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Papal Pop and Circumstance

Entrusting the USA to its patroness, Mary Immaculate, then offering one final “God Bless America,” Pope Francis launched heavenward from Philadelphia on his Alitalia jet nearly two weeks ago. The diverse music that graced and glorified his visit echoes still.

Like his German predecessor, Benedict XVI, the Argentinian Francis I loves music. He took piano lessons in Buenos Aires from Borges’ secretary and his favorite repertoire is unapologetically highbrow and decidedly catholic with a small “c”. In an interview published last month in the national Jesuit magazine America, the pontiff placed the Et incarnatus est from Mozart’s C Minor Mass alongside the arch-Lutheran Erbarme dich from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion atop his list of favorites. Francis also acknowledged a fondness for the Romantic bombast of Wagner’s Ring in the 1950 recording by Furtwängler from La Scala and for Knappertsbusch’s Parsifal from 1962. Complementing his affection for the human voice is his devotion to Clara Haskil’s mid-twentieth-century interpretations of Mozart’s piano sonatas.

These are all performances from Francis’s youth, that period when music, especially as listened to from beloved records played countless times, permanently molds one’s personality and morals.

In spite of lofty pronouncements about the divinity of art from the Prada Pope—and by this Benedict meant “high” art—few would contest that Catholic music with a big “C” has been in steep decline since the reforms of the Second Vatican Council convened the same year as Knappertsbusch’s Parsifal and soon after the young Jorge Mario Bergoglio had become a Jesuit, albeit one who loved Bach and Wagner.

A vociferous few, diminishing in number with each passing year, are convinced that the liturgical innovations of Vatican II destroyed Catholic church music: allowing groovy guitars and tambourines into the mass was like slapping the smiley face on Michelangelo’s bearded God on the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

Papal music back in the good old days of the renaissance strove for goals as lofty as those achieved by those famed frescoes. The art-loving Medici pope, Leo X was himself a fine singer possessed of an excellent ear, who cherished, for example, Josquin des Prez’s music; his Missae de Beata Virgine was assembled around 1510 just as Michelangelo was laboring in the Sistine Chapel. The manuscript is a treasure of the Vatican, both a visual  and an aural work of art.

That these venerable traditions have not been fully eroded was evident when, little more than hour after arriving in New York City, Francis entered St. Patrick’s Cathedral for evening prayer on September 24th to the sounds of Palestrina’s six-voice motet Tu es petrus. Perhaps the cathedral choir did not match the skill of the singers of the Vatican’s Capella Giuliana back in the sixteenth century under the direction of Palestrina himself, lionized in his own time and long after as the Prince of Music. Still, this pontifical motet was undeniably the real thing.

The day before in Washington, DC at the mass celebrating the controversial canonization of Junipero Serra, the pope processed into the oversized National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception to Maurice Duruflé’s Tu es petrus composed in 1960; Benedict XVI had bestrode the same aisle and altar to this Duruflé’s motet on his visit to DC in 2008.  Here was proof that on the cusp of Vatican II the Catholic church had nurtured half-a-millennium of sublime polyphony. When the regal majesty of the pontiff must be projected such music serves its purpose to this day.

But when it came to lofting upward the colonizing cleric, Junipero Serra, to join the angels and archangels at that first American mass celebrated by Francis something more modern and multicultural was required, like the spirited take on the 63rd Psalm by the Minnesotan composer-performer of Mexican and Cherokee extraction, Donna Peña. While this may seem a breach of decorum by the aging old guard, it should be remembered that even the apparently untouchable masterpieces of the above-mentioned Josquin were fooled around with and self-indulgently ornamented by singers, practices the composer himself decried as disrespectful. Even at the Vatican, Palestrina’s masterpieces were jazzed up with the backing of a rhythm section (known then as continuo) and performerly decoration when the renaissance rolled over into the baroque. More scandalously still, Gregorio Allegri’s Miserere, held to be the most sacrosanct of papal musical treasures, was a vehicle for fabulous distortions.

Thus Peña’s strum-fest can be heard to continue these historical trajectories: it has antecedents, albeit demure by comparison. Her psalm gleefully forsakes artifice for repetitive, dance-till-you-drop ebullience. Serra, the first person ever to be canonized on American soil, jammed and jimmied his way to his seat among the saints. The message of the DC mass is that he’s standing on that chair and shaking his booty even now!

Maintaining any artistic standard or modicum of taste gets much more difficult once the churchmen leave the cathedrals of the faithful for the arenas of the masses, like a Roman emperor hastening from the Temple of Augustus to his box at the Circus Maximus. Here especially, entertainment-value supersedes aesthetic consideration.

Before Francis proceeded down the Madison Square Garden aisle in his motorized chariot to celebrate mass in this act for sports and celebrity acts (Billy Joel had graciously ceded his Friday night spot to his fellow entertainers, both sacred and secular), two hours were given over to a “prelude concert” with the likes of Harry Connick, Jr., Gloria Estafan, and Jennifer Hudson warming up the stage for the pontiff. Connick’s rough and stubbled version of the Protestant hymn How Great Thou Art, arms outstretched in Las Vegas pose, was difficult to take seriously as religious music.

Jennifer Hudson delivered her Hallelujah beneath an illuminated crucifix that hung over the stage like a scoreboard with product placement. Her offering was suffocatingly sugary, the star’s oozings mingled with the unction provided by a trio of back-up singers, canned violin supplications, and a keyboard accompanist’s exceedingly tender anointings of a very white piano. The result made for the perfect background music in a Catholic souvenir shop, even the one at the Vatican itself where I bought my prized “POPEner”—a bottle opener with a relief of John Paul II on one side and Michelangelo’s Pietà on the other—at Eastertide 2005, as Wojtytla lay on his death-bed not far away.

After the stars were down basking in a pre-glow of pontifical sanctity at Madison Square Garden, the papal tour organizers gave some space to the greatest catholic showman of the nineteenth century. That master of the Grand Opera and rabidly pious Charles Gounod’s Hymnus Pontificius—the national anthem of the Vatican—marked the entrance of the pope and confirmed what all knew: that the church and theatre are all about spectacle, especially when devotions are staged in a place like Madison Square Garden. Gounod’s grandiosity was then miraculously topped by that of Michael Valenti’s “Processional for a Pontiff,” composed for the New York visit of John Paul II in 1995 and resuscitated into high-stepping form for Francis. Thankfully, strains of this ersatz Broadway Blockbuster Overture did not move Francis to rise from his golf cart and start kicking, Rockette-style, towards the altar. Valenti makes Gounod sound like the very definition of well-judged taste.

It is plain to see and hear in all this that even if the music-loving Francis can say the right thing about the death penalty and the environment in his speeches and sermons, he has little control over the papal show. Perhaps back home in the Vatican he can put on some Bach or Mozart and ask his own better musical self for forgiveness.

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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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