Last Friday, June 29 was the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul. Pope Benedict XVI celebrated Mass at the Vatican and presented the Pallium to Archbishops from around the world, including a few from the United States. At an event and on a feast so important to one of the great marks of the Catholic Church, our apostolicity, the choir of the Anglican Westminster Cathedral sang:
Westminster Abbey’s Choir sang for Pope Benedict XVI, with the Cappella Musicale Pontificia ‘Sistina’, the Sistine Chapel Choir, at the Papal Mass marking the Solemnity of St Peter and St Paul in St Peter’s Basilica, Rome, on Friday 29th June, a historic occasion of great significance for Anglican-Catholic relations.
The service was broadcast live across the world and was the first time in its 500-year history that the Sistine Chapel Choir had sung alongside another choir during a service.
The Abbey Choir was invited to Rome by Pope Benedict XVI, following his visit to the UK in September 2010, during which he attended an ecumenical service of Evening Prayer at Westminster Abbey. This reciprocal visit is a further fruit of the Pope’s visit to Great Britain and is a powerful symbol of the communion already achieved between the Anglican and Catholic churches.
The Dean of Westminster, The Very Reverend Dr John Hall said: ‘It is not hard to detect behind this invitation from His Holiness a papal project to restore some of the Church’s musical tradition to the liturgy. The experience of participating in these liturgies in Rome has enriched the Abbey and its Choir and the Anglican tradition of worship.’
The Papal Mass is an important annual liturgy presided over by Pope Benedict XVI, during which the Pallium (an ecclesiastical vestment symbolising Papal authority) is imposed on new Metropolitan Archbishops from around the world.
The evening before, the Sistine Chapel Choir and the Westminster Abbey Choir performed a concert:
Both choirs began by singing Palestrina’s Tu es Petrus and Magnificat.
The Abbey choir then sang O Clap Your Hands (Gibbons), Hear My Prayer (Purcell), I Love The Lord (John Harvey), Hymn to the Mother of God (Tavener), and Laudibus in Sanctis (Byrd).
The Sistine Chapel Choir sang Tu es Petrus (Mawby). This was the first piece of Anglican music the Sistine choir has ever sung and the composer, Colin Mawby, was in the audience. Both choirs then sang Palestrina’s Credo.
The concert was attended by Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, SDB, Cardinal Secretary of State to His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI, who said afterwards that the concert was ‘a tangible sign of our will to walk side by side.’
Even the Associated Press noticed this effort of Pope Benedict XVI to use culture as a means of finding something in common between the Catholic Church and the Church of England:
Benedict himself was behind the decision to invite Westminster to Rome, so awed by the quality of the choirboys when they sang for him at Westminster Abbey during his September 2010 visit. He specifically asked that the choirs be united as one, rather than alternate during the performance as is commonly done, said the Very Rev. John Hall, dean of Westminster Abbey.
Palombella, the Sistine choirmaster, jumped at the chance, eager to open up his choir to outside influences and shed the Sistine's reputation as a historical relic closed to innovation.
"These meetings are good for both Sistine and Westminster," he said in an interview. "Because it makes us learn the precision and detail of the English choirs, and it makes the English learn the warmth and intensity that the Italian choir has."
We can be certain that Pope Benedict XVI as a musician knew the challenge and the opportunity this tremendous musical collaboration entails. This blog posts several excerpts from the Mass last Friday. The Catholic Westminster Cathedral Choir in London also specializes in Palestrina's music and has recorded his Tu Es Petrus Mass.