I have written a couple of articles recently about Don Lozenzo Perosi and his major compositions, in particular his oratorios and secular orchestral works. I mentioned his church music in passing, for its style is totally different. These works are generally for one, two, three or four voices and organ accompaniment. Here is an example of some of them them sung by the cathedral choir of Milan.
My own musical formation was in England, in the Anglican tradition, and I only learned about Gregorian chant when I crossed the Tiber. My biggest surprise was when I went to Rome in 1985 to begin philosophy at the Angelicum and my major seminary at the Pontifical Nepomucene College. We usually attended Papal masses at St Peter’s on the big occasions, like the major feasts of the church year and canonisations of saints (John Paul II was very generous for that!). The Sistine Chapel choir was on its podium near the organ installed in the basilica in the 1950’s under Pius XII. Papal churches were at one time as conservative about organs as the Orthodox Church! Only recently has a small two-manual instrument been installed in the Sistine Chapel. The greatest surprise is the choir! English ears just can’t get used to the sliding notes, the vibrato and the cloying slowness. Milan is just the same as Rome – it’s the Italian tradition!
Perosi’s church music is very telling, almost similar to some of our Victorian composers like Stainer and Goss, lacking the finesse and subtlety of S.S. Wesley or Stanford a little later in the century. Why this divergence of style in one man! The answer is Pope Pius X and his interest in reforming Roman Catholic church music. He found that Gregorian chant had all but disappeared and replaced by “operatic” compositions. Reform of church music is a part of Pius X’s liturgical movement.
Perosi had spent some time in Germany, and some of the scores one finds rummaging in the choir lofts of churches in Germany and Switzerland can be quite a revelation. To what extent there was any influence from Anglican hymns, it is difficult to tell. Together with a number of German musicians, Perosi and a few other Italians put together a Cecilian Movement to react against excesses of Mozart, Haydn and Verdi.
The Council of Trent came within an inch of getting rid of all music other than Gregorian chant! Pope Marcel II and Palestrina saved the day. Pius X and Perosi were much more moderate and sought to promote both Gregorian chant and a more sober choral style at Mass, Vespers and Benediction. Giovanni Tebaldini, Perosi’s predecessor in Venice, was the main motor force behind the beginnings of this movement.
We are given to believe that even choral polyphony disappeared during the nineteenth century. If this was the case, it is difficult to imagine churches in Europe with only operatic style music, mainly sung by soloists with reduced orchestral accompaniment. I also find this hard to believe, given the character of some of Mozart’s work, the Ave Verum being the best known “sober” choral setting. Bruckner in Austria was writing absolutely sublime motets, both a capella and with organ or orchestral accompaniment. Popes tend to generalise and mix everything together, as Pius X also did in regard to Modernism! Everything got tarred with the same brush – more Italian sloppiness!
It was certainly a wonderful thing to bring Gregorian chant and polyphony back into the repertoire of cathedral choirs. But, who would advocate the abolition of masses by Mozart and Haydn? Happily, the ban was never absolute.
Church music comes and goes. Anglican church music is mostly a nineteenth-century movement even though there are many fine anthems and service settings from the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Surpliced choirs in Anglican parish churches only really came in from the time of S.S. Wesley, about the same time as the Oxford Movement, Pugin and the Ecclesiological Society.
Italian and German choirs are generally surpliced, and formed of boys and men like in England. Unfortunately, I have not seen them occupy the choir stalls in France, Italy or Germany. That seems to be an English peculiarity, which is wonderful for the quality of the music and response of the choir to the Master of Music directing it.
We don’t have resources in the ACC to do anything musical. It is difficult enough to find organists, let alone get an amateur choir of some competence together. Even a quartet is not easy, since you need singers with musical training and sight-reading ability to get together a repertoire in a reasonable amount of time. Even Church of England parishes are finding it harder to keep the choirs going.
In the Roman Catholic Church, Benedict XVI tried to promote good music as much as he could, and perhaps some of those initiatives survive. There is an Istituto di Musica Sacra in Rome, but I don’t know how much real influence it has. I was tempted to study there myself, but I didn’t have the money or sponsorship.
Nevertheless, we have to keep the light burning, composing new music and doing quartet and chamber choir work to a high standard. We are condemned to singing outside churches, and that is a real shame. Perhaps we could sing in my chapel, but we would be the only ones there! Keep calm and carry on – so the wartime slogan goes.