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Music | Alma Mater puts Pope Benedict's prayers to music

Issue: "The Haiti quake," Feb. 13, 2010

The recent criticism by the Vatican of James Cameron's Avatar raises the question of just what the aesthetics of Roman Catholicism are these days. The recently released album Music from the Vatican: Alma Mater (Decca) provides a partial answer.

Subtitled "Featuring the Voice of Pope Benedict XVI," the recording unites a diverse cast of composers, musicians, choristers, and engineers in setting to music the recitation of Marian prayers by the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

A kind of sequel to Abba Pater, Sony's 1999 album of musical settings for the voice of Pope John Paul II, Alma Mater was assembled in what might be called reverse order, with the excerpts of Benedict coming first and the singing (by the Choir of St. Peter's Basilica) and the music (by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra) coming later.

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Not every worshipper will find Alma Mater user friendly. None of the spoken or sung texts, for instance, are in English (Italian and Latin predominate), and there remains the question of whether a listener opposed to the veneration of Christ's mother will find Marian subject matter a stumbling block.

Simon Boswell, however, one of the project's two main composers, says, "Does one have to be religious in order to appreciate religious poetry?" he asks in a documentary DVD included in Alma Mater's "special edition." "Do you have to be a Catholic to appreciate Giotto or great Renaissance art? I think the answer to that is no."

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