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A gliding Pope and comfort breaks

06 July 2012

Matthew Lloyd Wilson, a member of Westminster Abbey Choir, describes highlights of the choir's trip to Rome


Full in the panting heart of Rome: Westminster Abbey Choir (singing) with the Sistine Chapel Choir at the papal mass in St Peter's Basilica for St Peter and St Paul last Friday. The Pope invited the Abbey Choir after he attended evening prayer in the Abbey in September 2010

Full in the panting heart of Rome: Westminster Abbey Choir (singing) with the Sistine Chapel Choir at the papal mass in St Peter's Basilica for St P...

THE choir sang at five events: one concert; one informal recital that turned out to be very formal, owing to the cameras in the amazing, painted Sistine Chapel; two services in the Abbey of Montecassino; and one of the most memorable services I will ever sing, to restore ecumenical relationships between the RC Church and the Anglican Church. It came close even to the royal wedding.

I had never been to St Peter's Basilica before, but the size of it took my breath away. It is much bigger than St Paul's, and the canopy over the altar was huge. The nave was massive, and the whole building looked rather pudgy because of the ratio of height to width to length, but nevertheless the experience was unforgettable.

The differences between an Anglican service and the papal mass were profound, once you managed not to think about the heat and the cassocks. The Pope arriving on a throne that glided down the aisle with the help of two pushers was amazing. Mgr Massimo Palombella (choirmaster and director of the Sistine Chapel Choir) was running back and forth, telling the organist to stop, or play music to fill gaps, and deciding when the musical aspects of the service should proceed.

Since the duration of the service was longer than three hours, we were allowed to get water and go to the toilet, as long as the moment was appropriate, which would never happen in an Anglican service. But the thing that was most different was the attitude concerning photography.

If you took a photo in Westminster Abbey, you would be glared at, and similarly if you coughed, but the procession leaving the basilica was crowded with people with cameras, and people applauding and congratulating us. I felt rather relieved when the choir passed through "the staircase of death" (a staircase that led back to our makeshift vestry), and out of the public eye.

The Sistine Chapel Choir sang in a very different way from us. They sang with more exaggerated emphasis, and with more gusto than us, as we were far more Anglican in our approach. This was shown vividly in Perosi's Tu es Petrus, when every comma counts for about two beats, and each note was as long as Mgr Palombella indicated.

This is probably one of the most prestigious services that I will ever sing at.

Matthew Lloyd, aged 13, is a pupil at Westminster Abbey Choir School.

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