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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 (4 min)

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 (5 min)

The Opera Revolution

After Palestrina’s death in 1594, an entirely new influence transformed the art of composition. The new form seemed to establish opposite principles from the great choral composers of church music.

This was the beginning of opera. An opera is the performance of stage plays in which the characters sing their words to an accompaniment played by instruments. It would be difficult to say how old the idea was. Songs and acting had gone together in the mystery and miracle plays of the Middle Ages, as well as in the secular plays of the French.

13th-century French courtly masquerade

In 1594, a number of poets and musicians assembled in the house of a nobleman in Florence. They were not there to revive the musical plays of the Middle Ages. Instead, they wanted to copy the drama of the Greeks by setting musical notes to poetry in order to express the meaning of the words and to preserve their meter and accent.

There was a distinct difference between their object and that of the medieval songs, which often kept close to the feeling and meter of the words. The first object of Medieval songs was always to make a beautiful melody.

In contrast, the Florentine experimenters were not primarily interested in melodies. Instead, they wanted to express the words in musical notes that rose and fell as the voice of a reciter would rise and fall. They eventually established the kind of singing which we now call recitative, because it reproduces the expression of a reciting voice and has no definite rhythm or tune apart from the words.

Orpheus & Eurydice leaving the underworld

One of the earliest operas which has been preserved is a setting of the mythological story of Eurydice by a man called Peri, which was performed in Florence in 1600. The old and beautiful legend of the musician, Orpheus, who so loved his wife, Eurydice, that he brought her back from death, became at once one of the most popular subjects for opera.

Listen to the opening Prologue from Peri’s Eurydice (1 min)

Listen to the first minute of this live performance. This is a good example of the new recitative that came with early opera. Notice how the singer talks/sings the words to a simple musical accompaniment.

Claudio Monteverdi

The man who proved what tremendous possibilities this kind of music possessed was Claudio Monteverdi (born 1568). He was first of the great revolutionary composers in the story of great music.

Claudio Monteverdi

Monteverdi was not a very young man when the Florentine musicians began their experiments in opera. In fact, he was over thirty when Peri’s Eurydice was produced. Instead, he had been educated in the strict tradition of the old choral music.

Monteverdi wrote a number of madrigals after he had taken to writing operas in the new style. His madrigals show his love of experiments; they contain a number of curious harmonies which distinguish them from his predecessors.

The first of Monteverdi’s operas which has been preserved, and the most celebrated of all his works, is L’Orfeo. It is a setting of the same story as Peri’s Eurydice, but instead takes its name from Orpheus.

It was produced at the court of the Duke of Mantua in 1607. At that time, there were no such things as public opera houses. As a result, works like these could only be performed for the pleasure of rich people who chose to pay for the entertainment.

The one and only rule which Monteverdi followed in writing L’Orfeo was the determination to make every part of his music express the feelings which the words of the play described.

Monteverdi’s Orchestra

Since the voices sang separately, Monteverdi had to form an orchestra to accompany them. But he was not content with just a few instruments to support the voices. Instead, he needed them to take part in the descriptive effects of the opera. He therefore gathered together all kinds of instruments in order to have the advantages of their different colors of tone.

Organs had been in use in churches for some time. Besides the big ones which were fixed in their places, little ones called positive organs and others called regals, were in use. Monteverdi decided to have several of these in his orchestra.

Then there were instruments rather like a grand piano in shape, but in which the strings were plucked by a quill instead of being struck by a hammer; they were called by the Italians ‘Gravicembalo’. Our name for them is harpsichord.

Woman Playing Harpsichord by Jan Steen

Lutes of various sizes, the strings of which were plucked by the fingers as in the modern guitar, and the harp had been used to accompany voices in songs. Monteverde included all of these.

But Monteverdi was not content with only these. He used viols of different sizes, which are instruments played with a bow. These were more clumsily shaped than the modern violins; they had straight backs instead of curved, thick ribs, and generally six strings. They produced a reedy, yet penetrating tone.

Lutes have a distinctive shape

He also required “two little violins of the French kind,” a flute, some trumpets, two ‘cornetti’ (wind instruments made of wood which eventually developed into the clarinet), and four trombones.

If he had set these to play all at once he would have had a fairly powerful orchestra. But, the wind instruments and even the viols were not allowed to be heard constantly with the voices. Some of the wind instruments were so imperfect that they could only play a few notes. 

The piece of music for orchestra which begins the opera is called Toccata. It is a sort of fanfare on a single chord of C. It is written this way so that the trumpets, which could only play the notes of the common chord, might take part in the opening.

Listen to ‘Toccata’ from Monteverde’s L’Orfeo (2 min)

This is a performance by the renown Renaissance and Baroque conductor/musician Jordi Savall. As you will see, he appreciates the dramatic. Look for all the instruments we mentioned earlier.

Monteverdi’s Techniques

In early music for viols and violins, we find passages which recall the old choral music. Musicians had to discover the special kinds of figures which sound so well on stringed instruments, but which voices cannot sing.

Today, we can often tell by glancing at a piece of music what instrument it is meant for. But at the beginning of the seventeenth century, not only was this impossible, but it is often difficult to tell whether a given piece was intended to be sung or played. Monteverdi scarcely wrote any notes for the little violins which a high soprano voice could not also sing.

Nevertheless, some of the things he made players do must have seemed amazing to people who had heard practically nothing but pure choral music. For example, the effect achieved by drawing the violin bow rapidly to and fro on a single note was a thing Monteverdi discovered; it is quite impossible to do on any instrument but one played with a bow.

It is still an exciting effect when a large mass of violins tremble in this way. Imagine how impressive it must have been to unaccustomed ears—and this was only one new effect among many others which Monteverdi gained from his orchestra.

The very act of bringing all these different instruments together and forming an orchestra opened up new and wonderful possibilities for music. Yet the orchestra was not thought to be the most important part of an opera in those days.

Instead, the Florentine composers who began to make operas thought the vocal expression of the words to be the most important thing. Although Monteverde made the instrumental music important, he kept accurate singing of words as his chief object.

The Voices

Let us turn now to the vocal side of the music. Here is a passage which shows at once how different Monteverdi’s method was compared to the polyphonic writers of church music.

The main story of the opera is that the Orpheus’ wife Eurydice suddenly dies. He mourns for her so passionately that, at last, he determines to go and seek her among the dead. Through his love and his beautiful music, he draws her back to life. Along the way, he meets many new people and has numerous adventures.

The death of Eurydice

In order to translate the story to the stage, Monteverdi used a combination of recitatives (the reciting of words to music) alongside arias. An ‘aria‘ (pronounced ah’-ree-uh) is a song sung by a single voice with or without instrumental accompaniment. Arias are the the essential building blocks of an opera.

Listen to ‘Vi ricorda, o boschi ombrosi’ (Shady woods, do you remember) from L’Orfeo (3 min)

In this aria from Act II, Orpheus holds his famous lyre and sings about his sadness turning to joy.

The scene in which Orpheus visits the lower regions and demands that Eurydice shall be restored to life is another marvellous piece of writing of a quite different kind.

Monteverdi was here determined to produce something weird, strange, and unearthly, and he did it by writing wild scale passages for the viols, cornetti, and harps, and making the singer (Orpheus) vie with them by singing all sorts of tortuous runs and turns, such as this, for example, and a good deal more all on a single syllable.

Listen to ‘Possente spirito’ (‘O Mighty Spirit’) from L’Orfeo (2 min)

Listen to approximately 1:30. You don’t need to understand the words; instead, notice how he uses his voice to create a sense of distress at being in the underworld. In this scene, he must convince Charon to let him pass over the river Styx.

Such a musical effect was, of course, a direct contradiction of the principle laid down by the Florentines that the words should be strictly preserved. It distorted them as much as the old church music of Josquin des Prez and others had done, and it did so for the very same reason, namely, in order to make the music more telling.

These passages were given the name coloratura because they were supposed to give color to the situation. Monteverdi used them for that purpose, but they soon became very popular for their own sake, both with the singers and the people who heard them.

Josquin des Prez

After all, singers liked to show off how cleverly they could execute the ‘runs’, ‘shakes,’ and other ornaments. Audiences thought them wonderful and applauded the performance right after they sang, sometimes calling for them to repeat it.

Composers of operas discovered they had many things to take into account besides the purely artistic effect of their works. They had to satisfy the vanity of singers by giving them music which would show off their voices. They also had to amuse the people who were watching by giving them scenes which made a great emotional effect.

And so it has happened that showy coloratura, fine scenery, and beautiful dresses have often made an opera successful when both the play and the music set to it were rather inferior.

Monteverdi spent endless trouble in trying to make his music dramatic and appropriate at all points. As far as the voices were concerned his chief means were:

  • The simple recitative which the Florentines had invented,
  • Beautiful arias growing out of the recitative to give effect to the more expressive words,
  • Coloratura for special effects, such as the scene in the infernal regions and the one at the end of the opera, where Apollo and Orpheus ascend to heaven.

L’Orfeo shows the beginning of many different kinds of music since in it there are at least three distinct kinds of solo song besides dramatic choruses and a great deal of instrumental music.

Rehearsal of an Opera‘ by Marco Ricci

The modern orchestra also had its birth in this opera, for later composers followed Monteverdi’s example in making the orchestral music of their operas important and beautiful in itself. Thus the forms of the modern overture, and even to some extent the symphony, spring from Monteverdi’s curious collection of instruments.

Monteverdi’s Harmony

The new way of writing for a single voice with instrumental accompaniment had another very important effect: it brought about much clearer ideas of harmony.

When one voice sang alone, it naturally became the most important part. The instruments had rather to agree with it than to play independent music on their own account. Their parts became grouped together in chords which supported the voice exactly in the same homophonic style as that of hymn tunes.

An example of Monteverdi’s surviving letters

Moreover, the frequent use of these chords—especially those of the tonic, dominant, and subdominant which came so often to form the cadences— helped to establish their relations to one another in a key.

When once the existence of the key was recognized, all the wonderful effects achieved by changing from one key to another, as well as contrasting passages in different keys, could be gradually discovered.

Listen to ‘Messaggera’ from L’Orfeo (4 min)

Scroll the player to a spot between 29:00 and 30:00. You will see and hear a happy tune sung by Orpheus as the chorus dances around him. When the male shepherd starts to sing at 31:05, you’ll notice a shift in the tone of the music; this is a key shift. Then, when the female messenger starts to sing at 31:45, you’ll hear another key shift. You can listen for a little past this point. (Turn on English captions by clicking CC in the player.)

Monteverdi Explains His Approach

“I consider that the principal passions or emotions of the soul are three: namely, anger, serenity, and humility or supplication. The best philosophers affirm this. The very nature of our voice indicates this by having high, low, and middle ranges. The art of music reaffirms this in these three terms, ‘agitated,’ ‘soft,’ and ‘moderate.’

“In the works of the composers of the past I have found examples of the ‘soft’ and ‘moderate’ types, but never of the “agitated” style described by Plato in the third book of Rhetoric in these words, ‘take that harmony that would fittingly imitate the brave man going to war.’ Aware that contrasts move our soul, and that such is the purpose of all good music as Boethius asserts by saying ‘music is a part of us, and either ennobles or corrupts our behavior”—for this reason I have applied myself diligently to the rediscovery of this style…

“I put my ideas into practice when I wrote the Lament of Arianna. I found no book that could instruct me in the method of imitating the emotions; still less, one that could make it clear to me that I should be an imitator of nature.

“Plato was the exception, one of whose ideas was, however, so obscure that, with my weak sight and at such great distance, I could hardly apprehend the little he could teach me.

“I must say that it cost me great effort to complete the laborious work needed to achieve the little I have accomplished in the imitation of nature. For this reason, I hope I shall not cause displeasure. If I should succeed in bringing this work to a conclusion, as I so dearly wish, I should count myself happy to be praised less for modern compositions than for those in the traditional style.”