A Window on the transcendent

Composer Simon Boswell on a rare album that uses Pope Benedict’s voice.

On November 29, the record label Geffen/Universal will release “Alma Mater (Music from the Vatican),” which features the voice of Pope Benedict XVI “reciting and singing passages and prayers, accompanied by the Choir of the Philharmonic Academy of Rome, conducted by Monsignor Pablo Colino, Maestro Emeritus of St. Peter’s Basilica and recorded in St. Peter’s Basilica.”

The album draws upon audio recordings from Vatican radio of Pope Benedict XVI “speaking and singing in Latin, Italian, Portuguese, French, and German.”

Geffen/Universal also hired three contemporary composers—Simon Boswell, Stefano Mainetti, and Nour Eddine—to contribute “eight specially commissioned pieces of music” to incorporate into the album. (“The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra plays on all the specially commissioned tracks,” says Geffen/Universal.)

Vincent Messina, the producer of the album, described the three composers: “A happy coincidence is that Stefano is Catholic, Simon is ‘undeclared,’ and Nour is Muslim, thus perfectly representing our aim to produce an album that has universal appeal to all of those who love beautiful music. Their wonderful compositions for ‘Alma Mater’ have exceeded our expectations and we have all been very moved at how successfully these modern scores blend with the choir, the orchestra, and the Pope’s voice.”

Simon Boswell has composed music for more than 90 feature fi lms, working both in Hollywood and the European film industry. He recently spoke to CWR about the album and what he learned from working on it.

How did you get involved in this project?

Simon Boswell: I am a film composer and my career as a film composer began in Italy rather than in the United Kingdom. I have always had this connection with Italy and many people there and perhaps my music is more well-known in Italy than in the UK.

It really came about through the producer of the album, Vincent Messina. He was the man with the idea.

It has been a very interesting arc for me, from working in the Italian fi lm industry to working with the Vatican.

How would you describe the album?

Boswell: It is very difficult to describe it. People need to sit down and give it a listen. Essentially we have created what is almost like a contemporary opera, with the added bonus of Pope Benedict’s voice. It is unique.

It has been a very interesting process. We recorded with the Choir of the Philharmonic Academy of Rome in St. Peter’s Basilica at night after the Vatican had closed the basilica to the public. It was a fantastically inspirational setting for me, being almost alone in this huge, wonderful space.

What we did was record very specific Gregorian chants, and both Stefano and I would then write and interpolate pieces of original orchestral music. Then we were given recordings of Pope Benedict which would accompany this.

So I was able to write specific music to accompany the cadences and rhythm of his voice. That’s how it was all put together really. And after having written those compositions, we recorded them with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London. It was a wonderful experience, I have to say.

You have been described as “undeclared” religiously.

Boswell: I would describe myself as a sort of spiritual non-believer if you like. It has been quite a journey for me and quite a learning experience, because I was really brought up without faith.

It has been fantastic for me to observe people who have deep faith and it has made me realize that I have, through music, a very similar kind of faith in the unknowable.

Let me put it this way: I don’t know where the music that I write comes from. It has always been a source of puzzlement to me and almost wonder. From a very early age, around the age of eight, I started writing down melodies and then interpolating them in different styles, in the style of Bach, Mozart, and Chopin.

It’s been a mystery to me where this music comes from. And in some sense my day job as a film composer depends upon it. I have to put faith in this unknowable process, otherwise I am not able to come up with the music I’m paid to write. In some sense, I think music is a key to understanding religious experience; it taps into this unknowable emotional world.

I have discovered the way religious people put faith in the unknowable, and I have been doing the same thing my whole life but without using the word religion for it. Writing music is paying homage to the idea that you are not the center of everything, you are not in control of everything. There is a force beyond you.

Music is a window to a transcendent reality for an awful lot of people who are not religious. People gather together to listen to music communally in clubs and festivals and concerts; it seems to produce a communal joy the same way it does for people who find it in church.

I think I am a very spiritually open person, but I came to observe faith at close quarters. I am almost jealous of it and see the great benefit of having faith. I don’t think I am about to convert to Catholicism but this experience has given me the greatest respect for the tradition of Catholicism and its embrace of art and music in particular. That for me has been a very huge learning curve and a very emotional curve for me.

Did you know much about Gregorian chant before this?

Boswell: Not that much. I knew that it is essentially music with a single melody line, though I know there is a controversy about that. I would say it was a difficult process in that it is sung freely; it is not sung to the specific meter. So to write for an orchestra to accompany it is a difficult process. I appreciate it on an emotional level, being very ancient and mysterious and full of wonderful atmosphere.

You have worked with Hollywood. How was that different from working with the Vatican?

Boswell: Let me say this. In writing music for a movie, you rely for inspiration of course on the visible image and performance that you are likely to be scoring. In this case it was very different. There were key moments from which I derived inspiration that were different from working on a movie, the main one being working late at night in St. Peter’s Basilica, this huge space.

There was a single moment when I wandered around on my own, and my foot fell on the stone floor creating this echo that seemed to go on for 20 seconds. As the sound reverberated around, I looked across at the Pieta, Michelangelo’s statue of the Virgin Mary cradling the dead Jesus, and I was moved almost to tears at that moment.

Of course this is very powerful Catholic iconography, but here also is a mother cradling the body of her dead son and I found that so moving. That sort of nanosecond stayed with me through the whole process and was a great and huge inspiration for me. I have to say there has never been a Hollywood movie that has inspired me that much.

Did your view of Pope Benedict XVI change during this project?

Boswell: Actually, yes, and not least because of living with his voice and the sound of his voice, which is incredibly gentle and approachable. I’m really surprised because I hadn’t really tuned in or listened to him speak much. But he has a friendly voice with a musical tone to it. It’s gentle, and that I really appreciated.

He plays the piano and his knowledge of music is huge. And he has talked a lot about it. In fact, on the very first track of the album he speaks about music and his love of music and about how churches shouldn’t just be seen as ancient monuments, but should come alive through the use of music.


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