, which rightly wanted to purify it from the theatrics with which it was imbued. He could have given a new impulse to Church music, but unfortunately he didn’t have an adequate understanding of polyphony in the tradition of Palestrina and of the traditions of the Sistine. He also entrusted the direction of the Gregorian chant to his vice-maestro! His liturgical compositions were frequently noteworthy for their superficial Cecilian style, far from the perfect fusion of text and music." He imitated Puccini, whom Bartolucci calls an "intelligent man," and whose fugues, he says, "are greatly superior to those of Perosi." So who is the real villain? Was Perosi in some sense the harbinger of the current vulgarization of sacred music? Bartolucci replies:
Not exactly. Today the fashion in the churches is for pop-inspired songs and the strumming of guitars, but the fault lies above all with the pseudo-intellectuals who have engineered this degeneration of the liturgy, and thus of music, overthrowing and despising the heritage of the past with the idea of obtaining who knows what advantage for the people. If the art of music does not return to its greatness, rather than representing an accommodation or a byproduct, there is no sense in asking about its function in the Church. I am against guitars, but I am also against the superficiality of the Cecilian movement in music – it’s more or less the same thing. Our motto must be: let us return to Gregorian chant and to polyphony in the tradition of Palestrina, and let us continue down this road!
Another relevant question, assuming Gregorian chant could be resurrected is whether the assembly of the faithful should participate in singing the Gregorian chant during the liturgical celebrations. Bartolucci says:
We must make distinctions in the performance of Gregorian chant. Part of the repertoire, for example the Introits or the Offertories, requires an extremely refined level of artistry and can be interpreted properly only by real artists. Then there is a part of the repertoire that is sung by the people: I think of the Mass “of the Angels,” the processional music, the hymns. It was once very moving to hear the assembly sing the Te Deum, the Magnificat, the litanies, music that the people had assimilated and made their own – but today very little is left even of this. And furthermore, Gregorian chant has been distorted by the rhythmic and aesthetic theories of the Benedictines of Solesmes. Gregorian chant was born in violent times, and it should be manly and strong, and not like the sweet and comforting adaptations of our own day.
Interesting! But what is one to make of any of this in the face current trends. Doesn't Bartolucci see that musical traditions of the past are disappearing? He comments:
It stands to reason: if there is not the continuity that keeps them alive, they are destined to oblivion, and the current liturgy certainly does not favor it... I am an optimist by nature, but I judge the current situation realistically, and I believe that a Napoleon without generals can do little. Today the motto is “go to the people, look them in the eyes,” but it’s all a bunch of empty talk! By doing this we end up celebrating ourselves, and the mystery and beauty of God are hidden from us. In reality, we are witnessing the decline of the West. An African bishop once told me, “We hope that the council doesn’t take Latin out of the liturgy, otherwise in my country a Babel of dialects will assert itself.”
There's much more to the interview, well worth reading in full. Comments?