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Roman Music Under Innocent X

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On May 7, 1574, 450 years ago, Giovanni Battista Pamphili was born in Rome, destined to become Pope Innocent X, reigning from 1644 to 1655. His portrait, painted with extraordinary realism by Diego Velásquez († 1660), is renowned.

Portrait of Pope Innocent X by Diego Velázquez

After graduating in civil and canon law, he served as nuncio to Naples and Spain before being elected pope on September 15, 1644. He clashed with Barberini, relatives of his predecessor, Urban VIII. He openly favored his relatives with nepotistic practices. He questioned the doctrine of the Church-State outlined in the contentious Peace of Westphalia (1648). In 1653, he condemned the five propositions of Augustinus by Cornelius Jansenius († 1638). He played an active role in implementing the decrees of the Council of Trent (1545-1563), supporting missions, and establishing new seminaries. He enriched Rome with precious monuments, employing artists such as Gian Lorenzo Bernini († 1680) and Francesco Borromini († 1667).

However, music and opera, particularly, did not receive the same support from the anti-theatrical Innocent X as they did during the two decades of Pope Barberini’s reign. The lively group of musicians and literati, mainly gathered around Giulio Rospigliosi, poet, librettist, and future Pope Clement IX († 1669), dispersed, taking with them the spirit of Roman opera and influencing the emerging Venetian musical school.

Here, we highlight, in descending cronological order, three significant facts regarding the Pontifical Sistine Chapel Choir under Innocent X.

On December 25, 1652, Pope Pamphili communicated to the singers, through his steward, the prohibition of improvising counterpoints during the papal liturgies.[1]

Mario Savioni († 1685), an alto in the Pontifical choir since March 16, 1642, emerged as a chamber composer for the pope. In 1647, Odoardo Ceccarelli (†1668), a tenor since 1628 and from 1652 director pro tempore of the pontifical choir, wrote of him: “an excellent chamber composer, as testified by numerous arias, madrigals, oratorios, and other similar chamber songs circulating among the most celebrated singers.”[2]

The compositions by Gregorio Allegri († 1652), an alto since December 6, 1629, and from 1650 director pro tempore of the pontifical choir, definitively entered the repertoire of the Papal Singers. In 1638, the Roman musician and priest composed “the wonder of those times”: the famous Miserere for nine voices, in two choirs, on the text of Psalm 50, in which the penitent laments his sins and implores divine mercy.

That Miserere was performed twice a year, during the Tenebrae Service, now called the Office of Readings of Holy Thursday and Holy Saturday (on Good Friday, that by Felice Anerio, † 1614, or by Sante Naldini, † 1666, was sung), after Vespers of the preceding day of each of these days — that is, after the sunset of Holy Wednesday and Good Friday — exclusively in the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican.

In his amusing sonnet Er miserere de la sittimana santa of March 31, 1836, Giuseppe Gioachino Belli († 1863), the greatest Roman dialect poet, recounts how all English people staying at the Londra hotel in Piazza di Spagna have nothing but praise when they hear the Miserere sung in St. Peter’s, without instrumental accompaniment, by the Pontifical Singers. Indeed, the “singer of Rome” wonders who in Great Britain and other foreign chapels knows how to sing like in Rome on these three evenings of Holy Wednesday, Holy Thursday, and Good Friday: Miserere mei, Deus, secundum magnam misericordiam tuam. The poet recalls that on magnam there has been an hour, and sung thus, that magnam is a word that captivates. First, one singer said it, then two, then three, then four, and the whole choir then accompanied it warmly: misericordiam tuam.[3]

Furthermore, in November 1644, shortly after his election to the chair of St. Peter, Innocent X received a Memoriale “to repair the destruction of music” written by Romano Micheli († 1659), composer and “priest of Rome,” remembered more for his polemical writings than for the value of his musical compositions. In this document, the singers of the Pontifical Chapel are heavily criticized for their musical and doctrinal decline. Past controversies are recalled, and are mentioned musicians like Stefano Fabri iunior († 1658), newly appointed choirmaster in the Roman church of S. Luigi dei Francesi, who is defined as an “ordinary musician”, and Gregorio Allegri, judged “of bad voice.” The main points raised in the Memoriale concern the growing lack of refined musical compositions, the frequent performance in churches of music “for use as songs and ballets, with much scandal to the people” by the pontifical singers, and the decline of musical education. Micheli concludes by requesting to be appointed composer to the Sistine Chapel Choir, emphasizing his “extraordinary talent.”[4] This request was not accepted, but some of his criticism seemed well-founded.

Pope Innocent X was a devout man, eager for justice, but also distrustful, indecisive, and too attached to his family. His reluctance towards music and theatrical works represented a significant change from the previous two decades, influencing the artistic and musical landscape of his time. His figure remains an interesting subject of study to understand the political, cultural, and artistic dynamics of the seventeenth century, as well as the complex relationship between religious power and culture.

[1] Vatican Apostolic Library, Sistine Chapel Fund, Sistine Diary 70.

[2] Ibidem 66.

[3] G. G. Belli, Duecento sonetti in dialetto romanesco, Barbèra, Florence 1870, p. 257.

[4] R. Casimiri, Romano Micheli e la Cappella Sistina del suo tempo in Note d’archivio per la storia musicale, Rome 1924, pp. 237-245.

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