Some Handel (not the Messiah)

1 01 2010

Another Church music post

24 07 2009

I encountered this passage from that extremely reliable and solid source of information on the Internet, Wikipedia (really, you would be surprised the stuff I have found on there, and if it’s enough to amaze me…) while “researching” something last week (is looking something up on Wikipedia, “research”?):

In the spring of 1902, in the Vatican, Moreschi made the first of his phonograph recordings for the Gramophone & Typewriter Company of London. He made additional recordings in 1904: there are seventeen tracks in all. Between these two sessions, several most fateful events occurred: in 1903 the aged Mustafà finally retired, and a few months later Pope Leo XIII, a strong supporter of Sistine tradition, died. His successor was Pope Pius X, an equally powerful advocate of Cecilianism. One of the new pontiff’s first official acts was the promulgation of the motu proprio, Tra le sollecitudini (“Amidst the Cares”), which appeared, appropriately enough, on St Cecilia’s Day, 22 November, 1903. This was the final nail in the coffin of all that Mustafà, Moreschi and their colleagues stood for, since one of its decrees stated: “Whenever . . . it is desirable to employ the high voices of sopranos and contraltos, these parts must be taken by boys, according to the most ancient usage of the Church.” Perosi, a fanatical opponent of the castrati, had triumphed and Moreschi and his few remaining colleagues were to be pensioned off and replaced by boys. A singing pupil of Moreschi’s, Domenico Mancini, was such a good imitator of his master’s voice that Perosi took him for a castrato (for all that castration had been banned in Italy in 1870), and would have nothing to do with him. Ironically, Mancini became a professional double-bass player.


Of course, I looked up, “Cecilianism”, and just what I thought, it is the movement in Church music to restore “primitive chant”, polyphony, and all that jazz. It is what contemporary church do-gooders resort to when they cringe at a Mozart Mass or sappy Irish tunes being sung at Benediction. I was trained in it; a few times a week in seminary (everyday during Holy Week), we were marched off and run through the in’s and out’s of the Liber Usualis. It’s all of that “qui cantat, bis orat” stuff that I never really bought into.

I, being the cyncial person that I am, always fault this stuff for the agonizing experience in church music that I have to be marched through Sunday after Sunday. Of course, the good anti-modernist Pope probably had no idea that he was setting us up for Marty Haugen, but the whole movement to strip Catholic worship of buxom sopranos belting out Latin prayers began with the more unsavory tendencies of Jansenism in the eighteenth century. If you had mentioned to anyone but the Jansenists a few centuries ago that there would be a solemn High Mass with nothing but chant, a bit of polyphony, and no instruments, they would have thought you mad or a filthy Calvinist (if they knew what a Calvinist really was, they just knew it was bad). Indeed the Te Deum of Charpentier, the giggling girls singing Couperin’s Tenebrae Lessons, and the grainy but ethereal sounds of a motet by Zipoli would have been more the norm in a place that could afford to have music at all. Even the California missions were renowned for their orchestras made up of Indian neophytes.

So I wonder, how bad would it have been if we stayed with the tradition of sacred music being “concert pieces” and most people keeping their mouths shut? I for one always like to imagine how Handel’s Carmelite Vespers (the video is of one of my favorite pieces from that service) would have been like, performed in 1707, when the composer was only in his early twenties. Even though a Lutheran, did the Virgin smile more on his piece of music than the guitar ensembles that have descended like the plague on Catholic churches today? I am not going to answer that question, but you can probably guess what I am thinking. Snob or no snob, bad music is just bad music.

Handel’s Ariodante

16 06 2008

AG (who is posting again, by the way) and I just came home from seeing this work at the San Francisco Opera. The staging was much more orthodox than the one shown above, and was a real treat. (Though never go to a matinee if you are accustomed to having a lazy Sunday afternoon. I fell asleep during one of the arias.)