Busy busy B’s: from Beauty to Bartolucci to Brutal to Buffo

What can be said about our vocations? What needs saying? What should or shouldn’t be said out loud in the public square?
I’ve been a conductor since the age of 18. Forty two years later I haven’t changed my choral philosophy after decades of real study of both the physiology and the craft of beautiful singing, as well as how to acquire, prepare, perform and expand the repertoire base of what sacred choral music serves. When I first returned to the Central Valley in ’87 as DMM of the Fresno Cathedral I had the opportunity to sit front row at a concert by Capella Sixtini under then Msgr. Bartolucci in my hometown. My rector, my wife and I winced at the excruciating (think about that word, think Lotti’s magnificent “Crucifixus for 8v) bellowing of the men, the little boys strained and squealing tone like little fledgling birds screaming at momma bird for a piece of the worm, and lastly the wild gesticulation of the conductor, the ferocity and tension of his body magnified a hundred-fold on his face.
Our beloved Pope Emeritus obligingly provided Bartolucci not only the honor of finishing his pilgrimage as a Prince of the Church, but also a renewed platform to express his views about his disdain for effeminate (his words) interpretation of sacred choral works, and that if the choral world was his, all choirs would sound like opera choruses, in other words: muscular and manly. Singing in the Tudor style, or the Christiansen/Noble Lutheran manner, the Swedish style of Erickson, or any other refined and tested pedagogy was an insult and ignoble to properly rendering to God this most perfect art by which we worship.
But back in ’87 I knew I was completely out of step with the other 99% of that concert’s audience. They had just listened to two hours (Palestrina Song of Songs) of a Bugs Bunny parody (Bugs as “Leopold” torturing the tenor soloist into exploding) and then rose to their feet cheering, whistling and hollering. All of that dissonance came back to haunt me again yesterday at the nominal Vespers Service at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Why does everyone, from Raymond Arroyo to pastors to PIPs in the pews actually love the amplified (in so many different ways) bel canto, volume knob at 11, pushed pedal to the metal brutality of an opera chorus in the quire gallery, and mean it when they swoon “It was so beautiful, ahhhh.”? Is it a knee-jerk reaction to the reality that most of them go to their home parishes and they have to endure a thin-voiced little ingénue singing a Sarah Hart or Maher tune accompanied by whatever instrument(s) are handy? So, when they hear this ROMAN CATHOLIC MUSCULAR PROWESS ENSEMBLE in this magnificent Manhattan sonic venue, the only reaction can be “Wow. Was that good for you too? Wow!”

I fear for my soul, literally, feeling that something is dreadfully wrong. And, as said earlier, this odd differentiation of mine predates my involvement with CMAA by three decades. It’s nice to know via forum and FB, that there are many other Catholic choirmasters in my lonely little boat who share my frustration and concern.

Our dear Richard Rice put it nicely on FB responding to Jeffrey Morse’s eloquent initial critique by simply saying that faced with a papal Mass, music directors tend to get all wonky and discombobulated, and thus throw convention into the window, caution to the wind and everything else into the kitchen sink of planning the ordo. (Can’t help but think of Richard Dreyfus in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” throwing garden soil, plants, trees, wood and metal garden fencing through his kitchen window into the sink in order to build his vision, his Devil’s Mountain.)

I suppose this last question will never receive a proper answer: Who is the buffo in all of this?

18 Replies to “Busy busy B’s: from Beauty to Bartolucci to Brutal to Buffo”

  1. Well, I did not say "music directors", rather clerics (meaning pastors and bishops). Music directors respond to their pastors, one way or another. The contextualized FB post:

    "The other thing is that high-ranking clerics, even those who may gravitate towards the sort of perfection you're talking about, go all wonky in the face of papal visits, etc. Suddenly, objectives standards like musical and liturgical quality are abandoned for the sake of some weird common denominator of American banality (including those cantors) for the sake of a national audience (and, probably, the sake of their fellow more iconoclast clerics). So long as the CMAA model remains a vision of the exception rather than of the usual, that banal American standard will reign supreme, especially (unfortunately) when the Holy Father comes to town."

  2. I kneel corrected. Imagining being Mrs. Lincoln after the assassination of her husband I ask "And how did you like the Play, Madam?"

  3. I'll take the bait and go down the rabbit hole (and merrily mix metaphores)
    Here's a quote from an interview with Cardinal Bartolucci, my the Lord rest his soul, to which the article alludes.

    "Maestro, what role does music play in this process?

    It has an incredibly important role for many reasons. The affected “Cecilianism” to which certainly Perosi was no stranger, with its tones that were so mild and enticing to the ear had introduced a new romantic sentimentalism, which had nothing to do, for instance, with the eloquent and solid physicality of Palestrina. Some extravagant deteriorations introduced by Solesmes had cultivated a subdued gregorianism, which also was the fruit of a pseudo-restauring passion for the Medieval ages, which were so popular in the nineteenth century.
    The idea of an opportunity to recuperate the archeological vein, both in music and liturgy, of a past, from which the so called “oxen centuries” (seculi bui) of the Council of Trent separated it ….. in short an archeology which has nothing at all to do with Tradition and which wishes to restore something which maybe never existed, is a bit similar to certain churches restored in the “pseudoromantic” style of Viollet-le-Duc.

    What does it mean, Monsignore, when in the musical field you attack Solesmes?

    This means that the Gregorian chant is modal, not tonal and not rhythmical, it has nothing to do with “one, two, three, one, two, three”. We should not despise the way people sung in our cathedrals and replace it with a pseudo-monastic and affected murmuring. A song from the Middle Ages is not interpreted with theories of today, but one should go about it as it was then. Moreover the Gregorian chant of another historical time could also be sung by the people, sung using the force with which our people expressed their faith. Solesmes never understood this, but we should recognize the learned and great philological work executed on the old manuscripts."
    (if you read Italian, go read the original, I'm told it's even much better…)

    I'm not defending his work as musician, it's probably quite removed from what I would consider beautiful and I find the criticism presented in this post very much to the point.
    And yet. I think a man can be very correct in identifying a problem and yet dead wrong in the solution he proposes. Reading the above 2 paragraphs for the first time I found myself thinking "Yes! Exactly" at least a dozen times…

    But enough words. One, or as the case might be, two audio recordings are worth many more words. Here my favourite controversial demonstration of the issue at hand.

  4. A song from the Middle Ages is not interpreted with theories of today, but one should go about it as it was then.

    Spoken as though he were there to hear it sung, eh?

    Moreover the Gregorian chant of another historical time could also be sung by the people, sung using the force with which our people expressed their faith

    'Forse' moreso than today? Umnnhhh…did the English Catholics belt it out under Lizzie? Nope. Further: any congregation which sings Chant Masses today sings them with a certain plebeian 'force;' it is not nuanced, as would be a Brahms or Cantaloube lieder.

    Ah, well.

  5. Praecentor, excellent and pointed commentary that you offer to my post. As you say, identifying a perceived problem doesn't necessarily result in the detective's success prescribing a solution. Even prima facie, one would have to suspect that many Italian/Catholic professional and ordained musicians maintained a rather readily identifiable cultural ethos that not only rejected other geo-cultural "schools" that must've evolved over the same centuries as theirs, but conveniently had no motivation or inclination to a forensic examination of their "Golden Era" of Italian Renaissance choral pedagogy. Yes, there are work records, itinerant, besotted singers a-plenty. But no one really knows if they were closer to the Sistine screamers or the Sixteen, do they? But all that didn't matter to Bartolucci in my estimation. And accept it or not, the proof is in the pudding. The bombastic romantic (buffo) choral style is dead, with a stake in its heart in a majority of the choral world. What is irksome is that when smidges of that surface as they did in St. Patrick's last week, there's still a lot of folks who equate that methodology as literally beautiful. To me, that's akin to saying that among 50's bombshell actresses, Jane Russell was the ideal when compared to Elizabeth Taylor. Uh, no.

  6. readily identifiable cultural ethos that not only rejected other geo-cultural "schools"

    Paul Salamunovich has a terrific story about that when he took the Chorale to Rome….

  7. Oh Dad (that sounds good too~) I've spent a fair amount of time* with the late maestro, easier in California perhaps. But please share what you recall of that story. I'll buy the next round whenever we meet.

    *The last serious time, up near Yosemite- since he and Lauridsen were joined at the hip, I had a recording of the LA Guitar Quartet doing "Dirait on" of which he was unfamiliar and surprised to hear of. I played it for him in the chapel, just the two of us, and he was blown away. He played it for the whole symposium (gave the CD to him.) Do you know of his "Young Frankenstein" model of singing?

  8. Well, we actually do know quite a bit about the vocal technique / style of e.g. 16th century, it's just that people choose to ignore the evidence completely.

    "one praises sweet and smooth singing and another church singing" (Maffei)
    "one sings in one way in churches and public chapels and in another in private chambers. In the former he should sing with full voice" (Zarlino)
    "…who sing in churches or in places where one has to belt loudly [gridar forte]" (Zacconi)

    Does this sound anything like Tallis Scholars? (just to pick one of the ensembles at random…)

    Can renaissance music be done in other ways? Well… http://praecentor.bandcamp.com/track/ave-maria-vi

  9. With the first sentence he is effectively accusing Solesmes of destroying the existing traditions and of archeologism.
    I would add, in their archeologism thy chose to ignore the actual evidence jsut to make everything fit their thories.
    I linked 2 recordings above. Both of Credo IV, a piece known in 15th and 16th century as Credo Cardinale. The first one in the version of Solesmes, a version that never existed before they invented it. The second one is a rhythm as recorded in virtually all the manuscript and printed sources of this setting known to us… But that didn't fit their theories, so of course it had to go…

  10. Umnnnhhhh…so let me get this straight, P'c'tr: one sings artistically for the drawing-room and one sings like Attila the Hun in the house of God.

    Now tell me this (above exaggeration aside): does one singing 'with full voice' necessarily sing without art? That would run counter to my experience in the local symphony chorus, where both artistry and projection are required. Frankly, in the several snippets of Bartolucci stuff I've heard, "artistry" seems to come in 9th in a 4-man race.

    In the end, all this is opinion, of course. Bartolucci & Co. claim to be historically accurate while stating that Solesmes & Co. are 'archeologism driven.'

    Chas: Paul was invited to run a choral workshop for the Sistine Gang and he found that they were impossible to educate (that's the VERY brief story.) As you know, it's not merely their FFFFFFFFFF; there's the pitch problems, the accent problems, the…..

    Oh, well.

  11. The argument I'm trying to make (probably very clumsily) is much more subtle.
    I stated in the beginning (again, probably not strongly enough) that I'm not trying to defend Bartolucci's way of doing music. I only find his criticism of Solesmes very good.
    It's important to realize singing before 1700-1800 sound probably MUCH different than what we hear today. When renaissance writers say loud, I'm very sure they wouldn't imagine solo opera tenor sort of loud. And no, loud doesn't mean without artistry. But I'm convinced that however 16th century music sound, it would be much closer to e.g. Corsican chant than English cathedral choir of today.

  12. Praecentor, very nice comparison. I had toyed with the idea of their "formant" style being akin to the Bulgarian State Radio Women's chorus of fame in the 80's. Yes, I read those quotes in grad school, too. I don't think we can convincingly conclude that living in the era in question results in optimal performance, as my grad mentor liked to argue. If that were so, allow me to illustrate that conjecture by analogy. In the legendary era of the early Olympic games, does anyone think that the poor marathon runner from Macedonia ran the 26 miles faster than any number of marathoners in your hometown, much less Olympian athletes of today? The best we can infer is that "things" were different back then, and will be in the future. In the meanwhile, to answer another question of yours, I'd take the Scholars to the bank over Bartolucci's choirs every day of the week.

  13. This is such a chronological snobism. Have you also read what the requirements for professional musicians, singers were in those times? What were the expected skills?
    Further, I find the Marathon analogy very poor. We today like to pretend we can convincingly, artistically or what not perform music of the past 400 or 600 years (or more) Music of vastly different styles, vastly different eras. Now consider for a moment e.g. the singers of the Sistine chapel in 16th century. The only thing they did daily was polyphony and plainchant. Show me one ensemble today that can convincingly improvise 4 part counterpoint super librum like we are told they were. In short of course the marathon runner in early Olympic games had much worse conditions, less time to train etc. OTOH the singers of 16th century were much better trained to perform 16th century polyphony than we are.

    In the end it might be "de gustibus", but I'd take Ensemble Organum or Graindelavoix over Scholars every day of the week… 😉

  14. This is such a chronological snobism.

    Fascinating. I'm feeling some Mr. Spock-like cognitive dissonance when Capt. Kirk or Bones yell at him to act more "human." I've never experienced being dubbed a snob before, as I'm definitely a plebe in the big picture. If I may, Praecentor, I actually think we're stating the same obvious thing, only from opposing poles. And I'll gladly accept your "de gustibus" concession as affirmation of that. Call me a choral geek, dweeb, dork or RayJay. Just don't call me late to dinner.

  15. Well, the singers in the 16thC were different, yes. Many of them started with all their boy-parts and did not end that way.

    But they made up for it with the lack of central heating and air conditioning.

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