Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina occupies an unrivalled position in the history of music and in particular in Catholic church music. His style of counterpoint, taken as a model for imitation by later generations, epitomized the aesthetic aims of the Counter-Reformation, the perfection of the stile antico, and has had an even wider influence as an essential element in the traditional teaching of compositional technique.
Palestrina, his name taken from his presumed place of birth in 1525 or 1526, spent the greater part of his life in the nearby city of Rome. His early training was as a chorister at the basilica of S Maria Maggiore (St Mary Major), where he had a chance to learn something of the current Franco-Flemish musical tradition at first hand. By 1544 he was serving as organist in Palestrina but in 1551 he returned to Rome, through the agency of Pope Julius III, previously Bishop of Palestrina. Here he was appointed director of music at the Cappella Giulia at St Peter's, established by Pope Julius II. His first book of Masses was published in 1554, with a dedication to the Pope, and the following year he joined the Cappella Sistina, but the death of the Pope and three weeks later of his successor Pope Marcellus, was followed by the enforcement of the rule of celibacy for members of the Sistine Chapel, under the rule of Pope Paul TV, and Palestrina's dismissal, with other married members of the chapel. He now became maestro di cappella of S Giovanni in Laterano (St John Lateran), retaining his position until his resignation in 1560. A period of employment at S Maria Maggiore followed, with the opportunity to undertake further work in the service of Cardinal Ippolito II d'Este and to enhance still further his reputation as a composer. From 1571 until his death in 1594 he was again at the Cappelia Giulia, remaining there in spite of attempts by other patrons to induce him to enter their service.
The Council of Trent, assembled in 1545 to bring about a reformation of ecclesiastical and liturgical practice, reflected common humanist aims in its insistence on the clarity of words in liturgical music. In popular legend Palestrina has been credited with saving polyphony, against its opponents in the Council who favoured plainchant, by his composition of the Missa Papae Marcelli. Whatever the truth of the story, the Mass certainly demonstrates the possibility of intelligibility of the familiar words in liturgical music in more florid styles. His knowledge of and interest in the traditional plainchant of the Church is exemplified in the task he undertook in 1577 of revising the chant of the Graduate Romanum and the Antiphonate, work that he left unfinished at his death.
There has been controversy about the dating of the Missa Papae Marcelli. Pope Marcellus, who had expressed an intention to reform church music so that the words could easily be heard and understood, reigned only for three weeks in early 1555. If the Mass was written during his pontificate, then it must be dated to 1555. If it was in memory of Pope Marcellus or simply a tribute in accordance with his principles, it could have been written at a later date. After the Council of Trent a commission of cardinals was established, meeting in Rome in 1564 and 1565 to consider the question of church music. Legend has it that, as in Pfitzner's opera Palestrina, the composer's work was heard, with others, as an example of what could be done to provide intelligibility in a polyphonic context. The work was, in any case, published in 1567 in Palestrina's second collection of Mass settings. It follows the general guidance that was eventually to result from the Council of Trent in its general clarity of texture and apparent avoidance of a secular cantus firmus, although some have chosen to find in it a subversive reference to the popular L'homme armé (The Armed Man), suggested at the outset and recurring in later movements. In the end, however, the Council did not specifically condemn the use of a secular cantus firmus, although there had been a general injunction against music that was 'lascivious or impure'. Palestrina himself later published two Masses using L'homme armé as a basis, but in general made relatively little use of secular melodies in his music. Polyphonic structures in music of the period, it should be added, were often built on an existing melody, taken in sections and treated imitatively by voice after voice. While this so-called cantus firmus was often derived from plainchant, it could equally well be drawn from secular compositions of one sort or another. While the Council of Trent may have limited musical excesses, it certainly did not put an end to the use of secular sources of material.
The Missa Papae Marcelli is for the most part for six voices, entering in close imitation in the opening Kyrie eleison. The Christe eleison brings an immediate element of homophonic writing at the outset, as pairs of voices answer each other before a fuller texture is explored, and the final Kyrie allows the voices to enter in imitation. The Gloria is in general syllabic and often homophonic in its treatment of the text, as is the Credo, in which the initial cantus firmus is at first heard from the first bass. Palestrina continues to explore the possibilities of contrasted groupings of voices, using a quartet for the words Crucifixus etiam pro nobis, before the six-voice Et in Spiritum Sanctum. The Sanctus finds a place for melismata, a number of notes allocated to one syllable, while the Benedictus is given to four voices. There is a full polyphonic texture in the Agnus Dei, with an element of canonic writing in the second Agnus.
Palestrina's Missa Aeterna Christi Munera is principally for four voices and takes its title from the Matins hymn of the Common of the Apostles, with a melody now found in a modified form as the Hymn for Terce on Solemn Feasts, Nunc Sancte nobis Spiritus. The Mass was published in Rome in 1590 in the fifth collection of Palestrina's Mass settings. The four-voice Kyrie, in its smooth treatment of voices entering in imitation, offers a perfect example of Palestrina's achievement, although once again musicological detectives have sought to find traces of L'homme armé. The Gloria has a due admixture of the homophonic writing necessary in the wordier texts of the Mass and there is similar clarity of writing within the imitative textures of the setting of the Credo. In contrast to the four-voice Sanctus, the Benedictus is set for three voices, joined by the fourth voice for the Hosanna in excelsis. The first theme, that has served as a basis for the first Kyrie, the Sanctus and the Hosanna, is used for the Agnus Dei, with the final Agnus Dei allotted to five voices.
ReviewsThe performances are as delightful as the music - David Hurwitz, ClassicsToday.com