Pope lets record team into the Sistine Chapel

The choir is all-male. The producer was Anna Barry. Small sign of progress.

Press release below:

sistine chapel

For the first time ever, the Vatican has opened the doors of the iconic Sistine Chapel for a studio recording with the Sistine Chapel Choir – the world’s oldest choir. The landmark new album, Cantate Domino, captures the sounds of this extraordinary acoustic, with music performed by the Pope’s own choir. It will be released on Deutsche Grammophon on 25 September.

The album, which was made by special permission of the Vatican, includes music written for the Sistine Chapel Choir by Palestrina, Lassus and Victoria during the Renaissance. There are also two pieces of Gregorian chant, alongside a world-premiere recording of the original version of Allegri’s fabled Miserere (Sistine Codex of 1661) and a Nunc dimittis attributed to Palestrina which is still used during Papal celebrations. Cantate Domino offers listeners the chance to hear these pieces as the composers intended – in Latin and in the surroundings for which they were originally written.

In order to capture the magic, mystery and beauty of this centuries-old music in such unique surroundings, Deutsche Grammophon set up a specially constructed studio within the Chapel. The mixing desk was set up in an ante-chamber, next to the “Sala del Pianto” (where the newly elected cardinal is first dressed as Pope). Grammy-nominated producer Anna Barry described it as an “overwhelming privilege” to be among Michelangelo’s frescoes in the building which is home to the Papal conclaves. The recording sessions were attended by dignitaries from the world of music and of the Vatican including Cecilia Bartoli, Roberto Gabbiani and the Secretary for the Relations with States.

The Sistine Chapel Choir is made up of 20 adult singers and 30 boy choristers. Among the singers are British baritone Mark Spyropoulos, who is the first British full-time member of the choir. The choir is directed by Massimo Palombella, who was appointed to the role five years ago by Pope Benedict. “The music we have recorded was created for Papal celebrations in the Sistine Chapel and by composers who wrote specifically for the Sistine Chapel Choir,” said Monsignor Palombella. “The Sistine Chapel was consecrated in 1483 and has been home to the Papal choir ever since. After an intensive period of study and scholarship of the sacred music in the Renaissance and its aesthetic pertinence, we have arrived at the point of making the first commercial recording, in this remarkable building, with this prestigious label. It is my hope that these masterworks will touch millions of listeners worldwide, and connect them to the historical culture and deep spirituality of the Catholic Church.”

“This extraordinary choir, which has served successive popes since the early centuries of Christianity, has never before made a commercial recording in its home,” said Mark Wilkinson, President of Deutsche Grammophon. “This very special record has the power, the beauty, and the excellence to find a truly global audience ‒ and an audience beyond the traditional confines and boundaries of classical music.”

Cantate Domino will be officially launched in September during a press conference held in Vatican City, and in advance of Pope Francis’ historic visit to the USA during that month.  His Holiness will receive the very first copy.

The release of Cantate Domino stands as a prelude to the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, a Holy Year decreed by Pope Francis, and which begins in December. During the last Holy Year in 2000, 25 million pilgrims visited Rome and the Vatican.

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  • What does “small sign of progress” mean? How is a female producer better than a male producer? Are you advising the Vatican how to run their choir?

  • I was under the impression that the famous Alessandro Moreschi recordings made by Fred Gaisberg in 1902 and 1904 were also of the Sistine Chapel Choir. Is that incorrect?

    • Yes, but they weren’t made in the chapel. BTW the fact that the Sistine choir is on some of those tracks must surely mean that Moreschi wasn’t the only castrato to make recordings 🙂

  • The few times I’ve heard the Sistine Chapel Choir in broadcasts over the years, they’ve been awful. Raw sound, terrible blend, sloppy rhythm.

    One can only hope they’ve improved. Even so, I note that the 50 singers they have now is more than twice as many as the choir (then all adults) had during its Renaissance glory days,

    • Have a listen to the video. There’s been a regime change recently in the Sistina, and from what I can hear the choir is not quite as bad as it used to be.

  • What about the 1902 recordings of the Sistine Chapel Choir with Alessandro Moreschi, the only castrato to make recordings. Even Pope Leo had his speaking voice recorded back then…

  • Christopher Robson Strictly speaking, this is not the first studio recording made in the Sistine Chapel. At the end of May/beginning of June 1980 the William Byrd Choir (a professional choir) went to Rome and recorded the Palestrina Missae Papae Marcelli and other music (in a liturgical context) in the Sistine Chapel during a 4 day period. The conductor was Gavin Turner and the recording producer (and music editor) was Hugh Keyte.
    The analogue recording was later digitally remastered by the BBC and broadcast on the 31st December 1984. The BBC released the recording as a commercial CD in 1985 on their own label (BBC Records – BBC CD572).
    So this new disc is probably only the first recording by the Sistine Chapel Choir in the Sistine Chapel.

    • Incidentally, the Palestrina mass itself was recorded with the choirs singing from the choir gallery, and the celebrant and plainsong choir was recorded from the altar. The liturgy, music and plainchant was a reconstruction of the Tridentine Rite for the Pontifical High Mass of St. Sylvester of 31st December 1613 (liturgical reconstruction by Jerome Roche).

      • Just another little addition: the soprano lines in the Palestrina mass were sung by 4 countertenors – me, Christopher Royall, Michael Chance and (I think, because I can’t quite remember, more than 35 years ago already) either David James or Ashley Stafford.

        • Hi Chris. It was Ashley. I know this because it’s come up in my current research on the Allegri, and I’ve been talking to Gavin and Sally about it. I’d like to talk to you too. How do I contact you ?

    • That was a damn fine record!

      Years ago I lent my copy to a friend with whom I subsequently lost touch, and there doesn’t seem to be any way to buy another copy these days.

      That project was part of a BBC Radio series of eight liturgical reconstructions collectively titled “The Octave of the Nativity.” But the Palestrina/Sistine Chapel one seems to be the only one that was ever released; I’ve never even been able to find out what music was in the other broadcasts, let alone hear them. I sure wish Radio 3 could be persuaded to at least make the sound files available for online streaming.

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