WO DAYS AGO, Crux posted an article about the Sistine Chapel Choir’s first tour to the USA in 30 years. In the article, the author and Msgr. Massimo Palombella, the current choirmaster, mention about the choir’s old reputation as the “Sistine Screamers” and how the choir has abandoned their old way of singing. As I have mentioned before (here and here), I think that the Sistine Chapel Choir has taken a more British choral approach and their musical quality has improved greatly. However, there are a few things I would like to point out in defense of their old approach.
First of all, allow me to point out that most people nowadays consider the choral sound of the English Cathedrals as the standard and our ears are more used to this sound of the choral approach of British school. But that might not have always been the case. In the old days, it would have been harder for people to compare and exchange ideas about choral singing since there was no internet and the technology wasn’t as developed.
Let us also consider the cultural background of the choir. In the past, most of the singers of the Pope’s choir were Italian and were probably recruited from opera houses. They were all trained in operatic singing and probably considered it the best way, and a very noble way, of singing. Following that logic, that would be how they sing in the Pope’s churches because they wanted to offer the best to God; and the local Catholic faithful influenced by the Italian culture would probably think it is appropriate. (And this is probably why Pope St. Pius X wants to make sure that we keep operas out of the liturgy.)
Finally, one of the reasons they sang in their full and operatic voices was to make sure that their voices can be projected throughout the basilica. St. Peter’s Basilica is the largest church in the world (over 700ft long, 500ft wide with a 448ft-tall dome) and you can imagine the effort it takes to fill the whole church with music without using microphones. They had to sacrifice the quality of the music in order make sure that they can be heard.
I am very glad that the Sistine Chapel Choir has abandoned their old way of singing and is now making angelic music. But let us not condemn their old approach without first understanding the reasons behind it.