By Gerard Bourke
THE Sistine Choir at the Vatican is certainly the most historic in the world. During the recent cere
monies, listeners have heard again relays of their superb singing which regularly graces the beautiful Sistine Chapel.
Called after the Cappello Sistine built by Pope Sixtus IV in the 15th century, the choir had, in fact, much earlier foundations. It may. indeed, date from the fourth century, and it is known that St. Gregory the Great established schools of singing as a basislor a Papal choir during his reign in the sixth century. Boys recruited for the choir, if of noble birth, often became pages to the Papal household.
WHEN Pope Clement V moved the Chair of St. Peter to Avignon he left behind the Roman choir, and established another in France drawing chiefly on singers from the Netherlands, then the most accomplished in secular music.
His successor, Pope John XXII, then found it necessary to curb the choir from introducing too elaborate effects into the sacred services and issued a famous "Docta Saneforum" to that purpose.
In 1377 Pope Gregory XI took the newly formed choir back to Rome and joined it with that already there, forming a group of 32 singers, or choral chaplains as they were called, under a Maestro delta Cappella Pontificia, that ultimately became the present Sistine Choir.
Choristers were elected to fill depleted ranks on each December 28.
IT was Pope Sixtus V who conferred on Palestrina — who took his name from a village near his birthplace outside Rome — the title of " Composer to the Pontifical Chapel," which he bore so illustriously writing for it so many great works still sung today.
It so happened that during the last hours of the life of the late Pope Pins XII, the B.B.C. were broadcasting the "Missa Papae Marcelli" that Palestrina wrote in memory of an earlier Pope.
Two weeks later at the beginning of the reign of Pope John, they broadcast the great Vespers of 1610" which Monteverdi. once organist at St. Mark's in Venice, composed, it is said. " to impress the Pope."
One of the greatest works in the repertory of the Sistine Choir is the celebrated "Miserere" by kflegri. It so happened that in 1770, the boy Mozart, then only 14 years old, visited Rome with his father during Holy Week, and heard this masterpiece sung by the choir.
To the astonishment of his father
and their friends in Rome, the boy wrote down the whole work on leaving the Sistine Chapel, with only very slight errors which he corrected when he heard it again on Good Friday.
It was one of the most eloquent testimonies of his unsurpassed musical ability. Until then the work had remained unknown in copy outside the Vatican.
SIXTY years later, Mendelssohn visited Rome as part of an Italian journey that inspired him to write the jubilant '' Hellen Symphony," and was fortunate enough to be in the Eternal City during the Conclave called to elect a new Pope on the death of Pope Pius VIII.
He witnessed the rejoicing when Pope Gregory XVI was acclaimed. Remaining in Rome for some time, Mendelssohn, like Mozart, attended services in the Sistine Chapel during Holy Week.
" The best voices are reserved
tor the lliserere'," he wrote home to his professor, "which is sung with the greatest variety of effect, the voices swelling and dying away, and rising again from the softest piano to the full strength of the choir. No wonder that it excites deep emotion in every listener."
Like Mozart. he succeeded in writing down from memory the complete "Miserere" to discuss it later with his teacher.
THEN only 25 years A old, Mendelssohn was understandably thrilled by the spectacle he had witnessed, commenting particularly on "the blazing chandeliers which light up the great vestibule when the Cardinals and their attendant priests traverse the illuminated Quirinal through ranks of Swiss Guards."
In 1903. in the first year of his Pontificate, Pope St. Pius X announced on November 22, the feast of St. Cecilia, patron saint of music, his famous Motu Proprio on sacred music. " Let efforts be made to support and promote, in the best way possible, the higher schools of sacred music where these already exist, and to help in founding them where they do not. It is of the utmost importance that the Church herself provide for the instruction of her choirmasters, organists, and singers, according to the true principles of sacred art..."
This extract from the Motu Proprio shows how the great Sistine Chapel and Choir may, by its example, further the knowledge and practice of this sacred art as preserved so carefully through the many centuries for daily usage, and for the greatest ceremonies of the Church such as those recently witnessed on television or heard on the radio by people in so many lands.