Palestrina and Monteverdi (40 min)
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina was the greatest composer of church music in the Renaissance.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”