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In the Vatican, the 'Chant' Goes On

Pope Benedict XVI addresses a crowd in Austria in September 2007.
Carsten Koall
Getty Images
Pope Benedict XVI addresses a crowd in Austria in September 2007.

Pretty soon, Catholic churches across the land could be echoing with the sounds of 13th-century chant.

Pope Benedict XVI is considering a dramatic overhaul of the Vatican in order to bring back traditional sacred music. Not only has he proposed to widen the use of Baroque sacred music and Gregorian chant — the medieval music that served the Catholic Church for centuries — but he also may seek to eliminate the folk-style masses that have dominated services for the last 40 years.

Two Vatican watchers discuss what this might mean for more modern forms of music. Joining guest host David Cruz are Damian Thompson, a writer for London's Daily Telegraph and editor-in-chief of The Catholic Herald; and William Berger, author of several books including Wagner Without Fear and Verdi with a Vengeance.

So why is such wholesale music reform a priority in this papacy?

"Because the Pope has a wider agenda of improving the liturgy of the Catholic Church generally," Thompson says. "That means not just the words of the service and the rubrics of the service and the prayer life of the church, but also the music of the church, which I think most people would agree has been in a pretty sorry state for the last 40 years."

A former church organist, Thompson refers not only to the quality of performances in the Vatican, but also the "unbelievably banal and badly performed" folk-style liturgical music currently dominating services. He explains that what he calls folk-style church music bears little relation to secular folk music; he says that it is written mostly by composers who came of age in the 1960s and '70s, and whose music recalls — poorly — that age in popular music.

"I think that's driving people away from church, actually, the sound of these dreadful church masses, most of which are less musically distinguished than your average advertising jingle," Thompson says.

Berger mostly agrees, noting that a small circle of composers seem to dominate the church-music market. He also advocates a search for new voices in the church.

"It's not so much a matter of turning back the clock; it's a matter of embracing the tradition and, at the same time, exploring new music," Berger says. "There was a time when the Vatican was the world leader in developing new music — I'd love to see that again."

He suggests composers like Arvo Part and... Brian Eno? "Yeah, I put out Brian Eno as a concept, because if we go along with what we're supposed to be getting in the music, why not?" Berger says. "It would work perfectly."

Though Thompson is not so enthusiastic about Eno, he does advocate that exciting new voices be heard and that neglected old forms be resurfaced. "We need to start looking in unexpected places for great music," Thompson says.

Copyright 2007 WNYC Radio