TREASURES OF SACRED MUSIC – O Sacrum Convivium (Domenico Bartolucci)

Aurelio Porfiri

Much has been read about the Council and its hermeneutics. Certainly, some interpretations of this ecumenical assembly have led to a de facto devaluation of the role and dignity of liturgical music and its importance.

A musician who went through these difficult decades was Domenico Bartolucci (1917-2013), who had been a teacher for many years of the choir of the Sistine Chapel, or Pontifical Music Chapel. I have been his disciple for years, having a veneration for him that I still feel very much alive, even after his death. So I had many conversations with him that focused on the theme of the evolution of sacred music. He had a very harsh confrontation with some of the most representative figures in the liturgical world of the past century, as for example with Annibale Bugnini (1912-1983) who was somehow a controversial figure, revered by some and despised by others. Domenico Bartolucci fought for the tradition of sacred music in the Church because he considered a great treasure that should not be lost.

He was an excellent composer. I always say, even though I know that some will disagree, that Domenico Bartolucci was the greatest composer in the field of sacred music in the past century, at least in the Catholic sphere. If you know his compositions, perhaps you can agree with my opinion, so high is the technical level and the deep understanding of the liturgy that emanates from his pieces. It is not well known outside of Italy, because he was not a great promoter of himself, he knew this very well. He also had admirers outside of Italy, but not so many as he deserved.  Among his best-known pieces is the Eucharistic motet O Sacrum Convivium, for 4 mixed voices. Salvatore de Salvo, in his beautiful book on the history of the Sistine Chapel in the twentieth century, attests to this piece in 1957 throughout a quotation from the Sistine diaries. The text is from the antiphon to the Magnificat for Corpus Domini, in mode V of Gregorian chant. Referring to the Gregorian antiphon is important, as Bartolucci will take the Gregorian theme and will be able to play it in four parts in an admirable way. We will see this soon.

The text is as follows: O sacrum convivium in quo Christus sumitur; recolitur memoria passionis ejus; mens impletur gratia et futurae gloriae nobis pignus datur. Alleluia (“O sacred banquet in which Christ is our food; the memory of his passion is renewed; the soul is filled with grace! And the pledge of future glory is given to us. Alleluia”). The text, as we can read, is very rich in Eucharistic and theological wisdom. In a few lines the profound meaning of what our devotion to the Eucharist must be, a pledge of our future glory. Here the Eucharistic doctrine of the Church through the mind of Saint Thomas Aquinas is exposed at its best and with the greatest degree of concision. So a text that has been set to music by many authors, in history.

Domenico Bartolucci’s version, in my opinion, is one of the most extraordinary. I remember that this piece was the one that concluded all the concerts of the Sistine Chapel, not only under his direction but sometimes also under that of his successors. This is because the motet creates an atmosphere of very deep spirituality and a deep sense of adoration. Then, he obviously knew how to lead the singers to obtain certain accents of a particular devotion.  He was also an extraordinary conductor, with a very specific idea of how the choir must sound. Listening to this song was truly a spiritual experience, I can assure you that an atmosphere was created that could then only be wasted by applauding. Moreover, since it was the conclusion of a concert, it was not even possible to prevent the audience from applauding. Naturally, the place of this piece should be during the celebration, as a motet for communion, while everyone is kneeling to give thanks for the Eucharistic gift. But under the hands of a conductor who does not know what he is doing, the effect of this piece cannot be the same; you really need to feel this devotion to the Eucharist to understand the way this piece has to be performed. It is really a prayer, so a conductor that does not know how to pray it is not the best one to perform this piece. And not just praying, but praying with devotion, a real and authentic devotion in tune with the Church. Saint Francis of Sales said that people tend to create a devotion of their own liking, but in this case, the conductor should really be immersed in that Eucharistic devotion as was cultivated from the Catholic church during the centuries.

From a technical point of view, this song has always seemed extremely interesting to me. First of all because of the way it can be performed. As mentioned, it is a four-part piece: soprano, alto, tenor and bass, if we sing it with a modern choir, then with the women singing the contralto part. But the master Bartolucci preferred to perform it in the ancient way, so with the children who sang the cantus part, the acute part. Then the acute tenors sang the altus, the second tenors the part of the real tenor and the bass their part. The ancient choir, as it was during the Renaissance, was more logical, it went from dark colors to light colors gradually. It was truly a different sound, the choir had a timbre that was quite peculiar. Then this piece is also very interesting for the way it is written, which seems quite simple on the surface. It is a short text, two pages of music. But in reality I am always interested in how this is not a simple harmonization of the Gregorian melody, but a use of harmony that almost modestly allows itself to counterpoint, without seeking particular technical complications but echoing the purest singing of the high part. It is truly a piece of great effect, which in a few minutes manages to enclose very deep and intense spiritual emotions. From a certain point of view, it is one of the most representative pieces by Domenico Bartolucci, certainly one of the best known. I remember that there is also a version for voice and organ of this piece by Maestro Bartolucci, a version that, however, was only handwritten in his personal archive at the time he was director of the Sistine chapel. Perhaps he used this version when he had only the Pueri Cantores available.

This piece fully demonstrates one of the fundamental characteristics of Domenico Bartolucci’s music, the use of the theme for his pieces taken from the Gregorian chant. But not in the same way that Renaissance composers did, but also trying to respect the rhythm of Gregorian chant, its own real tempo. While in the Renaissance the notes of the Gregorian melody were often played at wider values. Here certainly the tempo that is held during the performance is a slow tempo, since the piece must favor meditation and Eucharistic devotion. But you can listen to other pieces in which you will see that the Gregorian themes try to respect the rhythm of the Gregorian melody itself, without slowing it down.

Composers such as Domenico Bartolucci should be models studied in all schools of sacred music, precisely because he was able to renew the language of the same sacred music by drawing inspiration from the great tradition of the Catholic Church. We must recover the awareness of how much great has been left, progress can only be based on a solid tradition.