Sunday, 21 December 2008

4. The Blessed Sacrament Chapel

The chapel of the Blessed Sacrament is located half way up the nave of St Peter's, on the right. It is a particularly splendid chapel where, I am told, until the reign of Pope John Paul II, the Blessed Sacrament was only reserved during a Papal Mass for the purpose of the Pope visiting it before celebration. In the Extraordinary Form, a bishop visiting a Church always goes first to visit the Blessed Sacrament, almost before he does anything else. Now, I am pleased to write, the Lord stays there all the time, often exposed, and it may be visited only by those intending to pray. You'll see Pope John blessing to right and left as he goes in, and the bystanders kneeling to receive the blessing. This blessing-while-processing is another episcopal custom that has, by and large, been dropped in this country, though I remember Cardinal Hume doing it. It is still a part of the rite of the consecration of a bishop that, once the mitre is on, he does a sort of a lap of honour of the cathedral, blessing as he goes.
Anyway, the Holy Father has got off the sedia and walks into the chapel to kneel in front of the Blessed Sacrament—Peter before Christ, which is why, no doubt, the Sistine Choir massacre Perosi's setting of Tu es Petrus: thou art Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.
You will see just how huge the manta is when Mgr Dante, the papal master of ceremonies, drapes it over the faldstool at which the pope kneels. The Holy Father is not allowed long to pray; before long Mgr Dante is tugging at the manta —come on, come on; that's enough praying!.
Though of course there may be another explanation. The Sistine Choir have, let us say, a unique sound. They get the notes right, more or less, but the singers (who often moonlight as chorus in the Rome opera) are chosen not for their melodious voices, but for their sheer prodigious lungpower. Not so much bel canto as can belto. Things have not changed; indeed, I think the Sistine Shriekers have, if anything, got worse. I remember watching the plumbing-in of Pope Benedict and seeing the Sistine Shriekers shrieking from the atrium of St Peter's basilica. They were singing the Sanctus, and were looking every which way, but not at the conductor, who was ineffectually whirling his arms round and round, the only musical direction being, seemingly 'louder! louder! louder!' Curiously, they are rather proud of what they are pleased to call their style; Mgr Domenico Bartolucci, who was conducting at this coronation and extraordinarily was still in office until disgracefully sacked in 1997 (disgracefully, I mean, by the manner in which it was done; it would be hard to fault it as a musical decision), well, old Bartolucci would vigorously defend the mode of singing, each singer making what he will of the music without regard to the overall sound, saying that this was the tradition in the choir. Well, it's time it wasn't, is all I can say.
Bartolucci's predecessor was Lorenzo Perosi, who wrote this setting of Tu es Petrus. He held the job from 1898 (when there was still at least one castrato in the choir) until his death in 1956. This means that for a hundred years, the Sistine was in the 'care' of only two men. In the early 1920s Perosi briefly went nuts—one manifestation of this was held to be the fact that he kept trying to become a Protestant. Bartolucci didn't have much time for Perosi, actually, saying that it was he who was responsible for the decline in Church music.
At 1.54 for a few seconds, Cardinal Yoda from Star Wars you can see.