The Sistine Chapel Choir performing scared music at their sold-out Toronto concert at St. Michael's Cathedral on Sept. 26. Photo by Emanuel Pires

Sistine Choir strikes right chord in Canada

  • October 3, 2017
The papacy has been a major patron of music for more than 1,500 years, inviting master musicians to compose masterpieces for its liturgical celebrations. Now for first time it has taken its act to Canada.

The Sistine Chapel Choir, also known as the Pope’s choir, has just finished its first ever visit to Canada as part of a world tour.  The choir, comprising 30 boys and 22 men, performed at St. Michael’s Cathedral Basilica in Toronto Sept. 26 and in Québec City Sept. 28 at Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica. 

“The demand for tickets was just completely over the top,” said Stephen Handrigan, the director of Toronto’s St. Michael’s Choir School. 

“It sold out faster than a Drake concert. I mean, within minutes all the tickets were gone.”

A full house of 1,200 came to hear the choir’s ancient repertoire, originally meant to be sung beneath the frescoes of Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel, fill the renovated St. Michael’s Cathedral. 

“It’s certainly, for us, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to have them in our cathedral,” said Handrigan.

Sistine choir director Msgr. Massimo Palombella said this is exactly the intention of the choir’s 70-day world tour. The choir’s mission, he said, is to bring the music beyond the natural setting of the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. This year, the choir has visited Germany, South Korea, Malta, the United States and several cities in Italy.

“This music is meant to dialogue with the culture,” said Palombella, appointed director of the Sistine Chapel Choir by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010. 

“We have to try to present and give this music to the man of today, to the woman of today, and allow them to understand the spirituality and the sense of God in this music.”

Palombella said as the Sistine Chapel Choir rediscovers the traditions of the Church’s sacred music, the choir must also bring this mission to other choirs around the world. As part of its concert tours, the Sistine choir meets with local choirs to explore their shared mission to preserve sacred music. 

During the world-renowned choir’s visit to Toronto, the St. Michael’s Choir School played host. In addition to musical discussions, the two choirs toured the CN tower and Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada, before returning to the school to enjoy a quiet lunch. 

“There was a lot of pressure, I guess, on our shoulders to make sure we had a good impression,” said Joseph Nguyen, Grade 12 student and senior choir member at St. Michael’s Choir School. “Meeting them was kind of like meeting yourself from another timeline... They have a different experience, but it was really similar to what we have also.”

Handrigan said it is important for boys at St. Mike’s to have role models like the Sistine Chapel Choir to encourage their own work. The St. Mike’s choir has only existed for 80 years compared to Sistine’s 1,500 years, but Handrigan believes they can uphold the same quality as its Italian cousin.

The St. Michael’s Choir opened the Sept. 26 concert with its own repertoire, beginning with Richard Dering’s Factum Est Silentium in honour of the school and the archdiocese’s patron, St. Michael the Archangel. The concert was also an inaugural launch of a nine-concert series the choir has planned for the school year. 

In Québec City, the Sistine Chapel Choir met with La Maîtrise des Petits chanteurs de Québec the day before the concert. The choirs sang for each other and bonded over dinner. Before the concert, the Sistine choir also toured Old Québec City and Île d’Orléans. 

“You really feel it’s sacred music. You don’t feel it’s lay music,” said François Mivilles-Deschênes, communications director at Notre-Dame de Québec. 

“There’s something difficult to describe the magic of maestro and the choir to bring us all the Heaven with them.”

The Québec Cathedral also welcomed more than 1,000 people to the concert, including Cardinal Gérald Lacroix, Lt. Gov. J. Michel Doyon and Québec City mayor Régis Labeaume.

One of the most noted pieces performed by the Sistine Chapel Choir was Gregorio Allegri’s Miserere mei, Deus, a setting of Psalm 51. This classical piece of music was commissioned by Pope Urban VIII in the 1630s as part of the exclusive Tenebrae services at the Sistine Chapel during Holy Week. 

For many years, the Vatican refused to release a copy of the sheet music and it was forbidden to transcribe the piece. But in 1770, a 14-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart heard the piece while visiting Rome to attend a Holy Wednesday service at the Sistine Chapel. Later that day, he transcribed the piece entirely from memory.

A year later, Mozart gave his transcription to English music historian Charles Bruney, who published it. Instead of excommunicating the young prodigy, Pope Clement XVI praised Mozart for his genius and lifted the ban. 

Other master musicians have since transcribed Allegri’s Miserere, including Felix Mendelssohn in 1831 and Franz Liszt in 1859. The piece has become one of the most popular choral works now performed.

As Sistine’s choir director, Palombella believes he has a duty to revive Allegri’s original work, along with many others from the old repertoire. He visited the Vatican Archives to study the original manuscripts. 

“I see this as the specific work of the maestro of the Sistine Chapel,” said Palombella. 

“It is only in studying the manuscripts, in studying the sources, we can try and experiment and rediscover the pertinence of this old repertoire.”

This story has been corrected. Pope Urban VIII commissioned The Miserere, not Pope Urban VI. 

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