One of the features of the authentic Catholic liturgical tradition is the integral connection that ought to exist between liturgical action and music; the texts of the Mass and Office are intended to be proclaimed in song, and the words of the liturgy have inspired composers to create new musical settings in every generation. In the twentieth century, the continental liturgical movement recalled Catholics to this understanding of liturgical music, insisting that sacred music was not a mere adornment to a spoken service but a means to proclaim sacred texts with a more fitting splendour, so that singer and listener alike are inspired to raise their hearts and minds to God. This renewed emphasis on the role of music in the liturgy culminated in the statement of the Second Vatican Council that the musical heritage of the Church is “a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art.” In fulfilling this conciliar mandate, the Congregation of the Oratory is also following the tradition established by St Philip, and continuing a long history of Oratorian support for music in the liturgy.
The Oratorian contribution to the history of sacred music began during the lifetime of St Philip Neri himself, who was known as a great lover of music. The afternoon meetings of St Philip’s circle typically interspersed prayers and devotional talks with the singing of hymns, laude (Italian-texted devotional songs with religious lyrics), and polyphonic motets. The great Renaissance composer Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina knew St Philip and provided music for the early Oratorian meetings; even more closely associated with the Oratory was the composer Giovanni Animuccia, who collaborated with St Philip in the musical development of the congregation and published two books of laude for the Oratory’s use. With the participation of composers of the caliber of Palestrina, Animuccia, and the Spanish composer Tomás Luis de Victoria (who lived in the same building as St Philip during his time in Rome), the Oratory was able to attract some of Rome’s best professional musicians to sing at its meetings.
The Oratorian musical legacy was cemented in the seventeenth century through the crucial role of the Oratorians in the development of the new genres of opera and oratorio. In February 1600, the Oratory hosted the premiere performance of the Rappresentatione di anima, et di corpo by Emilio de’ Cavalieri, a staged allegorical drama with music that is considered by many scholars to be the first surviving opera. Particularly central to the life of the Oratory in the early 1600s was the new genre of the oratorio, an unstaged musical drama based on a religious theme, often a story from the Old Testament; the very word “oratorio” is named after the place where these works were first performed.
In the nineteenth century, the Oratory was brought to the English-speaking world by St John Henry Newman and Fr Wilfrid Faber, the founders of the Oratories in Birmingham and London. Both men are well known today as hymn writers, and Newman in particular was a gifted musician; he played the violin to a near-professional standard, and continued performing and composing throughout his life. At the Birmingham Oratory, Newman compiled a hymn book which included his original hymn texts and tunes, and in more recent years his poetry has continued to inspire works by major composers (including Elgar’s masterpiece The Dream of Gerontius).
The music program at the Toronto Oratory includes several choirs which provide excellent music for Mass and Vespers on Sundays and holy days, as well as offering practical experience in sacred music for students at St Philip’s Seminary. Videos of music from recent liturgies can be viewed on our YouTube channel.
The music of the Congregation of the Roman Oratory has been the subject of previous research relating to their spiritual exercises or oratories, which contributed to the development of the oratorio. This thesis, however, investigates the liturgical music from the Chiesa Nuova, the church of the Congregation of the Oratory in Rome. The period covered extends from 1575, when the Congregation was officially recognised, to 1644, when Girolamo Rosini, the final member of the Congregation to hold the post of maestro di cappella, died. After referring to literature that has described the Chiesa Nuova as an important centre for church music in Rome, the sources of what once formed a vast library of liturgical music are discussed with reference to other important archival material, such as inventories of the music including one from as early as 1592, which had not previously been discovered. The necessary historic background on the music establishment at the Chiesa Nuova supplies new evidence on the musicians involved, as well as the impact made by the Oratorian emphasis on music as an inspirational tool for devotion. The largest part of the thesis is given to a discussion of a representative sample of the music. These sources provide one of the most complete pictures of the provision of liturgical music in a single institution in Rome during that period. It presents the great diversity of styles that existed side-by-side, ranging from the small-scale motet to large-scale polychoral works. As much of the music only exists in manuscript copies or in rare early prints, thirty-two complete transcriptions of these unique sources are included. This study provides a valuable contribution to research into sacred music in Rome during a period straddling the two traditionally defined epochs of the Renaissance and Baroque and an era of renewed energy in the Church, as well as providing evidence to substantiate the reputation of the Chiesa Nuova as one of the greatest centres for church music in Rome during that period.
See Rosemarie Darby’s 2018 thesis submitted to the University of Manchester, The Liturgical Music of the Chiesa Nuova, Rome (1575-1644)
The Oratory Organ. A well-travelled organist will have no difficulty in recognizing the organ at Holy Family Church as a late twentieth-century neo-Baroque instrument, even before hearing the first note. The organ case is built on a vertical axis, with tall pipe towers in the façade of the case separated by rows of smaller pipes; the organist himself is hidden from view by a smaller organ case (or Rückpositiv) hanging off the balcony railing. All of this is more or less what one would expect to see in a Baroque church of this size somewhere in the Netherlands or northern Germany, but something is not quite right: the organ is not as ornate as one would expect from a genuine seventeenth-century instrument, and the church is far too well ventilated to be a genuine seventeenth-century building. A look at the console upstairs gives the game away: instead of the traditional stop knobs that engage or disengage ranks of pipes, this instrument has square plastic buttons, backlit with the name of each organ stop. The player’s chosen stop combinations are stored on exposed circuit boards complete with red lights that flash when the appropriate piston is pressed. All organ consoles are mysterious to the uninitiated, but this one seems especially enigmatic, as though it had been specially built for the set of a 1970s sci-fi movie.
Tastes have changed since the heyday of neo-Baroque instruments. Scholars of historic organbuilding have gained a renewed appreciation for the craftsmanship of the best nineteenth-century instruments, and an increasing number of new instruments are being built after Romantic rather than Baroque models. Meanwhile, specialists in Baroque organs have turned increasingly towards “process reconstruction” techniques aiming to duplicate the working methods of seventeenth-century builders, and the sounds produced by such instruments are vastly different from those of neo-Baroque instruments from a generation ago. Organs that were lauded (or vilified) when they were built for their authenticity to Baroque models now seem very much a product of their time, with exactly the sort of eclectic style and space-age aesthetic that one would expect for a piece of late twentieth-century technology.
How should we view neo-Baroque organs today? It has become fashionable to sneer at such instruments, either for being too Baroque or for not being Baroque enough. But this is unfortunate. The best organs built in this style are instruments of real beauty and integrity; they are well suited to the music of J. S. Bach and his contemporaries, but they are surprisingly effective when used for more recent compositions as well. This Gabriel Kney instrument is eclectic in the best sense: basically German Baroque in its layout, but with the depth of foundation tone needed for Romantic music, an enclosed Swell division with a powerful battery of reeds for the French symphonic literature, and the varied mutation stops often called for in contemporary music. The resonant acoustic of the rebuilt Holy Family Church provides a perfect setting for this instrument, now revoiced by Hal Gober, allowing it to make music on a scale that would have been impossible in its original setting (the home of London music patron Gordon Jeffery).