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New Music and the Catholic Church

A few weeks ago, I wrote about a concert of music by Karlheinz Stockhausen in Milan (Stockhausen Rising in Milan, May 10). Pierre Gervasoni wrote an article for Le Monde about the event, which was part of an innovative arts festival at Milan Cathedral:

Who is responsible for bringing Stockhausen to Milan? Pierre Gervasoni describes Don Luigi Garbini, a 37-year-old priest resident at San Marco, as the director of the Laboratory of Contemporary Music in the Service of the Liturgy, which secured money from a Milanese bank to commission the work, along with a Bill T. Jones dance performance (to the Chaconne from Bach's D minor partita, played by violinist Nurit Pacht: see some pictures with this article) and a Shirin Neshat video, for Pause 2005, an interdisciplinary spiritual festival in Milan Cathedral. Pierre Gervasoni interviewed Don Luigi (Trois questions à Don Luigi Garbini, May 8) for Le Monde. As he tells it, the priest read Pope John Paul II's 1999 letter to artists and had the idea to invite a number of composers to consider the question of the liturgy. Since then he has awarded 25 commissions, from composers including Goffredo Petrassi, Henri Pousseur, Franco Donatoni, Luca Francesconi, Yan Maresz, Luis de Pablo, and Ennio Morricone. In fact, Stockhausen was in Milan last year, too, along with a Mark Wallinger video with music by Suzanne Vega and Oscar Wilde readings; Bill Viola's Departing Angel and Emergence (with the music by Stockhausen).
Well, Pierre Gervasoni is back with another article (Don Luigi Garbini, virtuose de Dieu, June 8) for Le Monde, a portrait of Don Luigi, which I think you might find interesting. Here are a few excerpts for you to chew on (my translation):
Will May 5, 2005, become a pivotal date in music history? We could think so, because that Ascension Thursday saw the creation, in Milan Cathedral, of a visionary work by Karlheinz Stockhausen, the only representative of the 1950s avant-garde who has never ceased to be innovative. With Ora Prima (First hour), a section of Klang (Sound), a cycle of pieces corresponding to the 24 hours of day, the German composer (b. 1928) not only propelled music into a new era, he also drew in his wake 2,500 listeners, an exceptional number in the world of contemporary music. [...]

There we were, in the middle of a conversation with Fr. Garbini on a bench in the monumental Duomo of Milan, when a local television reporter approached and launched a "Don Luigi?" full of recognition in the direction of this special reporter for Le Monde. We don't want to know which of the two of us is more right for the part, but you will surely understand that a young long-haired man wearing glasses à la John Lennon, a black shirt, and silvery tennis shoes [see his picture] would not immediately be recognized as the musical advisor of the Diocese of Milan.

This adopted Milanese explains that, first of all, he was lucky to be appointed in a parish with an exalted musical past. The church of San Marco, where Verdi's Requieum was premiered in 1874, became an important location for sacred music in which well-known conductors like Claudio Abbado and Riccardo Muti have given concerts. Even before arriving there, in 1998, Don Luigi found great support in Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini: "It was he who asked me to examine the use of music in the churches of the diocese," says the founder of the Laboratory of Contemporary Music in the Service of the Liturgy (LmcsL). A musician by training, Don Luigi had not at all abandoned his contact with the muse when he entered the seminary.
He was an organist and had close family ties with the composer who founded the Laboratory with him. He also claims that the room where he lives at San Marco is "without doubt the one that Mozart occupied in 1770 for four months when he went to Bologna to study with Padre Martini."

What interests me, in particular, is that Don Luigi represents what may have become of the Vatican if the reformist camp of cardinals had been able to win a majority in the recent conclave. Don Luigi's boss, the man who ordained him a priest, is the Archbishop Emeritus of Milan, Carlo Maria Martini, who was one of leading "left-wing" cardinals widely considered papabile. If he had been elected instead of Benedict XVI, would Stockhausen have composed a setting of Tu es Petrus for the new pope's coronation? Would we have had a Missa Electronica from Henri Pousseur? A Magnificat Concrète by Pierre Henry? The possibilities are endless.

I am not as troubled as Alex Ross by the musical tastes of the new pope, because I think Gregorian chant and the polyphonic heritage of the Catholic Church are historical treasures that have been allowed to fall largely into obscurity and disuse. Catholics travel from around the world to see the great examples of Catholic art history in Rome, but what do they sing and hear when they go there, or anywhere else for that matter? As we remarked time after time on our recording trip to Rome, people sing the same derivative folk music crap in St. Peter's, San Paolo, the Lateran, wherever, without any sense of shame. Palestrina is the musical counterpart of Michelangelo, so why would you be content with something like Pescador de Hombres (.PDF file): in whatever language you sing it (and we heard it sung in many of them over the course of several days in Rome), it's still jejune. Yes, I know, it was one of the former pope's favorite tunes, but I really find it unspeakably vulgar, at least in the context of the marvelous edifice of St. Peter's, built and decorated by artists like Michelangelo, Bramante, Maderna, and Bernini.

As it turns out, the other side would have probably had its own interest, too, if Don Luigi had gone to Rome with Cardinal Martini, to advise on the future of liturgical music. Thank God, neither side appears to favor Pescador de Hombres.

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