Inside the Vatican choir's historic performance at Abrahamic Family House in Abu Dhabi

The 1,500-year-old Sistine Chapel Choir made its Middle Eastern debut in the UAE

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When Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al Azhar signed the historic Document of Human Fraternity in Abu Dhabi in 2019, the seeds of a ground-breaking performance were sown.

Accompanying the two religious leaders was Monsignor Marcos Pavan, the choirmaster of the Sistine Chapel Choir which, for more than 1,500 years, has assisted the Pope in official duties and liturgical services. As plans for the Abrahamic Family House were being finalised, the Brazilian priest wondered then if his celebrated ensemble would eventually make its Middle Eastern debut.

“During that visit we saw the plans for the Abrahamic Family House and I remember all of us were moved,” he tells The National.

“What stayed with me after my return to Rome was the spirit of this place and we started working on a way for the choir to return to Abu Dhabi if the opportunity arrived.”

With Abrahamic Family House officially opened last year, Monsignor Pavan and the choir made their way to the multi-faith complex for a stirring performance organised by Abu Dhabi Festival on Thursday.

Positioned in-front of the altar at St Francis Church and dressed in official black suits and red tie, the choir’s hour-long programme featured works spanning 500 years, with pieces from 16th century Italian composer Giovanni Da Palestrina to cardinal and composer Domenico Bartolucci, who was also a former musical director of the choir and died in 2013.

Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, the Minister of Tolerance and Coexistence, also attended Thursday's performance.

Monsignor Pavan says the choir's rich history, dating back to its establishment by Pope Sixtus IV in 1475, shows the important role music has always played in Catholicism.

In addition to its primary role of providing music for liturgical services of the Pope at the Vatican – including major events during Christmas, Easter and papal conclaves – the choir is also dedicated to preserving the musical forms of Gregorian chants and Renaissance polyphony, a genre of choral music which flourished from the 14th to the 16th century.

“Music in itself is spiritual because it is a language that transcends words and speaks directly to the heart,” Monsignor Pavan says. “When you are sad there is always music to sing and when you are happy aren't we often humming? For each condition of the human heart there is a soundtrack and what the choir does, particularly when it comes to liturgical services, is to assist in creating that sacred atmosphere.”

The Sistine Chapel Choir comprises 20 men in the role of tenors and basses, and 30 boys who function as sopranos and altos. While the adults are often professional singers, the boys receive free musical and academic education at the Schola Puerorum, the choir's inhouse school in Rome.

With no official accommodation provided, students are often based in Rome and its surroundings.

With young members often leaving the choir as their voices change at the onset of puberty, Monsignor Pavan, who led the choir for over two decades, says annual auditions are held each year at local parishes and schools in Rome.

So what does he look for during these listening sessions? “You have to understand that many of them audition when they are as young as eight,” he says.

“So when they sing, one can quickly understand that they have a good voice that we can work with to make it better. But what we are looking for also is whether they have this natural inclination to sing. If I can hear that, I can really begin to understand the situation.”

As for those leaving the choir at the onset of maturity, Monsignor Pavan says the conversation is gentle without sugar-coating the truth.

“They are sad but that is the natural order of things. There is still plenty of life to live,” he says. “Many of them go on to continue their music careers as singers, pianists or organists, and some even come back to the choir years later as adults.”

That said, it’s not only the students who depart with life lessons. Monsignor Pavan, who also performs pastoral duties with the students, says they inspire him every day.

“The sacrifices they make to be part of this choir is extraordinary. Some of them live far away from Rome and must leave the house very early to come to the school,” he says.

“They do this because they love to sing and be part of something beautiful. That’s motivation. That’s inspiration.”

Updated: May 31, 2024, 2:29 PM