Saturday, May 6


Pope Celebrates Coronation Mass

No, no, no...not that one, the one by Mozart.

That sound you heard was the author of Inter Sollicitudines rolling over in his grave. Or, on the absolutely opposite end of the spectrum, Marty Haugen's head exploding.

Actually, I'm very pleased by this development, and it really shows the depth of our Pontiff's love of sacred art and also the depth of his connoisseurship. I've always loved Mozart's Coronation Mass, even if my own liturgical music tastes tend towards the Renaissance and the early Baroque (Palestrina, Victoria, Gabrieli, Biber), just before the phenomenon of the orchestral mass, Godzilla-like, really got out of control. It is good to be reminded that the stretch between Palestrina and the reforms of the 1910s was not one vast wasteland. (For the record, while well-intentioned, Inter Sollicitudines also caused a good many problems--the Cardinal of Prague, for instance, used it as an excuse to disband church orchestras and failed to foster scholas in their place). We often forget that much polyphony performed a capella today was at times accompanied by some low-level instrumentation (shawms, sackbutts, and in Spain, occasionally the double harp and, quelle scandal, the guitar*), with perhaps the notable exception of Rome, where the papal choir sung unaccompanied throughout all of the Renaissance.

The orchestral Mass, at least in its classical incarnation, is sometimes hard to really jive with the liturgical realities of either the 1962 or 1970 Missals. At the same time, knowing that somewhere someplace this marvelous stuff is still being performed in church is very heartening. While it would be completely out-of-place in any parish but St. John Cantius in Chicago, or St. Agnes in St. Paul (with its glorious weekly Hadyn Masses), it's perfect for a big celebration in St. Peter's, where I've always felt unaccompanied chant and polyphony tend to get accoustically lost in the cavernous grandeur of the place. You really need something big and wonderfully bombastic to work on the scale of St. Peter's. Should one of my seminarian friends ever be named Pope I will insist that he do Biber's Missa Salisburgensis at some point, a remarkable, grandiose piece of music that is not only quite elegant in a mid-Baroque sort of way, but also astonishingly loud. This is purportedly to compensate for the horrid accoustics of Salzburg Cathedral, for which it was written. If one gets enough trumpets and kettledrums together, it's possible.

That being said, I'd imagine a normal choir getting through a fully orchestral Mass is kind of a once-a-year sort of thing, a liturgical endurance contest like Easter Vigil. It's good to do it now and then, even if it is perhaps not the rubrical norm. It's nice to know it's still possible, and it is good to foster it, now and again.

I must admit a certain bias here regarding the way the Vatican handles its liturgical selections, and mention my long-running feud with the Sistine Choir. I love scholas and chant choirs, but the Sistine boys have never particularly impressed me much. I also tend to prefer female sopranos to boys, and I know this is probably, historically speaking, a liturgical no-no. Though given the scarcity of boy choristers these days, the issue is probably a dead letter. Anyway, the Sistine Choir's chant is serviciable, but whenever they perform modern polyphony, which seems to me whenever I end up at the Vatican, it sounds pretty much like endless, pointless keening on the order of "oooo oooo ooo OOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!" Call me insular, but give me the Notre Dame Liturgical Choir any day.

Unaccompanied polyphony and chant remain the ideal for a properly "liturgical" mass (and there are plenty of shorter instrumentated masses from the days of Gabrieli which would also work and which ought to be revived, though the big problem there is finding unemployed sackbutt virtuosi to fill the loft), but there's a whole lot more out there in the Church's treasury of music. I'm grateful that Benedict remembers that and is happy to share it with us.

*My policy with liturgical guitar music is to permit it if it's over 400 years old. This tends to prevent the most serious problems.

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