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The Pope of Christ the King and the Sacred Music Revival

A century ago, on February 6, 1922, the Pope of the Kingship of Christ was elevated to the Chair of Peter: Pius XI, whose original name was Achille Ratti.

He was born in Desio, a small town, north of Milan, on May 31, 1857. A model student, he was educated in Seveso, Monza, Milan and then in Rome, where at 22 he was ordained a priest and at 25 he graduated in theology, in canon law and in philosophy. He returned to Milan and for five years he taught in what was his theological Seminary. At 31 he was among the doctors of the Ambrosian Library and at 50 he was the prefect of the same. As soon as he could he devoted himself to mountaineering. At the age of 54 he returned to Rome, called by St. Pius X as vice-prefect and, two years later, as prefect of the Vatican Apostolic Library. At 61, he was sent by Benedict XV to Warsaw as apostolic visitor and, the following year, as apostolic nuncio to Poland and Lithuania. At the age of 63 he became archbishop of Milan and then a cardinal. At 64, he was elected to succeed Benedict XV and, for the first time after the capture of Rome by the Italians on September 20, 1870, he imparted his blessing Urbi et Orbi from the external loggia of the Vatican Basilica.

Seventeen years of pontificate began, taking place in a historical period marked by the totalitarianisms against which Pius XI raises his voice: the Communist one of Russia and Spain (Divini Redemptoris); that of the German despot, Hitler, towards whom the Pope showed courage, patience and intelligence (Mit Brennender Sorge); the fascist one (Non abbiamo bisogno); as well as that of the Masonic and persecuting Mexican regime (Iniquis afflictisque). Under Pius XI the Lateran Treaty of 1929, which put an end to the famous “Roman Question,” was concluded.

His pontificate was also fruitful for sacred music, especially Italian. Pius XI wanted to perfect the work of his predecessors. In 1928, on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of Pius X’s Motu proprio on sacred music, Tra le sollecitudini, confirmed:

The chief object of Pope Pius X, in the Motu proprio which he issued twenty-five years ago, making certain prescriptions concerning Gregorian Chant and sacred music, was to arouse and foster a Christian spirit in the faithful, by wisely excluding all that might ill befit the sacredness and majesty of our churches.[1]

In the same important document, Pius XI urged the faithful to sing the chants that belong to them, especially the Ordinarium Missæ, formed by the texts that remain the same for each mass.

What happened in Rome? The Sistine Chapel Choir was renewed in its staff and Lorenzo Perosi (1872-1956), despite his physical and mental suffering, took over its conducting during the Holy Year of the Redemption 1933. The Cappella Giulia of the Vatican Basilica was led by Ernesto Boezi (1856-1946), composer and organist, from 1905. Maestro di cappella of the Basilica of St. John Lateran was, since 1911, Raffaele Casimiri (1880-1943), musicologist and composer, who with the Roman Polyphonic Society, between 1919 and 1938, held many concerts in America and Europe. The composer Licinio Refice (1883-1954), who will be defined by Pius XII as “the author more than any other capable of edifying the soul of the crowds, to raise them to the superior harmonies of faith,” was the director of the Liberian Musical Chapel in St. Mary Major since 1911.[2] Ferruccio Vignanelli (1903-1988) was organist in the churches of St. Louis of the French and San Carlo al Corso; Fernando Germani (1906-1998) taught organ at the Conservatory of St. Cecilia. Gregorian Chant was cultivated with special care in Benedictine monasteries and in all seminaries and ecclesiastical colleges of Rome. The Italian Association of St. Cecilia, especially in Vicenza and Rome, was experiencing a fruitful period of initiatives, including congresses and publications.

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.[3]

The school, directed by the Abbot Paolo Ferretti (1866-1938), a plainsong scholar, became the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music in 1931.

And what happened in Italy? A few examples will suffice. In Bergamo, Trento, Vicenza and Treviso were fully active “all the schools and institutes throughout the Catholic world, which by giving careful instruction in these subjects are forming good and suitable teachers” (Pius XI, ibidem, 11). In cathedrals and shrines the scholæ cantorum were reborn and strengthened. In Turin, Giovanni Pagella (1872-1944) was maestro di cappella and organist at the Church of St. John the Evangelist; in Milan, Santo Spinelli (1902-1944) was organist at the Cathedral and Alceo Galliera (1910-1996) was organ teacher at the Conservatory; at Como Cathedral, Luigi Picchi (1899-1970) was director of music and organist; in Bergamo, at the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, we find Agostino Donini (1874-1937) as maestro di cappella, and later Alessandro Esposito (1913-1981) as organist; in Pavia, the composer Franco Vittadini (1884-1948) was director of the Civic School of Music; at Cremona Cathedral, Federico Caudana (1878-1963) was director of music and organist; in Trent, Celestino Eccher (1892-1970) was maestro di cappella at the Cathedral and the 1st Italian Organ Congress was held in July 1930; in Vicenza, Ernesto Dalla Libera (1884-1980) directed the schola cantorum of the Episcopal Seminary, which replaced the suppressed choir of the Cathedral, where his nephew Sandro Dalla Libera (1912-1974) was organist; at Treviso Cathedral, Giovanni d’Alessi (1884-1969) was the director of music; in Padua, Oreste Ravanello (1871-1938) was at the head of the Cappella Antoniana; in Venice, Matteo Tosi (1884-1959) was the director of the Cappella Marciana; in Loreto, at the Basilica of Santa Casa, we find Remo Volpi (1903-1979), as maestro di cappella, and later his brother Adamo Volpi (1911-1980), as organist; in Bari, at the Basilica of San Nicola Cesare Franco (1885-1944) was the director of music.


[1] Pius XI, Divini cultus sanctitatem, December 20, 1928.

[2] Pius XII, Bollettino ceciliano, Vol. 69, Rome 1974, p. 108.

[3] Pio XI, ibidem, 11.

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