Essay | Living History

Churches, ITALY, Music, Rome, Student Essays

by Knox Sutterfield, M.M. ’14, choral conducting

Every country and region of the world is rich with its own history, but when it comes to sacred music, worship, and art, Italy holds a special place. This relatively young country is brimming with artifacts of its ancient history; everywhere you look, you see the commingling of past and present. Whether it is driving down a modern autostrada and watching medieval hilltop towns pass by or looking at an apartment building situated on layers of buildings repurposed over the past two millennia, you cannot help being confronted with a sense of living history.

 As the ISM made our way through a cross-section of Italy, we encountered physical remnants spanning Roman antiquity to the present day: buildings, monuments, and ruins; mosaics, frescoes, paintings, and sculptures; and manuscripts and music. We also learned about liturgical practices from the entire history of Christianity: from house churches to Byzantine and Roman baptisms all the way to the diversity of contemporary worship practices in Italy, which we were able to joined in participation. Standing among ruins and inside these spaces, viewing artwork with our own eyes, envisioning and enacting liturgy in their physical contexts—these are the reasons why we travel. Nothing brings scholarship to life like engaging all five senses to live in and live out that which we study.

For me, the culmination of our experiences came on the final day of the study tour, when Schola Cantorum sang Mass at the Chiesa della Santissima Trinità dei Pellegrini. Notable from its sixteenth-century founding into the nineteenth century as a hospice for poor pilgrims coming to Rome, Santissima Trinità fell into disrepair after the hospice was closed in the early nineteenth century. The church regained significance in 2008, when Pope Benedict XVI singled it out from among Rome’s more than nine hundred churches to be the parish church of the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite. Schola Cantorum had prepared Palestrina’s Missa Ave Maria for the service—perfectly suited for a Rite that dates to the same time period—but we did not know until the morning of the service that it was even more appropriate than we thought. Dario Paolini, the talented organist and cantor at Santissima Trinità, informed us that payment receipts in the church’s archives indicate Palestrina worked at this very church for a time. This was the closest we could get to performing Palestrina’s music as he would have experienced it himself. Between the beauty of the space, the smell of incense, and the sounds of polyphony and chant, it was a complete sensory engagement in the celebration of the Tridentine Rite. We were truly living history.