Mark Spyropoulos – Sistine Chapel Choir transcript

Good evening ladies and gentlemen, and may I just start my saying a huge thank to Mr Wang to the members of the China Exchange and the Pureland Foundation. It’s really a great pleasure to be here this evening to talk to you about the Sistine chapel choir.

Tonight I’m going to give you something of an introduction to the Sistine choir, its history, its music and its work today.

I started in the choir just over a year ago as the first full time British member and before then I read music at Trinity College in Dublin and I studied singing at the Guildhall School in London, after which I was a freelance singer, singing opera and choral music.

After that I decided to go to Italy to investigate some of the opera houses in Italy and I had consultations with some of the maestri there. During that process, somebody said to me “why not go and see Maestro Palombella in the Sistine Chapel”. So I did and we ended up having a long conversation about British choral music and Italian choral music, after which he said “Well, there’s the choir. Go and join the bass section”. And they were all sitting and I was literally thrown in at the deep end – a two-hour rehearsal in Italian. After this he said to me are you free on Thursday.

So I found myself going back a few times and eventually I was offered four-month contract. This ended in June of 2015 and then I was given a full time contract just over a year ago.

It’s the most amazing place. It has a history which goes back about 1700 years. This is because, although its commonly known as the Sistine Chapel choir, it is in fact, la capella musicale pontefice. That is to say ‘the Pope’s private chapel choir’. Chapel, not in the sense of a building, but in the sense of a group of people who would be around the pope and would sing the earliest incantations and chants from the year 314. Pope Sylvester was the first pope to establish a group of singers around him and the earliest chants were probably taken from, were elaborations from Jewish practice.

At the conversion of Emperor Constantine, in 324, the Christian faith then went across Europe and with it went these various chants. From the earliest days then, it was obvious to the Church that faith is a two-fold thing; it’s an appeal to the intellect with words and it’s an appeal to the senses with music.

As the faith spread across Europe and the chants developed, they became more interesting, more complicated, more elaborate. And the monks started to write longer tunes, longer melodies which eventually became codified around 600.

Pope Gregory I is credited with the establishment of what is now known as Gregorian chant. And the monks would have learnt huge books of Gregorian chant. They would have memorised them and they would have sung them over many hundreds of years. By the 9th century, these were established as the most important music of the church and they really remain the backbone of Church music today.


That was recorded in the Sistine Chapel there and you can see, on the right, the Singers’ Gallery and that’s where many generations of singers have sung from and that’s where we sing from when we sing in the Sistine Chapel.

Gregorian chant spread across Europe and was developed and became more elaborate in various religious and monastic communities. By the 11th and 12th centuries, it became overlaid with a type of ornamentation. So you’d have one line of Gregorian chant and another line of elaboration; something to decorate over the top of the original Gregorian melody. This really is beginning of harmony in Western music. And it probably started in a monastery when a group of monks were singing the Gregorian chant and another monk who was possibly tone deaf, started to sing over the top of it, possibly couldn’t find the line, and people noticed that this sounded rather interesting.

Two monks in Paris, Leonin and Peritin, started to elaborate the line. So this wasn’t that they wanted to replace the Gregorian chant – absolutely not! – this was a way of illuminating the chant, much like the illuminated manuscripts that you find from this time. Some of you may know, in Trinity College, the book of Kells, where you have a text from the Bible – psalms perhaps – and they are beautifully illustrated – wonderful illustrations often overlaid with gold and pictures and calligraphy. This is a similar effect that we start to see happening in music.

Now, due to an interesting quirk in history, in 1305, Pope Clement V, a stubborn Frenchman was elected pope, and he refused to move to Rome. So the entire Papal Court was instructed to move to Avignon. And this had a very interesting effect because the French and the Flemish musicians and singers that were in the court in Avignon then replaced the singers that had been in the court and had come from Rome. And with them they brought this new way of singing the ancient works. And the elaborations started to develop, not just with two, but even three and four parts overlaying the original Gregorian melody. So now what we have is harmony, the relationship of two notes to each other, and counterpoint, which is the relationship of two melodies to each other.


The Papal Court returned from Avignon, renewed, refreshed and cosmopolitan. No longer was it just a Roman conclave, this was a court which was attracting artist, singers and composers from all over Europe. At this time, this flourishing of the arts would set the scene for what would become a golden age, a golden age known as the Renaissance.

In 1470, Pope Sixtus IV was asked to donate to a rather dilapidated chapel within the walls of the Vatican. This chapel would then bare his name – this was of course the Capella Sistina, or the Sistine Chapel. Of course he didn’t know what it was going to turn into at that time because, 30 years later, a Tuscan artist called Michelangelo would spend 29 years turning it into perhaps the greatest work of art the world has ever seen.

This then was the backdrop to singers from all over Europe –Josquin Despres or Lando di Lasso from modern day Belgium, Christopher Morales, Clemens Non Papa and Victoria from Spain. These composers who all came to sing and write for the Sistine chapel would in their time transform music and the western art form itself.

I want now to introduce you to Josquin Despres; if the renaissance in art starts with Giotto, then the renaissance in music starts with Josquin. By the time we get to Josquin, we’ve no longer built a piece of music on Gregorian chant, what we have is we’ve actually extracted the Gregorian chant and what we have left is the elaboration, thus giving us four equal lines of music which, where we have polyphony, meaning many voices.


By the sixteenth century, the greatest works were written for the Sistine Chapel choir and the most towering figure of that period is man who was born locally, in the hills just outside Rome, Giovanni Piero Luigi da Palestrina. He composed a huge amount of works, some 100 masses, some 300 motets and his music makes up the core of our repertoire.

He was a singer in the Sistine Chapel but only for a very short time; he sang for a month because the pope at the time changed the rules whereby the singers in the Sistine Chapel had to be celibate and he was married. So he was given the given the job of maestro in the Capella Giulia which is of the Basilica next door; not the basilica we know today, the huge Baroque white building – that was still under construction – at this time what he was working in was something that resembled Santa Maria Maggiore – you may have been there.

But he wrote for the Sistine choir and he wrote the most extraordinary works. Why was he so great? Well in Palestrina’s works what we see is the perfect balance of text and music. The musicality of text itself is how Palestrina finds the lines of music. So, for example, ‘siquut cervus deciderat ad fontes’ – a setting of psalm 42 (essentially in translation, its ‘just as a deer searches all over a forest for water, in the same way my soul searches for God’) but listen to the words: ‘siquut cervus deciderat ad fontes’. Its Palestrina’s genius for doing this that makes him the most important composer of the renaissance.

His most important work, the Missa Papa e Marcelli, was to have a mythical place almost in church music (it has been falsely accredited with saving church music – the story’s not quite true that he had saved the music by showing the perfect balance of text and music; there was an argument at the time that music in church was in fact a distraction from the text, not an enhancement of it). However, Palestrina shows that, with an intelligent setting of the words, the music can be enhanced and also have the clarity of the text remain intact.


If Michelangelo represents the culmination of the renaissance in art, Palestrina represents the culmination of the renaissance in music. After Palestrina was such a towering figure, a hard act to follow – he dominated music in the Sistine Chapel – it was very difficult, what do you do? The Roman answer to this was to carry on writing like Palestrina. This was not a great help for creativity; whilst the new movement of the baroque, was exploding across northern Europe particularly Venice, as well as Rome.

The Sistine Chapel started to look inward. The next significant composer is undoubtedly Gregorio Allegri. In the middle of the 17th century, he wrote a piece called Miserera Mei. Now this piece is so famous and was regarded so highly that anyone taking it from the Sistine Chapel did so on pain of excommunication. It would be performed only twice a year, on Good Friday and on Easter Saturday. All the parts would be gathered up and locked away. Now the story goes that a young, snotty-nosed adolescent from Austria came in and listened to it, heard it once and wrote it down from memory. That was of course Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Now the piece itself possibly owes more to the singers who sang it than the notes written; it’s a very fine renaissance motet (even though it was not written during the renaissance, it is of renaissance proportions) but the singers that sang it were quite extraordinary. These were men who could sing up to top Cs and Ds and Es and they could hold these high notes for over a minute. These are of course the Castrati. This was an extraordinary and barbaric movement that happened across Europe, particularly as these singers found fame across Europe on the opera stage. They came to Italy for the first time towards the end of the 17th century with Spanish ambassadors, who had picked them up from the Moorish courts where they were in fact eunuchs. When they came to Rome, it was discovered they could sing and some of them were absorbed in to the Sistine Chapel. As they became more famous on the opera stage across Europe, the Sistine Chapel thought ‘well we must have them too’. And they would overlay the music with the most incredible ornamentation and were undoubtedly spectacular to listen to.

Now the version of Allegri’s Miserera Mei was recorded most famously by King’s College, Cambridge and was a notation of what the castrati were singing around the end of the 19th century; not what Allegri wrote. We recorded Allegri’s Miserera Mei (i.e. what Allegri wrote) in our last disc (2015), Cantate Domino. And for those of you who know the work, this will sound quite different; a very beautiful renaissance motet.


The age of the castrati is a very important chapter in the history of the Sistine Chapel Choir, but what’s so striking about is really that there’s very little left from this period; their legacy is not very much actually. Across the opera stage, Handel and Scarlatti wrote incredible works for the castrati, but long after they dwindled here, they remained in the Sistine choir right up until 1903. The last castrato died in 1922 – Alessando Moreschi – but what’s so striking to me is there’s very little music from this period in the Vatican archives of any particular quality.

The only recording we have of Alessandro Moreschi, the last castrato, is the only example of what a castrato might have sounded like.


Very strange. A friend of mine described that as like playing the cello with one finger.

The choir director at the beginning of the 1900s, whose name was Lorenzo Perosi, was finally responsible for ending this horrific tradition. Pope Leo X, to his credit, was a great campaigner against the practice of castration and, when he became pope, he appointed Perosi to reform the choir and get it back to what it had been under Palestrina, with boys taking the higher parts and men taking the lower parts.

He was a composer, he composed in the new style – he didn’t try to emulate Palestrina, he absorbed the modern romanticism that was around Europe. He can be seen as something parallel to Stanford in the UK and we perform a lot of his works, they’re very beautiful.

Unfortunately, he rather lost his mind and he suffered from terrible mental illness. And the choir was then taken over by Domenico Bartalucci, who started off with great promise but he was very conservative with his views on the choir and the church. He took over the choir just before Vatican 2 and he bitterly resented Vatican 2 and he did so for the next 42 years of running the choir. He was a towering and imposing maestro but during this time, the choir was regarded as the greatest choir in the world… by itself! Not necessarily by everyone else, it didn’t tour very much and it didn’t make professional recordings. It was, however, heard a lot because Pope John XXIII took it from the Chapel and put it into the Basilica, with the best of intentions to bring music to the people.

However, the music was written for the Sistine Chapel, a small intimate beautiful building; the basilica is the largest church in the world, so to sing in that building, the singers relied more on their operatic training and they would sing some of this music like it was Verdi. They developed the rather unflattering nickname of the ‘Sistine screamers’, singing this renaissance music like Bercanto. Of course, Bercanto is the Italian tradition of singing opera and opera is of course the great vocal tradition of Italy but it’s not the only one, and as opera stages got bigger, orchestras got stronger, the tradition of singing with vast resonance was what was expected. So if you went to an Italian singing teacher in the first half of the 19th century, you’d be taught by a Bercanto singer, who’d teach you to sing Puccini. And then you’d go to the Sistine Chapel to sing Palestrina.


The choir has undergone a massive reformation in recent years; Pope Benedict appointed Massimo Palombella in 2010 and more or less said to him ‘I must have a world class choir here now, we must have music which is as good if not the best choir in the world’ – this is a tall order to be given to a maestro, when you take over, but over the next 5 years, 2010 – 2015, he has reformed the choir, to get it back to the level of aesthetic pertinence, which means not just respecting and revering the Golden Age of the renaissance but also having genuine enquiry as to how this music should be performed – this is of course the music which is the core of our repertoire.

He made many changes [ audio dies] he’s taken great inspiration from other choirs and particularly looked at the Anglican, British choral music tradition to see what they were doing right. And he great admiration for, particularly, the precision and the discipline that the British choral tradition is famous for. And in 2015 we made our first ever recording in the Sistine Chapel, very proudly working with Deutsche Gramophone, which I don’t think they would have necessarily recorded with us, ten years ago.

Our primary job is the same as it always was – it’s to sing for the Papal masses. So we don’t sing for example every Sunday, we don’t sing an evening service, we only sing when the Pope says ‘mass’. And when the Pope does say ‘mass’, it’s a big occasion, it’s a ticketed occasion, there are thousands of people in the Basilica, thousands of people out in the Piazza and all our services are broadcast live across the world to millions of people. And so the sound we have to give people must be a sound which is inspiring, even if they don’t understand what it means, it should connect them to another world. This is not the world of the everyday, not the banal, this must be the sound of something unusual, different, inspirational. His vision now for the Sistine choir is that it should be a choir of renaissance specialists.

And so our last CD which we brought out ten days ago, which is the Missa Papa e Marcelli, which is, as you remember, Palestrina’s great masterpiece. It’s of course been recorded many times before, but it hasn’t been recorded by the choir for which it was written, in the building for which it was written. It’s the first edition from 1567 we recorded – that has never been heard. It’s never been recorded with the [colorminor], which is the renaissance ornamentation. It had always been assumed that renaissance singers didn’t elaborate music, or at least, if we did, we had no idea how it was. But actually there are tracks that show us how it was. And we have the luxury of working in this amazing building – the acoustic is spectacular and when you combine it with the music written for it, the effect is absolutely wonderful. But the acoustic tells us a lot about how to sing it. So if we sing it like its Verdi, the effect is cacophony.

So we have to take the volume right down in the building because you just sing on the basic resonance. Now, a word about this, the technique of singing we use is actually the same as you would use on an opera stage, just that the resonance is taken right down and really honed. It’s a distillation of the sound but it’s not a constriction of the sound, so we still have to work just as hard and with the same intensity as you would use to sing Rigoletto, but with much less resonance – that’s essentially the difference.

And many of our singers have had fascinating opera careers of their own; one of them has sung Rigoletto. Another singer has sung many times at La Scarla. These are not singers that sing on the throat, they have massive voices and we have to step out at times and be soloists (and that’s an experience I can tell you!). But we have to be very aware of the type of music that we’re singing and the way in which we are to perform it.


It was a wonderful experience making that record in that building. We sing with the appropriate temperament. So the piano, for example, is tuned to what is called ‘equal temperament’. We sing with natural temperament; that means the notes are tuned to the Pythagorean series of notes, because when you sound a note in the acoustic, we get overtones. Those overtones are what give us the notes of a scale. A piano is tunes so all those notes are put together so they can all be used equally. The advantage that that gives us is that we have an equal chromatic scale, which means that we can perform Mozart, Wagner, Strauss, but it’s not appropriate to use this temperament for Palestrina because that is from around 1750 – the music that we are performing is from 1580 so Palestrina had no idea what a piano temperament was. We have to work with the tuning that Palestrina would have known and that was natural temperament because when you sing with this what you get is this beautiful glow in the sound. The building resonates with the voice so you have a sympathy of the building and the singers themselves.

The Sistine choir now is not just a choir but it’s a tool of Vatican diplomacy and ecumenism and it’s been a fascinating few projects we’ve had now (the first was with Westminster Abbey in 2012) because we can come to sing together and when we sing together, we can start a dialogue and a friendship. We have sung with, in recent years, Winchester Cathedral, Canterbury Cathedral (two weeks ago), the Lutheran choirs of Leipzig, the (German choirs). We sang with the Moscow patriarch choir. This was the beginning of a dialogue, which led to Pope Francis and the Patriarch Karil meeting in Cuba and signing a declaration – the first time that they’ve met for a thousand years.

Because the music that we sing must not just be confined to the Sistine Chapel, we have a duty to spread it. It’s the message of the church and it’s also just part of our common human culture.

Music is of course words and sound. Words form language but they are not our only means of communication – art and music are forms of communication. And music bypasses the intellect; it goes straight to the heart. I don’t especially understand the enunciation (I know what it means, but it’s a very strange thing to explain to somebody) but I know what it means when I see it depicted by Giotto and I know what it means what I listen to Bach’s Magnificat. There’s a wonderful scene in the film The Mission; Jeremy Irons is a young Jesuit priest who goes to the jungles of the Amazon. Two groups of people who really have absolutely nothing in common – his way of approaching a really dangerous tribe is he sits down and starts to play an oboe, completely vulnerable. The tribe come to him and they’re all armed with spears and they could kill him at any moment but he just continues to play. They decide that he’s not a threat, but is intriguing. And they are intrigued by the sound that he’s making which clearly very beautiful and very unthreatening

The Sistine choir has been singing some 1700 years. Why? Because music represents us at our best, most vulnerable, most honest, most beautiful. Because when we sing, we create vibrations, when you listen, what you’re hearing is the vibration of the human body and you are vibrating in sympathy with that; your ear picks up the vibrations, it vibrates and your brain detects them. So it is a gift of vibration from one human being to another and that process creates empathy. Empathy is the most important ingredient in overcoming enmity. The Christian belief is that we are all created in the image of God. Well then, if that is true, perhaps then it’s in our art, poetry, music, sculpture, dance. That perhaps here we might glimpse something of the transcendent is ourselves. Ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much indeed.