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The “Magna Carta” of The Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music Celebrates 100 Years

One hundred years ago, on November 22, 1922, the new Pope Pius XI († 1939) issued the motu proprio Ad musicæ sacræ restitutionem, with which he set up what is now the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music in Rome. 

Although monumental, this was not the first papal action in this regard. “The liturgical-musical ‘conservatory’ of the Holy See, the one which has the task of training Church musicians from all over the world” (S. Magister, Musica liturgica, our translation) is the main fruit of St. Pius X’s motu proprio Tra le sollecitudini (Among the cares), dated November 22, 1903, with which Pope Sarto “brought about a profound reform in the field of sacred music, restoring the great tradition of the Church to counter the influence of profane music, especially light opera” (Benedict XVI, Letter to the Grand Chancellor of the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of its foundation, May 13, 2011).

St. Pius X, in the document which is the “legal code of sacred music”, exhorted Catholics “to support and promote, in the best way possible, the higher schools of sacred music where these already exist, and to help in founding them where they do not. It is of the utmost importance that the Church herself provide for the instruction of her choirmasters, organists, and singers, according to the true principles of sacred art” (Pius X, Tra le sollecitudini, n. 28).

On November 4, 1911, Pope Sarto erected the “Higher School of Sacred Music” with the Brief Expleverunt desiderii, sent to Cardinal Mariano Rampolla († 1913), Protector of the Italian Association of Saint Cecilia: in it the Pope congratulates “greatly with the new institution” opened in Rome by the same Association since January 3 of that year (in Acta Apostolicæ Sedis, 1911, p. 654, our translation).

On July 10, 1914, with a rescript of the Secretariat of State, the School was declared “pontifical” and had the power to confer academic degrees. After a fire that broke out on the evening of November 22, 1914, in its first modest location in via del Mascherone, 55, near piazza Farnese in Rome, the school, thanks to Benedict XV, moved, perhaps on March 15, 1915, to the Palazzo dell’Apollinare, then the seat of the Vicariate of Rome.

Pius XI, with the Motu proprio of one hundred years ago, solemnly establishes the magna carta of this musical school, giving it the statutes, detaching it from the Association in which it was born, and immediately making it dependent on the Holy See. He fixed the staff of professors, the method of examinations, the value of diplomas, and confirmed Abbot Paolo Ferretti († 1938), a rigorous Gregorianist, as dean.

On December 20, 1928, commemorating the twenty-five years since Pius X’s Motu proprio on sacred music, Pope Ratti expressed his keen interest in the Roman musical institution: “But We have a special word of commendation for the Pontifical Higher School of Sacred Music, founded in Rome in the year 1910. This school, which was greatly encouraged by Pope Benedict XV and was by him endowed with new privileges, is most particularly favored by Us; for We regard it as a precious heritage left to Us by two Sovereign Pontiffs, and We therefore wish to recommend it in a special way to all the Bishops” (Pius XI, Divini cultus, n. 11). 

Pius XI himself, reorganizing the higher ecclesiastical studies with the Apostolic Constitution Deus scientiarum Dominus of 1931, called the School “Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music” and included it among the Roman Pontifical Universities.

In those days, priests mainly went to study there. Nowadays? We asked Msgr. Vincenzo De Gregorio, since 2012 dean of the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music.

How many students do you receive and what are the courses of study?

We have about two hundred students: a third of priests, a third of lay people and a third of nuns, who attend courses in composition, choral conducting, didactic singing, Gregorian chant, piano, organ and musicology.

Is it a university-level education?

It is a real university department, which has three-year first-level courses, two-year second-level courses and doctorates. For the latter the great wealth in the archives of the whole world: from the South American cathedrals to those in the Far East, as well as the great history, which was written by the mission of the Church when, by evangelizing, has always promoted all the arts. The degrees awarded by the Institute are internationally recognized and therefore fully included in the international educational system.

It doesn’t seem like the usual music school.

Rather, here we want to acquire the richness of the great musical cultural tradition that in the West was created by the Church, thanks to the fact that, overcoming even Gregorian chant, giving space to polyphony and instrumental music in her liturgy, has favored the development of music throughout Western culture. In it there has never been a clear separation between the musical language of the Church for the liturgy and the secular language of theater, symphonic music and so on.

As Benedict XVI said, visiting your meritorious institution on October 13, 2007: “Numerous students who have met here from every region of the world to train in the disciplines of sacred music become in their turn teachers in the respective local Churches. And how many of them there have been in the span of almost a century!”


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