New Vatican album: Can Pope Benedict sing?

Pope Benedict stars on a new Vatican CD featuring a hymn sung by the pontiff. Will the album soften his image?

Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters
Pope Benedict XVI pictured here during a mass in Paul VI Hall at the Vatican, Wednesday.
Gregorio Borgia/AP
From left, Colin Barlow, president of Geffen Records in Britain, Italian composer Stefano Mainetti and British composer Simon Boswell smile during the presentation "Alma Mater - Music from the Vatican'' album, at Julius Cesar's hall, in Rome, Tuesday. Pope Benedict XVI sings and prays along with a mix of modern music and ancient church chants in the album that will be released on Nov. 30.

Move over, Snoop Dogg?

As an white-haired octogenarian bachelor from a scholarly background, he hardly fits the profile of the first-time music artist.

But that has not stopped Pope Benedict XVI from launching his debut album – an eight-track CD of Gregorian chants and specially commissioned classical music on which he sings a hymn and recites prayers in five languages, including Latin and his mother tongue, German.

The album, called “Alma Mater - Music from the Vatican,” will be released on Nov. 30, in time for the pre-Christmas shopping rush.

It has been produced by the Geffen record company, putting the Pontiff in the unlikely company of the label’s other artists, such as Snoop Dogg, Nirvana, and Guns ‘N Roses.

The question is: Can Benedict carry a tune?

“I have known six popes. Not one of them sings and knows music as he does,” said Monsignor Pablo Colino, the conductor of the choir of St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican, which provided the choral backdrop to the papal pipes.

In 1999, a similar album was produced using archival recordings of Pope John Paul II singing, chanting, and praying in five languages.

Benedict has a copy of the new album but has not yet said what he thinks of it, Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican’s official spokesman, told a packed press conference Tuesday in Rome.

The album may help the German-born Benedict soften his stiff, standoffish image.

Nicknamed “God’s Rottweiler” for his conservative views when he was first made pope in 2005, he has struggled to win the levels of popularity enjoyed by his much-loved predecessor, Pope John Paul II.

“The pope is open to new ways of evangelization ... to experiment with new ways to transmit a spiritual message that the world greatly needs,” said Father Lombardi.

Benedict is also accompanied on the album by Britain’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, which recorded its contribution at the Abbey Road studios in London, made famous by its links with The Beatles.

The Pope himself did not have to go into a studio – recordings of his singing and recitals were provided by Vatican Radio.

“We are honored to be partners on this historic production which will, for the first time, bring the voice of Pope Benedict XVI to a worldwide audience through these stunning musical compositions,” said Colin Barlow, president of Geffen Records UK. “It is something that has never been done before.”

The music was written by three composers, including Briton Simon Boswell, who has composed scores for more than 90 feature films, including several directed by Oscar-winner (Slumdog Millionaire) Danny Boyle.

Until now, Boswell’s work has been decidedly more worldly than anything the pope might have encountered; one of the films he wrote music for was entitled “Pornography: The Musical.”

Boswell describes himself as an agnostic, but the two other composers are an Italian Catholic, Stefano Mainetti, and a Moroccan Muslim, Nour Eddine, giving the album a multifaith, cosmopolitan flavor.

Proceeds from the album will help fund musical education for underprivileged children around the world.

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