Sistine Chapel Choir
• Founded 1471
The Sistine Chapel Choir in Rome has been one of the most famous choral ensembles in the Western world for centuries. The young Josquin Desprez was a member in the 1460s (and apparently carved his name in the chapel wall while he was there). The choir is a veritable icon of Catholic musical tradition, and it forswore the use of castrati in treble parts only in 1903. Yet its recorded legacy is sparse.
The choir's history begins in the first centuries of Christianity with the emergence of a "schola cantorum," a group of singers who lived and worked together, and were associated with the Pope. The group assumed its current form after the renovation of the Cappella Maggiore, built in the middle 14th century, by Pope Sixtus VI in the 1470s. The chapel, lavishly decorated with paintings by Botticelli and later by Michelangelo, is named for Sixtus. In the 1480s the size of the choir was fixed at 24 singers, six on each part, and for centuries the upper parts were sung by castrati. That size has remained fairly consistent down through the centuries, as has the choir's repertory: although new music was added, notably by composer and longtime director ("maestro perpetuo") Lorenzo Perosi (1872-1956), and chant dropped out of the chapel's musical practices in the 19th century, the Renaissance stile antico of Palestrina and his contemporaries formed an unbroken tradition in the choir's work.
Nevertheless, the revolution wrought by recordings on the musical world did not reach the Sistine Chapel until the 21st century. Recordings were forbidden in the chapel itself, but several live recordings appeared: Habemus papam (We have a pope) was a 2013 release featuring live masses, two of them outdoors, by the choir at the time of the deliberations resulting in the ascent of Francis I to the papacy. The appointment of director Massimo Palombella, who assumed his post in 2010 after replacing Giuseppe Liberto (an opponent of the musical reforms put in place by the Second Vatican Council), resulted in a relaxation of the regulations, and in 2015 the Sistine Chapel Choir released Cantate Domino, its debut album recorded in the chapel itself. The album appeared on the Deutsche Grammophon label, with all profits, by Francis' direction, going to charity. An all-Palestrina album, featuring an innovative version of the Missa Papae Marcelli with unorthodox treatments of tempo, appeared the following year.