Canticles of Brother Corsica: Two Masses by Jean-Paul Poletti

Jean-Paul Poletti & Le Choeur D'Hommes De Sartene - Messa Sulenna
Jean-Paul Poletti & Le Choeur D’Hommes De Sartene – Messa Sulenna
Jean-Paul Poletti & Le Choeur De Sartene – Terra Mea (Universal Music France, 2005)

Jean-Paul Poletti & Le Choeur D’Hommes De Sartene – Messa Sulenna (Jade/Universal Music France, 2002)

Although I have always been spiritual, in the past three years, I began to seriously question materialism and my daily Spiritual practice. I discovered the life and teachings of Saint Francis of Assisi. Francis (Francesco), not only turned his back on his wealthy elite background and lifestyle, he stripped himself naked, handed all his belongings to his father and walked into the unknown, believing like many indigenous people (in other parts of the world), that the earth would take care of his needs. His love for all creatures and the arts, especially music was immense. The original brotherhood shared many things in common with European bards and African griot, although their patron was Christ and not a wealthy court or king. Since I am a vocalist, I began a quest for the liturgical songs and canticles Francesco wrote during the early 13th Century. While I have not found any
recordings of this medieval music, I have along the way discovered more contemporary work of Franciscans or compositions or choral work reflective of Francesco’s spiritual endeavors.

Recently I discovered a musical connection to Saint Francis of Assisi. I learned about a mass honoring Saint Francis birthday that had taken place in the crypt of the Convent of Saint Damiano in a 19th Century Franciscan church in Sartene (Southern Corsica). This concert took place on October 4, 1996 and the choir, directed by Corsican polyphony vocalist and composer Jean-Paul Poletti recorded
a 19th Century composition, “Transitus” in honor of the 13th Century Italian saint’s birthday and his ascension into the afterlife.

To date, I have only heard two liturgical songs from the Transitus, but those songs were enough to fuel my quest. One day, I sat with the songs listening intensely to the vocal harmonies and tears flowed out of my eyes. It was if I was carried back in time 800 years or so and witnessed the ascension of Francis of Assisi. My heart was gripped with sadness and I felt overtaken by the music.
My thoughts since that experience was that I need to get the word out on the Corsican sacred polyphony tradition.

Recently I received two newer recordings of liturgical songs performed by Jean-Paul Poletti and Le Choeur De Sartene, Terra Mea released this year and Messa Sulenna released in 2002 on Universal France. Both of these CDs provide listeners with groundbreaking choral compositions. The liner note for Terra Mea describe this work succinctly, “The research work of Jean-Paul
Poletti has brought about the re-creation of an astonishing variety of songs uniting, in three and four voices, Corsican polyphony and Franciscan perspicuity

The liner notes also cite, “The Male-Voice Choir of Sartene find its origins in a thousand year old history, embellished from the 14th century onwards by the Franciscan presence. It was following the visit of the Order of Saint Francis of Assisi to Corsica that the community of Franciscans settled in Sartene and has been there ever since in the old monastery of Saint Francis, close to the Place
Porta and in the new one of Saint Damian

Terra Mea is a mass with an officiant singing monody and a choir responding in rich Corsican polyphony. The 17 tracks starting with the introduction and ending with a final AMEN is sung a cappella with seven vocalists alternating between Corsican polyphony and monody. I had read recently on a Franciscan web site, that the Franciscan minstrels sung mainly in monody or in church choirs. As far as I know, Saint Francis’ music compositions were composed for monody or the classic church choir of the time and I still haven’t seen any experts associate the Franciscans with polyphonic vocal traditions.

However, one does not need to have an interests in Franciscans or Christianity to enjoy the choral work presented on this recording. An interest in polyphonic vocal traditions and appreciation for male choir arrangements are all that is needed. The gorgeous liturgical songs speak for themselves and fill listeners’ hearts with peace despite one’s spiritual inclinations. Terra Mea is an
ambitious work and Jean-Paul Poletti could be called a Handel for the new millennium, certainly the world is more peaceful because of his generous musical spirit and his immense talent.

Equally ambitious, the 2002 recording, Messa Sulenna proves that the classic 4 mixed-voice choir and Corsican polyphony can work together, side by side in the same composition. Messa Sulenna (A Mass To Remember, Or In Remembrance), combines the 7 vocalists Corsican polyphony choir led by Jean-Paul (baritone), a philharmonic orchestra from Rumania and an Italian choir from
Tuscany. The three elements never appear at the same time until the final AMEN and are strung together by baritones and instrumental passages. Jean-Paul explains this unusual approach, “This vocal play is perfectly highlighted by the mass of sound from the orchestra, because the Corsican church as always been a meeting place of musical influences. This is what makes the plurality of our
island, but also its unity

The liturgy is sung in the Corsican, Greek and Latin. The mass begins with a tenor singing monody in Corsican. This is followed by a guitar interlude performed by Christos Pertsinidis while the tenor’s voice weaves in and out of the guitar, then we hear Corsican polyphony which is then followed by a classic 4 mixed-voice choir and all of this has taken place by the second track, Kyrie.
Voices crescendo and are woven around gentle rolling timpani, strings, woodwinds and horns while creating a vast polyphony of voices, human and instrumental. Other highlights of this grand musical tapestry include, tenor soloist Francesco Toma on Gloria whose lofty vocals are matched by equally haunting Corsican polyphony and the angelic choir that appears on the same track. And beautiful
polyphony on O Salutaris Hostia as well as, the finale chords of the mass in which the Italian choir, philharmonic orchestra and polyphonic vocalists all collide proving that diversity is unity.

French composer Maurice Jarre describes this magnificent recording, “The Voice of Jean-Paul Poletti goes a long way back. It is rich in the secular tradition of Corsican polyphony, (Jean-Paul is one of the founding fathers of the Corsican polyphony revival of the 1970’s), itself a child of the mysterious muse of the Mediterranean. It reflects the soul of a people, the purity of its emotions, the surge of faith.

With this Messa Sulenna, where two traditions intersect, advance together and interlace, the voice of Jean-Paul Poletti reminds us what music is; quite simply harmony.” (CD cover).

Compliments of Cranky Crow World Music

Author: PatriciaHerlevi

Patricia Herlevi is a former music journalist turned music researcher. She is especially interested in raising music consciousness. She is looking for an agent and publisher for her book Whole Music (Soul Food for the Mind Body Spirit). She founded and hosts the blog
The Whole Music Experience and has contributed to World Music Central since 2003.