The best of Rome: Music at San Giovanni


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Rome is a beautiful and exciting city. In fact, it is my second favored city in Europe (right after Prague). On this page, I would like to describe a particularly moving and profound experience I had in Rome. As usual, a click on the small pictures will show you a large one ...

On the first Sunday of my sabbatical (at the Physics Department of La Sapienza), I happened to come to the San Giovanni just a few minutes before 10 AM. The cathedral is very beautiful. It is large, but not as huge as Saint Peter's, the acoustics are much better, the tourists fewer, ... It is actually the "home church" of the Pope, and as such, the most important church in the whole Roman Catholic world. Precisely as the clock struck the hour, a solemn procession of clergy accompanying a Cardinal emerged from the Sacristy, made its way through the side halfway through the cathedral, and then turned to the altar and took positions for the Mass. All this was accompanied by the most heavenly music imaginable, sang by a choir supported by a small portable organ (there are large organs there, too). The sound was piped throughout the Cathedral by many small loudspeakers, but their volume was such that the direct sound was audible, too. I teach Musical Acoustics at the University of Washington, and this was an eye opener: it IS possible to achieve spectacular sonification of a large Cathedral for a few hundred dollars worth of small speakers and modest amplifier! (On another visit, the speakers were turned off, and the acoustics were back to the "large-concrete-and-marble-cavern".)

Deeply moved by this display of church splendor, both visual and acoustical, I looked up the composer in the leaflet describing the program of the Mass. I was somewhat surprized to find out that only two composers were featured: Frisina, Palestrina, Frisina, Frisina, Palestrina, Frisina. I had not heard of Frisina before. And then I noticed the name of the choir director: Marco Frisina. I must admit that I said to myself: the guy does write nice music, but he certainly has some guts, to put himself in the exclusive company of Palestrina.


After the Mass, I visited the beautiful Cloister within San Giovanni - it is well worth the modest admission fee. The courtyard is full of Roman antiquities, and there are restrooms there, too (which is a valuable thing to know in Rome ...). But the main surprize awaited me in the display dedicated to Palestrina: there I learned what I should have remembered anyway: Palestrina was the choir director at San Giovanni, from 1555 to 1560. Suddenly, I understood that Marco Frisina just continues the tradition which I thought lost since a long time: the choir director writes most of the music for his choir.


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It is one of my concerns that it is becoming more and more difficult to compose music with recognizable melody, and pleasing harmony, which will not sound like warmed-up Bach, Mozart or Schubert. So I simply had to meet a composer who could write in the Palestrina tradition, and yet the music sounded fresh and original. It turned out that Marco Frisina is quite a bit more than a composer and a choir director. He is the director of the musical liturgy, and because of the status of San Giovanni described above, this makes him essentially a "Vatican Music Director". In addition to all this, he happens to be a Catholic priest in his own right, and "his" church is the beautiful Santa Maria in Montesanto on the famous Piazza dell' Popolo. And to top it off, he has an appartment overlooking his church and the Piazza. He was kind enough to invite me home, show me the beautiful views from his appartment (and from the flat roof, of course - we are in Rome!), play for me some of his music, and discuss his unique perspective on music composition and future of music.


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Msgr. Frisina, as a devout Catholic, writes music with the main goal of glorifying God. But listening e.g. to his score to the biblical film "Moses", you quickly discover that he is far from a one-dimensional "church composer". His texture is not complex, and he attributes the nature of his melodic lines to the Italian sun! (Bach, he told me, is too sombre, because it rains too much in Germany .... I wonder what he would say about Seattle!). But uncomplicated as his music is, it certainly is very pleasing, and far from being trivial.

So, if you are in Europe, don't miss Rome (after visiting Prague first, of course). And once in Rome, go to San Giovanni for the Sunday 10 AM Mass!