VATICAN CITY: Missa Papae Marcelli - Coro della Cappella Sistina
Updated: Mar 2
Vocal talent that earns the right to reverberate against Michelangelo's stunning frescos
In recent centuries, Europe has seen its music culture massively diversify, as showcased by the wide range of album reviews on our site that differ wildly from one another e.g. Balkan brass, French chanson, Sámi joiking etc. Throughout this journey we made a semi-conscious decision not to feature a great deal of classical music from the continent. Whilst both of us appreciate the genre, we felt that European classical music can be rather homogenous in terms of its sound that does not typically differ a great amount based on the culture or nationality of the composer or performers. Regardless of this, if there is one country in the world that traditional European classical music represents best it is of course the Vatican City.
“...in spite of its controversial style, Cardinal Carlo Borromeo deemed that the music was too beautiful to ban from the church.”
The Pope's personal choir, or to give them their full name the Coro della Cappella Musicale Pontificia Sistina, was officially established in the 15th century. That said, its origins are believed to date all the way back to Pope Sylvester I’s company of singers known as the schola cantorum in the 4th century. The rather impressive longevity of the institution of the choir makes them one of the longest lasting artists of all time, unbelievably performing for a longer period of time than the likes of Tony Bennett and Willie Nelson.
In terms of the album itself, Missa Papae Marcelli is Pierlugi da Palestrina's most famous mass and is seen as an iconic piece of music. At the time of its composition in the mid-16th century, there was a clamor to ban the piece because its polyphonic style obscured the lyrics. Legend has it that in spite of its controversial style, Cardinal Carlo Borromeo deemed that the music was too beautiful to ban from the church. Whilst I don’t feel particularly moved on an emotional level by the music, one cannot help but acknowledge the beauty of the composition as well as of the vocals. There has been a trend in some of the more ‘religious’ records for there to be outstanding voices on display, and this is perhaps because artists like Coro della Cappella Sistina are in some senses singing to God in a devotional fashion. If you are curious and want a flavour for the sound of the Holy See, then listen to my favourite of the tracks, Sanctus, and if it floats your boat then this album is for you.
The Vatican City was always going to be a challenge for us to find a suitable album. Sure, there’s tons of choral church music out there, and there is even a recording of Pope John Paul II’s speeches interspersed with church music, which I did listen to, but cannot hand on heart say I enjoyed. But therein lies the rub. Most countries have a wide variety of music to choose from. Not a fan of Mongolian throat singing? Well, there’s other Mongolian pop, rock, or metal music you might enjoy. Don’t enjoy the intricate sitar stylings of Indian classical music? There is of course a huge range of other music you might enjoy from India. However, when it comes to the Vatican, there is just one style, and it’s a style that neither me nor Danny enjoy very much. Choral church music.
I can’t speak for Danny, but for me, it leaves me cold because I feel absolutely no connection to that world. I am Jewish, and perhaps it’s because of this that whenever I hear church music, I feel an instinctual urge to get away from there as far as possible. Unlike much other spiritual music I have encountered on this process, whether it’s the Islamic qawwali music of Pakistan, Ravi Shankar’s Chants of India which draws on Hindu chants, or indeed music drawn from the Jewish tradition, this album does leave me rather cold.
That said, of all the many albums of purely Christian music I have listened to, this was my favourite. Partially because it is very short, but also because the vocal talent on display is certainly impressive, as one would expect for the choir of the Sistine Chapel, one of the most breathtakingly beautiful places I have ever had the privilege to see. I am able to admire this album for technical skill, and some of it is rather stunning, but in terms of spirituality, I’m left unmoved. Perhaps for Catholics it has more resonance and beauty, but for me, I didn’t feel that. It is, however, good for what it is.