There are few more beautiful and powerful sounds than a church choir in perfect voice. Man has known throughout time that this is a thrilling and sublime way to worship the divine, and perhaps to touch the divine too.
I believe no choir exemplifies this notion as well as the Cappella Musicale Pontificia or Papal Choir – which has been in existence since about 600, when Gregory the Great established a group of singers in connection with the Basilica of St Peter which included monks, secular clergy and boys.
After the renovation of the Sistine Chapel in 1483, the chapel became its home, and the choir became commonly known as the Sistina.
But even before the choir’s formation there have been dedicated Papal singers. History tells us that Sylvester I in 314 brought together a regular group of singers sharing a designated building.
In the Renaissance Leo X gave the choir and its form of music a huge boost by instructing that one of the singers should be designated leader or Maestro di Cappella, whereas previously it was a company of equal singers. This change gave the choir a new organisational leadership, direction and discipline, helping it to rise to the new challenges of the demanding Renaissance composers.
Later Popes largely left the choir to its sacred business until Pope Pius X, who served until 1913, brought in the composer and conductor Don Lorenzo Perosi, the most prolific composer of sacred music of the 20th century.
Perosi was an innovator: he brought together Renaissance polyphony, Gregorian chant, and lush, Verismo melodies and orchestrations. His works for chorus, soloists, and orchestra were based on Latin texts, and he chose his words with great thought to their spiritual significance.
His work as a composer made him famous around the world, but he remained devoted to the Sistine Chapel choir.
And now the present head of the choir Massimo Palombella, a Salesian priest, seems to have ushered in a new golden age for these times, combining the precision of the British and European choral traditions with a warm, fluid, Mediterranean sound.
Moreover, the choir is ready to share their distinctive sound ever more widely since the production last year of a CD recorded in the Sistine Chapel, called Cantate Domino, the very first recording allowed in this breathtaking place. Pope Francis himself insisted the recording was made with Deutsche Grammophon. “It is very important,” the Pope said, “it is the best.” Palombella added: “It is a way of contacting the person who is far away from the Church.”
The choir itself – which consists of twenty adult singers and thirty unpaid boy choristers – practises three hours a day to produce its sublime sound. One of them is British baritone Mark Spyropoulos, who will be speaking about his experiences as a Papal singer at the Pure Land Foundation for China Exchange in October.
Why does Spyropoulos think the Choir is so important? It is about setting as well as people, he says. “The Vatican, the Sistine Chapel, the music, all amounts to the most extraordinary aesthetic,” Mark says. “That’s one of the main attractions for me to be here. This is the most beautiful artificial thing that humans have ever created.”