Monday, 16 November 2009

Papal Pop upsets Damian Thompson

Pity poor Damian Thompson. Plus papaliste que le pape, he now finds that even Benedict XVI has let him down. This isn't the first time - earlier this year, seemingly oblivious to Damian's warnings, Ratzinger un-excommunicated Bishop Richard "there were no gas-chambers" Williamson in what most admitted was a major blunder. Now, though, Benny's betrayal concerns a matter peculiarly close to Thompson's heart, one that informs much of the invective he lobs in the direction of fellow-Catholics of a marginally more liberal persuasion - viz, the type of noise that should be made unto the Lord.

Since coming to power, Benedict has - cheered on by Damian - promoted liturgical reforms (including bringing back the old, pre-Vatican II Latin mass) aimed at reversing such pernicious modern notions as the laity having a clue about what is going on up at the holy end. Or, worse, modern music. The pope, known for his deep suspicion of anything written since the death of Mozart, is in this respect much more congenial than his predecessor. John Paul II didn't actually go far as to share the stage at one of his mega-masses with Sting, but he might as well have done, such was his elevation of populism over taste. A bad thing in our Damian's books, however sound Wojtyla may have been on the really important issues like condoms or priestly celibacy.

Anyway, it's all gone sour. Like JP before him, Ratzo has a record coming out. And Damian doesn't like it. In fact, he complains, Alma Mater is "the worst CD I’ve heard for many years".

The choir of the Philharmonic Academy of Rome is singing in St Peter’s; the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra is accompanying it in “the iconic Abbey Road studios” in London; and goodness knows where the quavering snatches of Gregorian chant sung by the Pope were recorded.

The result, we are told, “transcends musical, religious and cultural boundaries”. Actually, what it transcends is every consideration of good taste. Two of the composers, Stefano Mainetti and Simon Boswell, specialise in film scores, and that is the prevailing musical flavour of the album: Catholicism as imagined by Hollywood. Take a line of plainchant, fill it out with the pious harmonies of a deservedly forgotten 19th-century Catholic composer and drizzle kitsch all over them.

And it gets worse. The producers have dared to introduce something called "world music": "an instrument that may or may not be a sitar, twanging away Bollywood-style until it is swamped by luxury strings."

A review in the Times supplies more damning details, among them the irresistible information that among the earlier credits of the main composer, Simon Boswell, are Pornography, the Musical and Women talking Dirty. The paper's Neil Fisher praises the Pope's "fatherly cadences" in the prayers, but when he breaks into song "you experience that slightly distressing effect of standing in a pew next to the elderly relative who really should not be hooting along quite so loudly". The overall impression is of "religious rite transposed into the key of nu-spirituality" - which, Fisher thinks, doesn't quite fit in with the pontiff's "with us or against us" image.

All this produces in Damian a painful cognitive dissonance, resolvable only by supposing that, despite the clear evidence of his participation, the Pope had nothing to do with it. Indeed, the CD is, Thompson reckons, "the most terrible indignity to visit on the Successor of Peter". How dare they subject the pope to this "musical atrocity"? he demands. He admits, of course, that the papal plainchant hasn't been pirated - the CD was created "with the encouragement of Vatican Radio". But he sees this as evidence of the Catholic authorities' confusion of "solemnity and schmaltz" - and it's true no-one does kitsch quite like the papists, as any objective visitor to Lourdes will testify. If you want aesthetic restraint in your religion, try Islam or Scots Presbyterianism.

Why, though, does he blame this farrago (if that is what it is) on Vatican Radio? Presumably the Pope was made fully aware of what was intended when he was prevailed upon to allow his voice to be used on the recording. Presumably, too, he is satisfied with the result. Otherwise, why would the Vatican be promoting the CD, which they appear to be doing enthusiastically? I expect Thompson sees this as yet more proof of the malign intentions of Vatican plotters, disgruntled modernists anxious to frustrate Ratzinger's "reform" programme at every turn - in this case by persuading the world that, despite appearances, Pope Benedict XVI is cool.