08 February 2008

Those, erm, Robust Roman Choirs

In case any of you are wondering whether the rather distinctive sound of Roman choirs that so many of us have come to dread in television broadcasts (or live, if you're luckier than me) of Papal Masses is a recent phenomenon, I can assure you that it is at least a hundred years old.

In The Musical Times of July 1, 1893, a reader writes in describing the performance of Palestrina's music in Rome:

"During a stay of some weeks last year in Rome I had several opportunities of hearing the traditional method [of rendering Palestrina's music] at St. Peter's and St. John Lateran, and I am not sure that it would commend itself to an English audience. The choirs, consisting of from twelve to fifteen voices, sang fortissimo throughout, and the organ was played from beginning to end so loudly that the voices were scarcely heard, and no variation of tone was introduced. During Lent, however, the organ was silent, and the choirs sang with excellent precision, attack, and intonation; but the constant fortissimo seemed somewhat monotonous."

The author of that article preferred the performance of Palestrina heard in Germany.

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