25 April 2016, The Tablet

Benedictine pupils become first English school choir to sing with Pope's Sistine Chapel choir

Pupils of Catholic Worth School sing alongside Sistine Chapel Choir in St Peter's Basilica

An English Benedictine school has made history yesterday by becoming the first to sing at a papal Mass alongside the Sistine Chapel Choir. Pupils from Worth School, in West Sussex, sang the liturgy celebrated by Pope Francis which had a special focus on young people for the Jubilee Year of Mercy.  

While British cathedral choirs have sung with the Pope’s choir - known as the “Sistina” - no school had previously had the privilege of doing so.

The invitation for Worth to sing came from the Sistina’s director, Mgr Massimo Palombella, although an introduction was initially made through Mark Spyropoulos (pictured centre and right respectively with Michael Oakley, Director of Worth School choir, left) who is the first English member of the Vatican choir. Spyropoulos, one of just 20 adult singers that make up the Sistina, is a former pupil of Worth and was a member of the school’s choir. 

Yesterday the school’s singers took their place in choir stalls in the loggia of St Peter’s Basilica opposite the Sistine Chapel Choir and performed works by English composers Thomas Tallis, a Catholic, and Adrian Batten, an Anglican.    

Since taking over direction of the papal singers in 2010, Maestro Palombella has been keen to incorporate elements of the English choral tradition and approach. 

“I like it for its clarity of sound and precision of tone,” he said. “We work hard to take things from that traditional without erasing our characteristically Italian sound.” 

During his tenure Maestro Palombella has collaborated with the choirs of Westminster Abbey and New College, Oxford - both Anglican institutions - and Westminster Cathedral, the mother church for Catholics in England and Wales. 

On his visit to the United Kingdom in 2010, Pope Benedict XVI was so struck by the choir of Westminster Abbey that the Dean, John Hall, sent a CD of its music to the Apostolic Palace. Two years later Benedict XVI invited the abbey choir to sing with Sistine Chapel singers in the Vatican. 

Maestro Palombella stressed there was “continuity” with Pope Francis and Benedict XVI’s approach to the celebration of Mass and described as a “myth” the notion that Francis, like many other Jesuits, was not particularly interested in the liturgy. Both Francis and Benedict, he stressed, use the reforms to the celebration of Mass made by the Second Vatican Council as their starting point. 

“If people at the Mass are Italian we say the Mass in Italian, but on solemnities we use Latin,” Maestro Palombella explained.  

While the Sistine Chapel Choir is one of the oldest in the world, Worth has less of a history to fall back on. The school was founded in 1933 by monks from the English Benedictine monastery, Downside Abbey, in Somerset, in the Westcountry. It’s choir has been directed for the last 24 years by Michael Oakley who has worked hard to bring it up to a high standard. 

When asked if the choir, which included six adult singers, was nervous before singing he said: “It wasn’t enough for us to say ‘we were the first’. The pressure was really in getting the performance correct.”



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