Benedict XVI finds solace in Haydn


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Michael White takes us behind the scenes of a papal concert and hails the Pope's efforts to raise musical standards at the Vatican.

Backstage at the Vatican is not so different to front of house. The scale is monumental. Marble stairways disappear into the distance like Renaissance exercises in perspective. Frescoed halls lead one into another, liberally supplied with spiritual artefacts and prie-dieus should you feel the sudden need - crushed by the splendour - to fall on your knees. Only the flowery carpeting is in questionable taste, and 1950s standard lamps remind you that the place is lived in.

But the overwhelming sense, for all the vastness, is of a discrete enclosure. And the other Saturday morning as I made it past the Swiss Guards into the private apartments of the Holy Father, it felt like stepping from one world to another - out of the hassle, noise and classic Roman rudeness of St Peter's Square; into a hushed civility where people smile, bow and salute with a disarming pleasantness. And they're immaculately turned out. I felt underdressed.

But this was only a rehearsal for the real thing that would happen in the evening. I had been invited to a private concert by a celebrated German string quartet, the Henschel, playing for the Holy Father on his name day. By the standards of the Vatican it was a fairly intimate event with not too much protocol.

It involved his brother Mgr Georg Ratzinger, who has spent most of his life as a priest-musician, now retired after 30 years of running the Domspatzen boys' choir in Regensburg. And if nothing else, it offered both men a moment of refuge from the maelstrom of criticism that had been closing in on them all week over allegations of child abuse and cover-up on their own home territories.

More than any of this, though, it formed part of a continuing statement of intent that has featured on Pope Benedict's agenda since the start of his pontificate.

This Pope is deeply musical and always has been - with conservative tastes (Mozart, Haydn, Bach) that are nonetheless expressed in surprisingly heartfelt terms. Stefan von Kempis, a senior figure in Vatican Radio, recalls a time when John Paul II was Pope and Benedict (then Cardinal Ratzinger) organised a Vatican performance of Beethoven's Ninth to mark some special occasion.

"This was when he was at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith," says von Kempis, "and his reputation was very much a hard-liner: the clenched fist behind a charismatic Pontiff. Not so many people knew about his love for music. So when he got up and made an insightful as well as emotionally committed speech introducing the symphony, people were taken aback that he could be so sensitive. So engaging.

"Most certainly he loves to talk music and to play it, which he does a lot. One of the cardinals here, Cardinal Kaspar, used to be his Vatican room-neighbour and says proudly that every day he heard the piano coming through the wall and never complained. This is Christian spirit because one has to admit of the Holy Father that he doesn't play so well. His brother always says he's 'not too bad but still an amateur'. Perhaps you've seen the YouTube clip?"

There is indeed a YouTube clip of Benedict playing the piano - shakily, and with mistakes so bad he has to stop and start again. It's quite endearing. And especially endearing given all the papal history that lies behind it.

Scanning the centuries you could easily believe that the Vatican had put more effort into suppressing music than supporting it. At times, of course, it was a major patron: hence Gregorian chant and Palestrina. But for every musical pope there were more who saw the performing arts as a dangerous diversion from true belief. And their cultural instrumentalists fared accordingly.

An interesting barometer was the fate of the Tor di Nona theatre which Clement IX and Queen Christina of Sweden jointly founded as Rome's first public stage for opera. It only ran for a handful of seasons from 1671 before Clement X closed it down in 1674. Alexander VIII reopened it in 1690. Innocent XII ordered it to be destroyed in 1697. Clement XII rebuilt it in 1732... and so the game went on.

At the same time, there were popes who went to extreme lengths to stop, sabotage or otherwise confine the Roman carnival season which was when most public music-making of a secular nature took place. Clement XI declared a Holy Year in 1702 for the specific purpose. By the 19th century, the papal record for music-making was poor; and with a few exceptions, that remained the case through much of the 20th. The liturgical tradition in St Peter's fossilised. Standards of performance were dismal. Occasional pontiffs like Paul VI took an interest in the visual arts but not so much in music. And, with John Paul II, things hit a conspicuously low note.

"John Paul was a great man," says Mr von Kempis, "but if he ever gets beatified it won't be for his artistic taste. His idea of music was to have the Red Army dancing team in the Vatican audience halls; and if you look at his legacy in cultural matters, it's all quite kitsch."

When Benedict succeeded, though, he made it known that he wanted to invigorate the Vatican's musical life, and he's doing it with determination. Questionable undertakings have been swept aside, including the large-scale pop/rock concerts that periodically ran in the Vatican at Christmas and as adjuncts to World Youth Days. And they're being steadily replaced with more serious alternatives.

When it comes to liturgical music in St Peter's, there are still problems. By general consent the Sistine Choir sing with an unbalanced, raucous lack of finesse, not helped by the terrible acoustic. And the organ tradition is undistinguished. But according to van Kempis, Benedict's pontificate has so far seen an "explosion" of in-house Vatican concerts given by distinguished guests, as if to raise morale. And last week's for his name day was a case in point.

He had chosen to hear Haydn's Seven Last Words from the Cross: a string quartet originally written for church performance as an Easter meditation, with each movement responding to one of the exclamations Jesus made while being crucified.

In this case it was actually a modern adaptation involving a mezzo-soprano - the German Susanne Kelling - singing Christ's words as an overlay to the string textures. And though it stretched some of the shorter exclamations to the threshold of endurance ("I thirst, I thirst, I thirst..." sang Ms Kelling, relentlessly), it was effective. What's more, it was wonderfully performed, with all the edgy, physical, full-blooded vigour for which the Henschels are well-known.

As they rehearsed through the morning, it was to the surreal accompaniment of Swiss Guards padding back and forth, a cohort of major-domos in full court dress doing whatever major-domos do, and the swish of soutanes as assorted clergy looked in on what was happening - among them the stooped form of Mgr Ratzinger who sat in the front row and followed the rehearsal intently until he fell asleep (which at 90 is forgivable).

Come the evening, cardinal archbishops swarmed in almost comic numbers - they were nearly half the audience and robbed of their significance by being quite so many, like the chorus from a Verdi opera. Act III of Don Carlos comes to mind. But at the front, on what turned out to be a modest choice of throne, was Benedict, his brother Georg beside him: snow-haired seniors listening to Haydn with the rapt intensity of someone listening to God.

I don't suppose the Pope would draw that kind of parallel. But he accepts that music validates divine belief: as he once told a Lutheran bishop after a performance of a Bach cantata, "anyone who has heard this knows that the faith is true". And at the end of what must have been the most challenging week of his pontificate so far, one hopes that the Henschel's Haydn did indeed provide some solace. With the institution of the Church under such relentless attack, he surely needs it.