Composing for the Pope: A Church Music Primer Throughout history, the papacy has been a powerful patron of music, from Gregorian chant to modern Masses. Historian Robert Greenberg notes that much of the finest music has come from composers associated with the Sistine Chapel.

Composing for the Pope: A Church Music Primer

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With its prestige, wealth and power, the papacy almost from the beginning has been a major patron of music. The huge body of unaccompanied sacred melody known as Gregorian chant was after all named in honor of Pope, and later saint, Gregory I. He was born around 540 and reigned as Pope from 590 until his death in 604.

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But the golden age of papal musical patronage arrived during the 1400s, with the construction of the Sistine Chapel and the creation of the Sistine Chapel Chorus.

Our classical music commentator Robert Greenberg has returned to give us a papal music lesson. Welcome back.

Mr. ROBERT GREENBERG (Classical Music Commentator): Oh, it's great to be here.

HANSEN: Start with a small tourist guide, a primmer, about the Sistine Chapel itself.

Mr. GREENBERG: Well, it was built between 1473 and 1484 under the papacy of Pope Sixtus IV, for whom Sistine is named. It has really one of the famous, most famous, oldest and best choirs in all of Christendom.

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HANSEN: Tell us more about the choir itself. Were there boys singing for temple?

Mr. GREENBERG: No. the choir, as originally formed - and now we're talking about the late 1400s - consisted of singers, all men. So you have four parts — soprano, alto, tenor and bass — so six singers per part. The alto and soprano, the high voices, were either sung by men who could sing in their falsetto range or those poor unfortunates who were surgically snipped in order to keep their voices in the upper range. In the end of the 1800s, the 19th century, boys were introduced to the choir.

But at this time it was all men, and it remains all male I would say.

HANSEN: For music, though, it was just voices? No organ, no other instruments?

Mr. GREENBERG: The Catholic view of proper music in church is that only through singing can one communicate properly with God. And anything that interrupts this relationship, be it instruments or dance or anything lascivious is verboten. So the ideal church music, according to Catholic liturgical tradition, is unaccompanied voice singing directly from the heart of the singer to the ear of God.

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HANSEN: This sounds like the greatest musical gig you could get in Christendom to be in this choir or even compose music for the choir.

Mr. GREENBERG: Yeah, it really was a wonderful job with all kinds of perks. The main problem always was one had to celibate in order to see in the choir, which removes at least two-thirds of the reason to be alive. So, you know, I guess there were compensatory factors that made up for that.

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HANSEN: Tell us about some of the composers because apparently two of the greatest composers in Western music history were closely associated with the Papal Choir

Mr. GREENBERG: Oh yeah. Josquin Desprez - a name that should be well-known today, but unfortunately he is not because he lived and died a long time ago -was born around 1450 and died in 1521. Really the greatest composer of his day of the mid-Renaissance.

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Mr. GREENBERG: Josquin Desprez actually sang in the Papal choir between 1489 and 1495, and, you know, without a doubt the music that Josquin sang as a member of the Papal choir conditioned his religious compositions, among which are some 15 or so settings of the mass, which are some of the most brilliantly crafted and knee-weakeningly beautiful compositions ever created."

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HANSEN: It is stunning music. I mean, you could hear it resonating even today, you know, in many basilicas and cathedrals across the country. So if Josquin Desprez was one of the two, who is the other papal composer?

Mr. GREENBERG: Well, the other was Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, born around 1525; died in 1594. He was born near Rome in the city of Palestrina. And it was in Rome that he lived his life and his entire career.

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Mr. GREENBERG: He composed, by the way, 104 masses. That means he set the same words to music, to different music 104 times. Palestrina was a faithful servant to the church. He wasn't a priest - he was married a couple of times - and because of his first marriage he had to give us his position in the Sistine Choir because he was no longer celibate. But he could still compose for the choir.

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Mr. GREENBERG: And it's during that period of time, the late 16th century, that he served no fewer than ten different popes as composer from Julius III to Clement VIII. That's a lot of popes.

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HANSEN: At one point in the church's history did Palestrina become popular?

Mr. GREENBERG: It was in 1517 that Martin Luther nailed his thesis on the church door in Wittenberg(ph) and inadvertently began what began the Protestant reformation. Well, one of the many official reactions of the Rome-based church was something called the Council of Trent, which was a task force that met for 20 years in the city of Trent, to try to figure out where we went wrong and to expose the laxities and abuses that led to the reformation.

And this period of time is referred to as the counter-reformation and among the very many things the council of Trent made statements about. They made statements about music. They felt music in the church had become too humanistic in this great age of humanism. They felt it had become too personally expressive, too complex. You couldn't hear the words clearly.

And their recommendations on music would have almost de facto brought back Gregorian chant and replaced this wonderful compositional language that had developed over the previous centuries.

And thus, inadvertently or advertently, Palestrina is credited with rescuing this great tradition of composed Catholic church music.

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HANSEN: It's hard not to mention sacred music, papal music, church music, without mentioning Wolfgang Mozart.

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Mr. GREENBERG: Well, of course, Mozart composed some magnificent religious music. He was raised Catholic and he took his religion seriously. But one of the great stories has nothing to do with Mozart's own compositions but rather something that he did while he was just a teenager at 14 years old.

The story goes this way: he's in Italy with his father doing his famous Italian tours. And while he's in Rome in 1770 he got to hear a piece called "Miserere" by a composer named Gregorio Allegri. Now, this piece, this "Miserere" is a fairly lengthy 12- to 13-minutes-long piece composed in five parts with a nine part finale. And it was considered the exclusive property of the Sistine Chapel.

Indeed the Vatican had gone so far as to forbid its publication and threatened anyone who tried to disseminate it with ex-communication.

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Mr. GREENBERG: Well, in 1770 the 14-year-old Mozart heard the piece performed in the Sistine Chapel twice, after which he wrote it down from memory. Now, rather than be punished for this Mozart's feat caused a huge sensation. Even the Pope heard about it and was knocked out when he heard about it.

The following year, unfortunately for the Vatican in 1771, the music publisher and historian, Dr. Charles Burney in London, got hold of Mozart's transcription and, well, they're Anglican in England so Burney wasn't worried about ex-communication. He published it. And Mozart is therefore given credit for the first bootleg composition that has been taken and published outside of its original venue.

HANSEN: Oh, fascinating. Music Historian Robert Greenberg. He's with San Francisco Performances in the Teaching Company, which markets recorded lectures in the arts and sciences and he joined us from member station KQED in San Francisco. Thanks so much.

Mr. GREENBERG: My great pleasure.

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HANSEN: This is NPR's WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.

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