The Transformation of Music at St. Peter's

By Tucker, Jeffrey | Sacred Music, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview
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The Transformation of Music at St. Peter's

Tucker, Jeffrey, Sacred Music

It was my pleasure to enjoy a long chat with Fr. Pierre Paul, director of music at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. In a time of transition for Catholic Church--toward solemnity, chant, and the propers of the Mass--Fr. Paul has been leading the push at the Vatican to be an example to the entire world of excellence and solemnity in sacred music.

His choir sings Sunday Mass and Vespers (but is not usually the choir heard at televised papal Masses). He has held this position since 2008, having been director at the North American College. After leaving that position, he came back to home in Trois-Rivieres, Quebec, only to be called back to head the music program at St. Peter's under the guidance of Benedict XVI.

Since then, he has embarked on a spectacular program that amounts to the musical application of the principle of the hermeneutic of continuity: What was holy then is holy now. He has infused the entire program at the Vatican with a new love of the distinct qualities of liturgical music, and thereby embracing the program legislated by the Second Vatican Council and taking seriously the call for Gregorian chant to assume the primary role in liturgy.

This has meant, in the first instance, and above all else, using Gregorian ordinary settings for all Masses. For ordinary time, he is using Mass XI (Orbis Factor). For Advent and Lent he is using Mass XVII (Kyrie Salve), switching out the Kyrie for respective seasons.

For Easter, he chooses Mass I (Lux et Origo), along with Mass IV (Cunctipotens Genitor Deus) for feasts of the Apostles. He also uses Credo I, III, and IV, and, periodically, the whole of Mass IX (Cum Jubilo). He is trying minimize the use of Mass of the Angels, though it is still programmed for large international Masses since this is the one that most people know.

These are all huge advances, and he is thrilled to hear that people are singing with gusto! Actually, people are singing as never before. He is careful to print large booklets for every Mass with translations. He is dedicated to making sure that he does not use modern notation in the booklets. He believes in neumes, the notation of the church, because he regards them as easier to sing than modern notes and because they convey the sense that the music of the church is different from other forms of music.

Following the phonecall, he was kind enough to send along copies of the seasonal booklets that he has put together and which are printed by the Vatican. The typesetting is outstanding and they are easy to follow, especially given the complexities of providing the text in Latin, English, Spanish, Italian, and German.

The biggest advances have been made in the area of propers, which had long been displaced by hymns that are extraneous to the Mass. The introit of the day is sung at every Mass as the celebrant approaches the altar, following a hymn or organ solo. The communion chant is always sung with psalms from the Richard Rice editions posted at These are major steps toward a restoration of a very early practice for papal Masses.

CMAA members need to take special note of this: the website of the organization has become a primary source of music for the Vatican.

The offertory chant is also sung periodically and increasingly so as more and more singers can handle the material. For the psalm, St. Peter's is alternating the use the of the gradual from the Graduale Romanum and the simpler psalms from the Graduale Simplex.

Just now, the choirs are moving into the polyphonic repertoire of the masters of the Italian Renaissance, such as Palestrina and Victoria, and will be increasingly exploring polyphonic propers along with new compositions.

Other major changes made by Fr. Paul include instituting rehearsals on Wednesday nights. Yes, you read that right.

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