Sacred Song

Italian tenor Friar Alessandro shares his story

Were Friar Alessandro Brustenghi your regular rock or pop music sensation, the marketing machine surrounding him would no doubt offer its ‘paint by numbers’ account of a rag-to-riches ascent to stardom courtesy of his musical gift. But the young Franciscan’s story is not so easily summed up, and, by his own account, must consider “parallel paths”.

The musical talent is beyond question, as Irish fans learned last week during Friar Alessandro’s three-date tour in the Republic. Packing into churches and Galway Cathedral to hear the live version of that voice which has made the Franciscan’s first two albums – Voice From Assisi and Voice of Joy– such hits, none was left in any doubt as to the young man’s ability to move through music.

Yet, even this fact is just part of a bigger story, one in which music and spirituality existed separately until a time when the young man discerned something greater than himself.

“There is the spiritual and there is the musical,” Alessandrao says, “and they came together within the Franciscans.”


Prior to that coming together, Alesandro recalls, was a young boy, born in the Italian region of Peugia, in 1978, who through his early years had no interaction with his parish and, far from realising any vocal talent, entertained aspirations to be a drummer.

“I was subject to many changes of mind,” he says with a smile before coming to an important point. “But I felt there was something I was missing.”

For a youth not steeped at all deeply in a Church tradition, Alessandro concedes that, as he grew through his teenage years, “music was the only spiritual element of my philosophy. I felt so alone and was looking for help.”

That help came one day as Alessandro walked in a forest near his home and took time to pause and appeal directly to the God he had not ‘dialogued’ with before.

 “I suddenly gained a sense of love, for all creatures and all people,” he says of the experience which followed. “My life was changed and I wanted to live just for this presence.”


While this description perhaps leads to an image of Franciscan charism, there was no immediate shedding of the world in favour of the cloister; Alessandro concedes to fears around sacrificing a life of wife and children. It was some time, too, before Alessandro discovered St Francis and yet another passage of time while he discerned his calling with a spiritual director.

Yet, having discovered the famed saint, for Alessandro there was an instant and enduring realisation for the young man.

“I wanted to live exactly like this man,” he says of setting aside his earlier fears.

The strength of feeling was the same five years later when Alesandro became Friar Alessandro at the age of 21.

A natural rethinking of priorities followed for the devoted young friar, in which music now occupied the space previously allowed for God, and monastic life in Assisi in pursuit of God became the central focus.

Yet, how could this remain the state of things for a man living within the Franciscan tradition, one in which the sainted founder is on record as having been a lover himself of song and music.

“St Francis sang,” Friar Alessandro agrees. “He sang in French when he was happy, and he even composed hymns.”

This musical tradition allowed scope for Friar Alessandro to utilise what was increasingly recognised as a unique voice, specifically through the congregational choir.

Moving renditions

The story comes full circle here, with a 2012 performance in Perugia at which the talented friar was spotted as a distinct talent by an audience member with connections to the music industry. There followed an introduction which led to a series of meetings all culminating in Friar Alessandro travelling to London and the legendary Abbey Road studios of Beatles fame where his moving renditions of sacred greats became Voice of Assisi.

The album, containing such tracks as Panis Angelicus, Ave Maria and Sancta Maria (each one with a rich recording history by which to ‘yardstick’ this ‘new kid on the block’) became an almost instant success.

“It got to Number One in Britain’s classical chart and a nomination as best classical album of the year last year,” Friar Alessandro says, and, for the first time since this interview began, he shrugs, as though uncomfortable.

Pressed on this he begins to speak of yet another set of realities existing in parallel, where fame, though humbly embraced, works with the mission that the Franciscan now recognises in his singing.

“I didn’t look for this,” he explains of the interviews, of the concerts, “it was a surprise for me.”

Yet, at the same time, he acknowledges, “people tell me they have discovered God in listening to me sing sacred songs. I recognise now that in the singing there is a sign of the project of God.”

In this, Friar Alessandro is quick to put the dreaded fame securely into context.

“I am just an instrument,” he stresses.

It is clear, however, for anyone who has seen him perform that Friar Alessandro does gain a measure of joy in sharing his gift with the world.

“I love to sing,” he says, adding an assurance for those who have discovered his talent.

“I will sing as long as God wants me to.”