The Sistine Chapel Choir, as it is generally called in English, or properly the Coro della Cappella Musicale Pontificia in Italian, is one of the oldest choirs in the world, having been formally active since 1471. Based in Vatican City, it normally comprises twenty men (tenors and basses) and thirty boys (sopranos and altos), the latter receiving free tuition.
As early as in the pontificate of Sylvester I (314–35), a regularly constituted company of singers, under the name of schola cantorum, lived together in a building devoted to their exclusive use.[where?] The word "schola" was in those days the legal designation of an association of equals in any calling or profession and did not primarily denote, as in our time, a school. It had more the nature of a guild, a characteristic which clung to the papal choir for many centuries.
Hilarius (461–8) ordained that the pontifical singers live in community, while Gregory the Great (590–604) not only made permanent the existing institution attached to St. John Lateran and including at that time in its membership monks, secular clergy, and boys, but established a second and similar one in connection with the Basilica of St. Peter. The latter is supposed to have served as a sort of preparatory school for the former.
For several centuries the papal "schola cantorum" retained the same general character. Its head, the archicantor or primicerius, was always a clergyman of high rank and often a bishop. While it was his duty to intone the various chants to be followed by the rest of the singers, he was by no means their master in the modern technical sense.
During the residency of the popes in Avignon in the thirteenth century, marked changes took place in the institution. Innocent IV did not take his schola cantorum with him to his new abode, but provided for its continuance in Rome by turning over to it properties, tithes, and other revenues. Community life among the singers seems to have come to an end at this period. Clement V (1305–14) formed a new choir at Avignon, consisting for the most part of French singers, who showed a decided preference for the new developments in church music — the "déchant" and "fauxbourdons" ("falsibordoni"), which had in the meantime gained great vogue in France.
When Gregory XI (1370–8) returned to Rome, he took his singers with him and amalgamated them with the still-existing, at least in name, ancient schola cantorum. Before the sojourn of the papal Court at Avignon, it had been the duty of the schola to accompany the Pope to the church where he held station, but after the return to Rome, the custom established at Avignon of celebrating all pontifical functions in the papal church or chapel was continued and has existed since.
The primicerius of former times was replaced by the "magister capellae", which title, however, continued to be more an honorary one held by a bishop or prelate than an indication of technical leadership. Thus the "magister capellae" came immediately after the cardinals, followed, in the order given, by the "sacrista", "cantores", "capellani" and "clerici".
With the building by Sixtus IV (1471–84) of the church for the celebration of all papal functions since known as the Sistine Chapel, the original "schola cantorum" and subsequent "capella pontificia" or "capella papale" became the "capella sistina", or Sistine Choir. Up to this time the number of singers had varied considerably, there being sometimes as few as nine men and six boys. By a Bull dated November, 1483, Sixtus IV fixed the number at twenty-four, six for each part.
After the year 1441 the records no longer mention the presence of boys in the choir, the high voices -- soprano and alto -- being thenceforth sung by natural (and occasionally unnatural) soprani falsetti and high tenors respectively.
The desire to re-establish a preparatory school for the papal choir, on the plan of the ancient schola -- and incidentally to become independent of foreign singers -- led Julius II (1503–13) to issue, on 19 February 1512, a Bull founding the capella Julia, which to this day performs all the choir duties at St. Peter's. It became a stepping-stone to membership in the Sistine Choir.
Leo X (1513–21), himself a musician, by choosing as head of the organization a real musician (irrespective of his clerical rank), took a step which was of the greatest importance for the future. It had the effect of transforming a group of vocal virtuosi on equal footing into a compact vocal body. Leo's step was somewhat counteracted by Paul III (1534–49) on 17 November 1545, published a Bull approving a new constitution of the choir, which has been in force ever since, and according to which the choir-master proposes candidates for membership, who are then examined by the whole company of singers.
The accession of the Pope Pius X, arguably the most musical pope since St. Gregory the Great, caused a complete turn-around in the quality of music in the Vatican. Under the directorship of Pius's long-time friend, the composer/conductor Don Lorenzo Perosi, the artistic level of the Sistine Choir was raised to a higher point than it had occupied for the previous thirty or forty years. Perosi was named Maestro di Cappella in 1898 and promoted to "Maestro Perpetuo" in 1903.
Only two months after his coronation in 1903, Pius released his Motu Proprio. Castrato voices were succeeded by boys' voices. One of the reasons for this was that Pius was fervently against the practice of human castration. Thus, backed by Perosi, he declared that only "whole men" should be allowed to be choristers or priests, and the last of the castrati were eased out of the Choir.
The choir's repertoire, in this period, consisted heavily of the compositions of Don Perosi himself.
Though Maestro Perosi's title was "Perpetual" (he held it until his death in 1956), he suffered from chronic mental problems, resulting in various interruptions of his directorship. These problems manifested themselves around the First World War and continued, on and off, till Perosi's death.
Perosi was succeeded by Domenico Bartolucci. Though Bartolucci retained much of Perosi's music in the choir's repertoire — music that he genuinely respected — Bartolucci was a different musician to Perosi. In particular, his tempos were slow: for this reason he is considered one of the most intelligent executors of Palestrina of all time.
Bartolucci was replaced as director of the choir by Monsignor Giuseppe Liberto in 1997. During his directorship, Liberto spoke candidly about the problems of music in the Catholic Church since Vatican II. "Any kind of guerilla action against Vatican II does not produce good fruits. The council's principles by now are untouchable."
In 2010, Massimo Palombella, a Salesian priest, was appointed to replace Liberto as head of the choir. In September 2015, Deutsche Grammophon released a CD recorded in Sistine Chapel with the choir, the very first recording allowed there. Authorised by Pope Francis, he ruled that profits from sales of the album must be used for charity purposes only.