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  • UNESCO Collection Week 35: Corsica & Sicily—Mediterranean Variations of the Catholic Mass

    This week’s UNESCO releases feature the religious traditions of Sicily and Corsica with Sicily: Music for the Holy Week and Corsica: Religious Music of Oral Tradition. These albums exhibit how small changes in a traditional repertoire—in this case the Catholic mass—can lead to a completely new musical tradition.


    By Anne-Marie Gilliland

    In the midst of the Mediterranean Sea and just under 500 miles apart, Corsica and Sicily are two of the islands that run alongside the Italian peninsula. Like most of the surrounding area they share certain cultural aspects: Roman history as well as Christianity.  Sicily: Music for the Holy Week and Corsica: Religious Music of Oral Tradition showcase not only this shared heritage, but how each island has made this music, and heritage, their own.

    Both albums, because they come from rural parts of their islands, have a unique quality to them—the isolation of their place of origin has allowed the music to be markedly influenced by local traditions.

    Sicily: Music for the Holy Week

    On the first track of Sicily: Music for the Holy Week, you can hear the men of the village invoke the nudi and the faithful. The nudi are barefoot and escort a statue of the Virgin Mary through the town, as she is thanked for the harvest of the year. This whole procession echoes an earlier, pagan ritual known as the cerealia. This ability to blend Christianity with existing religious practices is in keeping with how Romans assimilated religions of those they conquered.

    On other tracks on the album, such as “Gloria,” you can hear how the small Sicilian village made a more traditional Latin chant their own. It lacks any of the instrumentals that were heard in the first track and has a very nasal quality. While the singers are using a language that should be recognizable to anyone who has heard the Latin Mass, the local accent has altered the Latin to something very different.

    Corsica: Religious Music of Oral Tradition

    Once again, local flavor infuses the music we hear on the tracks of Corsica: Religious Music of Oral Tradition. On the “Agnes Dei,” another hymn usually heard in a full Latin Mass of the Catholic tradition, you can hear the Latin words “agnes dei,” but like on the Sicily album, there is a local accent inflected in the words and making them sound different from the Latin Mass that was established in the rest of Medieval Europe. Not only is the pronunciation of the words different, but the arrangement is very unique to Corsica. The singers on this recording are a small group of men—usually composed of three individuals, representing the segunda (principal tenor), bassu (bass), and terza (third voice). These men have a very fraternal aspect to what they do—they are men who have grown up together. They won’t sing without the other, and they are very attuned to each other when it comes to the singing of these hymns.  There is no written music that they follow; the songs come from oral tradition passed down through the generations. The group of singers, known as the paghiella, touch each other while singing, and communicate with various hand signals during a hymn.

    The versions of Catholic choral music from both of these Mediterranean islands emphasize the variety possible in something as familiar to many of us as an old Latin mass. By listening to what other corners of the world have to offer we can appreciate what we are familiar with as well as how small changes in location and tradition can create an entirely different musical experience, but one just as meaningful and important to its listeners.

    Anne-Marie H. Gilliland, M.A.
    Past Adjunct Professor of English, Anne Arundel Community College

    Farrell, Joseph. Sicily: A Cultural History. Interlink Pubgroup. 2014.

    UNESCO Collection Week 35: Corsica & Sicily—Mediterranean Variations of the Catholic Mass | Smithsonian Folkways Recordings