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10,000 petition Cardinal Sarah over ‘inadequate’ digital organ in St Peter’s Basilica

Photo credit: Allen Organ Company

A row has broken out over the arrival of a digital organ in St Peter’s Basilica.

An online petition signed by 10,000 people has asked Cardinal Robert Sarah, the Vatican’s liturgy chief, to intervene, saying the instrument is “inadequate” for the space.

The organ, donated by the American Alleyn Organ Company, was first used for Mass on Christmas Eve, replacing the Basilica’s main pipe organ, which officials believe is unsatisfactory.

But the petition, issued by the Italian Association of Organ Builders, appealed for a solution to be found involving a functioning pipe organ.

The digital organ, it said, “awkwardly tries to imitate the sonority of the real instrument without, however, succeeding in any way”. It said its use had “aroused disbelief” among organists and music lovers and it asked the “whole cultural world to express its regret for the presence of the surrogate of an authentic musical instrument within the most important home of Catholicism”.

Fr Anthony Ruff, editor of the Pray Tell blog and teacher of liturgy at St John’s University School of Theology-Seminary in Minnesota, was among the signatories.

“Digital organs are not intrinsically bad,” he told the Catholic Herald. “They are products of human technology just as are pipe organs, and in some cases they are the best solution. But not in St Peter’s, where a large, mighty pipe organ would be possible and would sound much better.”

He said he hoped that “respectful pushback can help make the digital organ in St Peter’s temporary”.

Basilica officials are reportedly unhappy with the main pipe organ, installed in 1962. The organ is amplified with microphones in order to fill the space. This, according to the Vatican News website, causes frequency distortion and problems related to background noise.

Mgr Massimo Palombella, director of the Sistine Chapel Choir, said the problem was a modern one. “Before Vatican II,” he told Vatican News, “papal celebrations were held in the Sistine Chapel, and the problem with broadcasting internationally or using microphones didn’t yet exist.”

He said the pipe organ was still “perfect” for smaller-scale Masses celebrated at the Altar of the Chair.

Fr Ruff noted in a blog post that a plan for the world’s largest mechanical-action organ was once drawn up for St Peter’s. The plan, developed by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, “whom some consider the greatest organ builder of all time”, was scuppered by the demise of the Papal States in 1870.

“The Italian state did not allow the installation of an organ at the eastern wall of the Basilica,” he wrote.