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Palestrina & Church Music

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Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina was the greatest composer of church music in the Renaissance.

Giovanni da Palestrina

The name by which he is generally known, Palestrina, comes from a small village near Rome. He was born there around 1526 but lived much of his life in Rome arranging music for the Papal choir. Palestrina worked with untiring devotion to compose the loveliest and most purely religious church music ever written.

He was appointed to a post in the Papal Chapel, but had to give this up a few years later because he was married. A close connection with the Chapel was always maintained, and after he had held posts in various churches in Rome he was given the official post of composer to the Vatican.

Palestrina’s work showed how contrapuntal music could be used to express the true spirit of worship. In 1562, the Council of Trent met to discuss the abuses which had crept into church music. Chief among them was that the elaborate methods of counterpoint in which the various parts sang different words at the same moment confused the words of the service so they could not be understood. Also, they felt the habit of using well-known melodies adapted to the words of the Mass gave an unsuitable atmosphere to holy words.

The works of Palestrina were used to show that contrapuntal music could be written so that not only were the words clearly heard, but the spirit of prayer and praise and true holiness could be most beautifully expressed. The exquisite purity and spirituality of Palestrina’s music has been the admiration of musicians ever since. Many have tried to achieve it, but none have succeeded.

Palestrina and his famous work

His most famous work is the Missa Papae Marcelli, a Mass written to the memory of Pope Marcellus, who died after he had been in office for only three weeks. The work established Palestrina once and for all as the foremost church composer of his time, and his Mass was accepted as the prototype of all future church music in this form.

The Missa Papae Marcelli is the most famous single musical work of the Renaissance. One scholar said the work represents “the gospel of God; real, remote, though clearly accessible to lowly man; God surrounded by real angels, sounding real trumpets, cleaving the air with real wings—and all inevitably expressed in terms of the same kind of impossible yet unimpeachable artistic perfection.”

Let us take two instances from the famous Missa Papae Marcelli (Mass of Pope Marcellus): the beginning of the ‘Kyrie eleison’ (translated, ‘O Lord, have mercy’) and the beginning of the ‘Gloria’ (translated, ‘Glory’). 

In the first instance, each one of the six voices sings the same beautiful fragment of melody—’Kyrie’ on a long sustained note, the music rising on the second syllable of ‘eleison’.

The phrases are very simple yet exactly express the aspiration of the prayer. The passage shows how perfectly Palestrina was able to make each voice move in an independent and gracious flow of melody, while at the same time uniting in expressing one idea.  

Listen to ‘Kyrie’ from Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli

But the beginning of the ‘Gloria’ is quite different.

Here, instead of the voices singing independently, they are grouped together into strong and dignified chords. The first phrases hardly seem to be polyphonic music at all, but rather homophonic, as the parts move smoothly in harmony and rhythm.

Soon, however, the independence of the voices makes itself felt in such beautiful figures as the tenor sings to the words ‘laudamus Te’ (We praise Thee). Each clause of the words ‘We praise Thee, we bless Thee’ has some such musical feature to give it distinction, but it is not till the climax is reached ‘Fili unigenite, Jesu Christe’ (O only begotten Son, Jesus Christ) that the voices spread out into the full splendour of the polyphonic style.

Listen to ‘Gloria’ from Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli

One more example of Palestrina’s music will display his unique use of chords and time. It is the first phrase of his exquisite setting of the Latin hymn ‘Stabat Mater’ (translated ‘the mother was standing’); it refers to Mary, the mother of Jesus, standing before the cross during His crucifixion.

This example shows that Palestrina fully understood the beauty of contrasted chords. His use of chords of A, G, F, at the outset, and of both the major and minor form of the chord of G, proves that his chords are not connected by a key system such as ours.

Listen to ‘Stabat Mater’ by Palestrina

Palestrina on Music and Worship

Palestrina himself dedicated his life to making music for the glory and worship of God. We will close with his own thoughts on the importance of music to worship, as well as his role in creating it:

“Our wisest mortals have decided that music should give zest to divine worship, so that those whom pious devotion to religious practice has led to the temple might remain there to delight in voices blending in harmony.

“If men take great pains to compose beautiful music for profane songs, they should devote at least as much thought to sacred song, nay, even more than to mere worldly matters. Therefore, though well aware of my feeble powers, I have held nothing more desirable than that whatever is sung throughout the year, according to the season, should be agreeable to the ear by virtue of its vocal beauty, insofar as it lay in my power to make it so.

Detail from van Eyck

“There exists a vast mass of love songs of the poets, written in a fashion entirely foreign to the profession and name of Christians. They are the songs of men ruled by passion, and a great number of musicians, corrupters of youth, make them the concern of their art and their industry; in proportion as they flourish through praise of their skill, so do they offend good and serious-minded men by the depraved taste of their work.

“I blush and grieve to think that once I was of their number. But while I cannot change the past, nor undo what is done, I have mended my ways. Therefore, I have labored on songs which have been written in praise of our Lord, Jesus Christ…”

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