Palestrina Brings a Sense of Calm Amid the Turmoil

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Palestrina, Missa Papae Marcelli: Choir of the Sistine Chapel / Massimo Palombella (conductor).  Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia at Sala Sinopoli, Parco della Musica, Rome, 9.11.2016. (JB)

The Law is the true embodiment
Of everything that’s excellent.
It has no kind of fault or flaw,
And I, my Lords, embody the Law.

So wrote a nineteenth century wit of the office of the Lord Chief Justice, in those days, called the Lord Chancellor.  Sitting with two other senior justices, His Lordship, the other day, ruled on the irregularity of a referendum in which, for instance, I, as a UK citizen, was not allowed to vote, and more seriously, neither was the UK parliament. The country formerly known as Great Britain is   struggling to leave the European Union.  His Lordship has now queried whether it may do this without a proper debate in both Houses of Parliament.

If that isn’t turbulence enough, the country on the other side of the Big Pond, known as the United States of America, has just elected a billionaire with no public office as its President.  Meanwhile, the real governors of the world, the International Financial Markets, have shot up the value of sterling in anticipation of a UK parliamentary debate on Brexit, while they also sank the dollar lower than hell in anticipation of the Comedian’s shenanigans. (Does one write him with a capital C?) It is said that the Chinese dropped their jaws in disbelief.

Our own day’s great wit, Woody Allen would probably say that all this has come about because Americans have a great sense of humour, whereas the rest of the world doesn’t.

He’d have a point there, too, if you stop to think about it.  All to do with how black humour scores higher than white on the topsy-turvy humour scales.

On this same day, the ninth of November, 2016, when the turbulent world wouldn’t stop long enough to let anyone get off it, the Sistine Chapel Choir suggested, in a memorable performance of Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli, that it might not be such a good idea to do so.  Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525 – 1594) gave to the world in his most performed Mass, that peace which Christians believe passeth all understanding.  Balm for troubled times indeed.

And on this day, links with the composer were legion.  First, this was a choir that Giovanni Pierluigi himself had conducted.  Second, the presentation was by the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, the illustrious institution of which Pierluigi was a co-founder.  The academicians were conspicuous by their absence.  But their row was occupied by cardinals, who lent a charming ecclesiastical red splash to the occasion.  Renzo Piano’s Sala Sinopoli has superior acoustics to the Sistine Chapel, with seating for some nine-hundred audience (less than half of Sala Santa Cecilia) but also gives a better and more important feel of intimacy that the prayer-like passages call for.

I can never hear this music without reliving the experience of having Charles Kennedy Scott conduct us in our final year of the Trinity College of Music graduation course.  Scotti, as he was affectionately known, and who was then in his eighties, would conduct us using minimal movements of his right hand index finger as his baton. This had the immediate effect of producing the most precisely placed and controlled, otherworldly sound ever heard from any bunch of unruly students.  Scotti taught us the all-important lesson of how less is often more in music.

That contrasts with Massimo Palombella’s conducting of today’s Sistine Chapel Choir.  His very long arms conducted in a series of aggressive stabs of the kind I use with a wooden spoon in my hand to dislodge matter which is irritatingly sticking to the bottom of a pan. Yet no dislodging was needed with these gentlemen.  Their sound was ethereal throughout.  There is evidence that the composer himself had a small voice and anyone with anything bigger was trained to reduce it.

Following tradition, this is, of course, all male voices -12 trebles, 12 altos (both groups boys) and ten each of tenors and basses (men).  The training has not changed since the time of Palestrina.  And the link is beautifully alive.  There is devotion in the choir’s delivery. Another Scotti dictum: Don’t sing notes, sing words.  That is something which Palestrina paid particular attention to in both his writing and choir training.  I was only somewhat distressed by Maestro Palombella’s bizarre conducting.  He might have had the score of a Prokofiev opera in front of him.  However, his results show him to be the ideal trainer.  My barber tells me the boys receive an excellent general education as well as their music instruction: his son is a treble.  (Many of the Cathedral schools of the UK are valued for the same reasons.)

The Sistine Chapel is within the Apostolic Palace, which is the Pope’s residence. And this is his choir.   I am strongly tempted to pop over to the Vatican to thank His Holiness for keeping up this great vocal tradition.

Jack Buckley

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