Magister Gets It Wrong, Very Wrong

Sandro Magister of Chiesa is a very popular writer among Catholics who follow and love the pontificate of Benedict XVI. His journalistic work is distributed online in many languages, and he is usually a valuable source of information about goings on in the Vatican. He has been an excellent champion of the pope who never fails to defend him against critics.

But as a journalist, Magister has one big blind spot: music. He is not a musician, doesn’t follow this beat very closely, and must rely on the judgment of others within the Vatican to alert him to trends and changes. This is always a dangerous method for any journalist who aspires to be an independent voice. He has good instincts that favor tradition but lacks the competence to seriously evaluate whether and to what extent it is being realized.

I’ve usually ignored his writings on this topic, and declined to correct them simply because they haven’t done too much damage so far. But on May 30, 2011, he sent out a column that made the following claim: “Benedict XVI…has declined to act and to make decisions in the field of sacred music.” In the area of sacred music, “Benedict XVI’s grand vision is not being backed up by actions, which are even moving in the opposite direction.”

Now, this is just startling on its face. It comes close to being a smear of the pope himself, and it is outrageously unjust. If you visit Rome and attend the daily sung Office in St. Peter’s, you will hear beautiful Gregorian chant and polyphony of the highest caliber. The music of the Renaissance has been revived, and the choirs in St. Peter’s are cooperating with the Solesmes monastery. At Vatican Masses, we hear the Gregorian introit and communion chants with regularity, and sometimes even the offertory chant. The ordinary of the Mass is scrupulously derived from official chants books and sung with great care.

This is a dramatic change from the past, even from the preconcilar past. The progress has been rapid and thorough in St. Peter’s itself. Right now, the music is better than it ever was under John Paul II, Paul VI, John XXIII, and even Pius XII, and going back in time, perhaps even to the 19th century and before. The Vatican has long struggled with the music question. Benedict is bringing clarity for the first time in very long time.

It’s true that one cannot always discern this from televised occasions but there are several choirs that provide music and the progress in the sound itself is uneven. As regards repertoire itself – and this is the critical issue – there has been a dramatic turnaround. And even when the pope travels, the advance team works with the choirs on the ground to push them into the best possible performance of music. The results are not always great, but we must remember what is possible right now. We are coming out a half century of near chaos, a time when the musical capital of Catholicism’s outposts has been almost completely depleted.

Benedict’s changes have not only transformed music at the Vatican and a papal liturgy. The changes (which include Summorum Pontificum and also pushing for a new English missal) have unleashed a global revival of chant and polyphony – and a new comprehension of the very meaning of liturgical music itself.

The idea of the new ethos is to use liturgical texts to accompany liturgical action, and, further, to use musical settings of those texts that are organic to the ritual. I know that this doesn’t sound too complicated but consider that this single point has been lost on nearly everyone in a decision-making role in Catholic music for many generations.

Benedict XVI is working to restore this understanding. One might go so far as to say that the shift in liturgical music that has occurred under him is the single most conspicuous change that has taken place in the Catholic world in the last 10 years.

My reminder of this obvious reality is only necessary given Magister’s amazing claim that the music question has been somehow neglected. This approaches being an jaw-dropping claim. So what is his evidence? This is where he gets petty. Magister says that the Pope did not pay enough attention to a conference held by the Institute of Sacred Music in May of this year. “The prefecture of the pontifical household made it known that there would be no audience, nor any apostolic letter.” This, says Magister, amounts to “ostracism.”

And yet, in a letter dated May 26, the Vatican released a letter from Benedict that celebrated this very institution. “In the span of the last 100 years, this Institution has assimilated, developed, and expressed the doctrinal and pastoral teaching of the pontifical documents, as well as those of Vatican Council II, concerning sacred music, to illumine and guide the work of composers, chapel maestros, liturgists, musicians, and all instructors in this field.”

This is hardly ostracism. In fact, the whole tone, approach, and thesis of Magister is utterly preposterous. So why is he making these claims? A hint about the source of his poor information comes in his article’s attack on the appointment of the position of director of the Sistine Chapel choir. Magister says it went to the wrong guy, Don Massimo Palombella. Magister says he is “clearly not up to the role.” So he says.

This is the third time that Magister has made this claim. I knew nothing of Palombella when he was appointed, so I quickly looked him up. It turns out that his a specialist in the Roman school of polyphony in general and Palestrina in particular, and this is what he is emphasizing in his work with the Chapel. The singing style is not to my taste – this is due to a conflict between the Roman and English schools that dates back to the 19th century. (Some people have said that St. Pius X’s interventions in the area of music were motivated by his desire to reform this choir, which he couldn’t stand; it didn’t work.) But the repertoire itself has been first rate.

In other words, there is no basis for trashing Palombella this way – and Magister is not competent to judge. And who does Magister like instead? He likes the old director Domenico Bartolucci, who was supposed to have the position for life but was booted in 1997 under John Paul II. As a way of expressing support, Benedict made him a Cardinal and has written glowing tributes. But that’s not enough for Magister, who apparently thinks that Bartolucci needs to be reappointed.

Now, Bartolucci might be a great man and a great musician. I enjoy his interviews, in which he routinely attacks all pop music in satisfyingly vicious terms but also trashes the sound of Solesmes-style chant, which he regards as affected and effete. Bartolucci says he favors a manly and warrior sound for chant. These comments always strike me as hilarious, especially given that the Sistine choir under his rule was not exactly an exemplar of excellence (and many readers who know the truth are right now laughing at my understatement).

In other words, it seems very clear to me that Magister is the victim of some kind of strange Vatican-based bureaucratic struggle. He has been manipulated into presenting a series of petty issues as some kind of giant struggle for the soul of sacred music. And his involvement in this tiny world has led him – even with all his long journalistic experience – to overlook the most exciting and wonderful development in the Catholic world in many generations.

Yes, this is very disappointing. My biggest worry here is that this one Magister column has misled many, many people. I hesitated to say anything about it but after the twentieth or so email expressing disappointment in this papacy as a response to this article, I had to clarify. I hope we can put Magister’s preposterous claims to rest.