A little over 400 years ago - in 1594 - the people of Rome were mourning the death of the most famous composer of the day. The great Palestrina had died. Composer and director of music for popes and cardinals and for the great basilicas of Rome, this musical giant was laid to rest with honor in one of the side chapels of St. Peter's, the plaque on his coffin bearing the inscription, "Prince of Music."
Although music historians are not entirely certain, it seems likely that Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina was born in 1525 in a town near Rome named Palestrina ("da Palestrina" means "from Palestrina"). His musical training took place at the great Roman basilica, Santa Maria Maggiore where he was a choirboy. At the age of nineteen he was appointed organist of the cathedral in the town of Palestrina. There he played the organ and taught music to the choirboys and the canons of the cathedral. In 1547 he married Lucrezia Gori who bore him three children. As luck would have it, the Bishop at the cathedral (by the name of Cardinal del Monte) was elected Pope in 1550. He had come to admire greatly the young composer during his years in Palestrina, and now, as Pope Julius III, he brought Palestrina to Rome to become the maestro of the Cappella Giulia, one of the two prestigious musical establishments of St. Peter's - the other being the Sistine Chapel Choir.
By 1554 Palestrina's first published compositions were appearing. The title page of his first collection of masses shows the composer kneeling in front of the Pope, presenting him with the score and getting his blessing. The printing of this first collection of masses was obviously a very important event, not just because of the papal blessing, but because it was the very first collection of masses ever published in Rome.
In 1555 Palestrina was admitted to the Cappella Sistina, the pope's official musical chapel. Palestrina's popularity with Pope Julius was made very clear with this appointment, for two reasons: first, Palestrina was married, and that was forbidden to members of that cappella; and second, the appointment came "on the orders of His Holiness Pope Julius, without any examination ... and without the consent of the singers." Three months later Pope Julius died. He was succeeded by Pope Marcellus II, who died after only three weeks as pope, and then by Pope Paul IV, the intransigent defender of the Counter-Reformation. In 1555 a strict enforcement of the celibacy rule of the chapel forced Palestrina - and the few other married employees - to leave their positions, with only a modest pension.
It didn't take Palestrina long to find another important position however. Less than one month later he was appointed maestro di cappella at the great church of St. John the Lateran. This position had recently been filled by one of the other great figures of late Renaissance music, Orlandus Lassus. Palestrina's years at St. John the Lateran were apparently unhappy, for there were never sufficient funds for the music program. Palestrina left abruptly in 1560, and also took his son Rodolfo, who was a choirboy there. In 1561 Palestrina returned to Santa Maria Maggiore, the place where he received his training. In 1564 Cardinal Ippolito II d'Este hired Palestrina to take charge of all summer musical activities at his famous country estate, the Villa d'Este. In 1571, on the death of Animuccia, Palestrina returned to his post as maestro di cappella of the Cappella Giulia, and remained at St. Peter's for the rest of his life.
Personal misfortune hit Palestrina severely in the 1570s. A terrible plague caused the deaths of his brother, two of his sons, and his wife. Devastated, Palestrina considered joining the priesthood. But this was not to be, for on February 28, 1581, Palestrina married Virginia Dormoli, just eight months after his first wife's death. The new bride was a wealthy widow of a Roman fur merchant. For the first time in his life Palestrina was freed from financial worries. He spent his remaining years composing, running his wife's business, and investing in real estate. He died in 1594.
Along with Byrd and Lassus, Palestrina today is considered one of the three great masters of the late Renaissance. Although he composed many secular madrigals, the bulk of his compositions are sacred choral works. And what a vast output it is! The complete works of Palestrina number somewhere around 1,000 pieces. That includes around 300 motets and offertories. Today the complete works are published in 77 volumes.
The story behind the composition of Palestrina's Missa Papae Marcelli is one of the most famous - and least proven - in music history. As the story goes, the liturgical politics of the day attacked the elaboratelycomposed polyphonic masses that had been the norm of the great Renaissance composers. The councils of the Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation didn't want complicated Mass compositions, where the words were hidden beneath a dense blanket of musical counterpoint. They wanted simple music where the words could be understood easily. Palestrina's Pope Marcellus Mass was written to show that classical counterpoint and clarity of text setting could live together, and thus Palestrina "saved music."
Like many music history stories this one probably has at least some elements of truth in it. It does seem that there was a movement in the church for greater textural clarity. During his three weeks as pontiff, Pope Marcellus (for whom this mass may well have been written) did indeed express his desires that the words should be clearly understood. And we have the mass itself as evidence. The two movements which would have been at issue - because of their long texts - the Gloria and the Credo - most certainly do set forth the Latin words in the most clear manner imaginable. But to say he "saved music".
The mass is in seven movements. The Kyrie, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei 1 & II represent the highest achievement of Palestrina's serene, flowing, spiritually elevated style. They are quintessential Palestrina, each individual vocal line rising and falling on its own while at the same time combining with all the other vocal lines to create those wonderful soaring sonorities, the rise and fall of the whole ensemble of voices. The Benedictus, scored only for sopranos, altos, and tenors I & II, provides a delicate, tender, ravishingly beautiful interlude between the other full chorus movements. The Gloria and Credo are composed with a brilliant combination of traditional Renaissance counterpoint (each voice part independent) and chordal, block-like musical treatment of the text. In the latter style Palestrina would group together some of his six voice parts and contrast them with another group of voice parts, achieving a wonderful variety of choral textures. This technique, employed as Palestrina did, was actually quite ahead of its time, pointing to the chordal, block-like writing for varying sonorities as perfected by the Venetian school. (An interesting further similarity is a detail from the last measures of the Gloria: while the rest of the choir is sustaining the final chord of the Gloria the first basses sing a little flourish which sounds exactly like a trademark ending of Giovanni Gabrieli. Here Palestrina uses it about thirty years before Gabrieli.)
It has been the tradition to characterize Palestrina as a conservative composer, primarily because one does not find in his music some of the mannerisms of late Renaissance composers, for example chromaticism or figurations. But I think this is an erroneous evaluation, and I expect the scholarly writings on Palestrina will change in the coming years. There are three aspects of his music which actually point forward to the baroque: his use of harmony, rhythm, and his use of contrasting groups or blocks of sonority. We've already discussed the last aspect. The Gloria and Credo also provide perfect examples of modern use of harmony and rhythm. Throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance - in broadest generalities - the harmonic language of sacred choral compositions was modal. In the baroque period a tonal language of harmony was gradually developed. This is the major-minor, tonic-dominant harmonic language of most of Western music composed between 1600-1900, roughly.
Most of Palestrina's music was still written under the spell of the church modes. But much of this mass has a definite tonal feel, including dominant-tonic relationships. Likewise, this particular Gloria and this particular Credo are not written with the normal arsis and thesis (rise and fall) rhythmic feeling of most Renaissance choral music. Except for certain sections in the older style, most of these two movements have a genuine feeling of meter (regular strong and weak beats - another baroque aspect), even syncopations (accented off-beats). Listeners who have heard the Gloria and Credo on recordings or performances with other groups will notice a profound difference with our interpretations here. All other performances I have ever heard do these movements considerably slower, in the ebb and flow, rise and fall style common with much of Palestrina's other music. I feel these movements differently. After years of working with this music, I feel there is a completely different internal rhythm in these movements - a livelier rhythm which is married perfectly with the natural declamation of the Latin words. Perhaps you will agree!
From the approximately 300 motets and offertories I have chosen nine. The first, Tu es Petrus, is set to a text which is traditionally used at ordinations of priests or for the liturgies surrounding the election of popes. When hearing this celebrated motet one can easily picture great processions and pontifical liturgies taking place amidst the splendors of St. Peter's in Rome.
Secundum multitudinem is an exceptionally beautiful work where feelings of sadness and consolation subtly mingle together. It is set for six voice parts: five of them sing continuous lines of counterpoint, imitating each other, while an independent sixth part (Alto II) sings a recurring ostinato on the words "Miserere mei, Deus" ("Have mercy on me, Lord"). We are separating these altos from the rest of the choir to bring out this ostinato.
Exultate Deo is one of Palestrina's finest animated motets. Each section vividly expresses its phrase of text: notice in particular "Buccinate in nomenia tuba" ("Blow the trumpet.")
The simple and meditative 0 Domine Jesu Christe appears in the complete works of Palestrina, but it was quite possibly composed by someone else. In terms of style, it is similar to the Tenebrae factae sunt of Ingegneri (found on our recording Voices of Ascension - From Chant to Renaissance). Its pious, direct expression of the text marks it as a perfect example of Counter-Reformation music in Rome.
Super flumina Babilonis is one of Palestrina's most evocative motets. The psalm text tells of the Children of Israel who have been captured, exiled from Jerusalem, and made slaves. With great poetry Palestrina depicts them on the banks of a river, longing to return to their homeland.
Sicut cervus is probably Palestrina's single most famous composition, and justly so. This beautiful, special work represents the quintessential Palestrina motet. The compositional style is the most typical for Palestrina: each phrase of text has its own section which is made up of a melodic theme passed from one voice part to the next, and then a new phrase of text with a new melody and new section, and so forth. Palestrina's great gifts were: 1) that all the beautiful individual vocal lines combine into such an amazingly gorgeous and seamless whole, and 2) all this counterpoint subtly and perfectly evokes the meaning and atmosphere of the text.
The next motet, Ascendo ad Patrem, certainly has one of the best word-paintings in Palestrina's compositions: the very first phrase has an octave leap in each voice part on the opening word ("Ascendo" - "I ascend".)
It is a tightly-composed, joyous motet for the Feast of the Ascension.
Peccantem me quotidie is one of Palestrina's most unusual, remarkable motets. In fact, when I first played the work, I thought there had to be mistakes in the printed score. Some of the harmonies were so strange and a portion of the piece went so low - there had to be something wrong. Then I noticed the corresponding text, and, of course, it all made sense. The motet begins beautifully, hauntingly, as it meditates on the words, "Peccantem me quotidie, et non poenitentem" ("I have been sinning every day, without repentance."). Suddenly, the music shifts: "timor mortis conturbat me" ("and now the fear of death torments me."). Here Palestrina uses the strangest progression of chords I have ever heard in his music. It seems confused, going nowhere, full of turmoil. What a wonderful setting of the text! Then, at the words "quia in inferno nulla est redemptio" ("because in Hell there is no redemption"'). Palestrina takes the voices to their lowest regions. Finally, the choir implores forgiveness ("Miserere"), and during the last plaintive measures we hear an occasional major chord, hinting at an ultimate redemption.
It seemed a good idea to sing the second Agnus Dei from the Missa Papae Marcelli near the end of our program, instead of placing it after the first Agnus Dei. To begin with, this second setting was quite possibly not part of the Missa Papae Marcelli, but simply included along with it in certain manuscript sources. (The first printed editions did not include the second Agnus Dei). An examination of the music supports that idea, for Agnus Dei II was composed in a different style from the movements of the Missa Papae Marcelli and for different voice parts. What it does share with the Mass is the sublime, soaring, spiritual qualities that take the listener to another world. This is truly one of Palestrina's most exceptional, transcendent works. No doubt it was music like this that inspired those Romans 400 years ago to name Palestrina the "Prince of Music."
To close our program we have chosen the brilliant motet Dum complerentur, composed for the great feast day Pentecost. On this day God sent the Holy Spirit - the mighty wind, the source of inspiration to all humans. Palestrina's music wonderfully depicts the text. As suddenly ("subito") a great wind comes, we find the disciples and all followers everywhere singing "Alleluias" from every corner of the world.