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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Palestrina: Purity and Passion

Many composers have written operas. Some composers even write operas with other composers, such as Verdi who had the text for Falstaff written by another composer, Arrigo Boito, or Samuel Barber, whose partner, the composer Gian Carlo Menotti, wrote the libretto for his opera Vanessa. But not many composers write operas about other composers. There is one, however. Listen to this: [listen]

This was an extract from the opera Palestrina, composed by Hans Pfitzner, which was completed in 1915 and premiered in Munich in 1917. This unusual work is on the surface one composer’s tribute to another, but it is also Pfitzner’s tribute to himself. The alleged tribulations of the great Renaissance composer Palestrina are presented as an allegory of Pfitzner’s own troubles, the misunderstood artist fighting the philistine critics, restrictive overlords and creative blocks. It also shows how Palestrina had taken on a legendary status; at the end of the first act (in the extract above) he is inspired by the angels to compose the Missa Papae Marcelli, the mass which will save church music from oblivion.

What sort of composer inspires an opera like this? To start with, Palestrina is one of the iconic figures in the history of music, the composer who has come to represent all that is good and right and pure in the area of late Renaissance church music. As always, though, the truth is more complex than the myth. In this article I want to look at the life and music of Palestrina to try to understand him, and his place in history, a little better. Here’s a little of his sound world to get our minds in focus. [listen]

It’s not certain exactly when, or even where, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina was born. He was definitely born between February 1525 and February 1526, but he may have been born in Rome rather than the town of Palestrina in the Sabine Hills near Rome which gives him his name.

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina

Few details of Palestrina’s early life are certain. After his early training, which probably took place at the church Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, he gained his first appointment in 1544, around the age of 19, in the town of Palestrina. This was as organist at the cathedral of St Agapito, a position which also involved training choirboys and undertaking other teaching duties.

He married Lucrezia Gori in 1547, and they had three children together over the next eleven years. In 1551 he relocated to Rome, to take up the prestigious post of magister cantorum at the Cappella Giulia in St Peter’s. Virtually nothing is known of Palestrina’s activities as a composer until his first publication in 1554, a volume of masses dedicated to the Pope, Julius III.

In January 1555 Palestrina was admitted as a member of the Pope’s private chapel, the Capella Sistina, or Sistine Chapel. This was despite the rules prohibiting married men from being part of the papal choir, but the Pope granted him special permission to be employed. Julius III died three months later and was succeeded by Marcellus II, who died after only being in office for three weeks. The new Pope, Paul IV, rigorously enforced the choir’s celibacy rule and in September, after barely eight months at the Sistine Chapel, Palestrina and two other married choristers were dismissed, albeit with a modest pension.

Capella Sistina (Sistine Chapel), Rome

The following month he was appointed maestro di cappella at the famous Roman church of St John Lateran, where he stayed for five years before resigning after a dispute with the church authorities over financial arrangements for his musicians.

San Giovanni in Laterano (St John Lateran), Rome

Palestrina was then employed by the church where he had been trained, Santa Maria Maggiore and he seems to have stayed there until 1565. The following year he was appointed maestro at the new Roman Seminary, which also provided an education for his sons. Around this time he also undertook other periods of employment with wealthy patrons, combining this work with his other positions.

Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome

Palestrina’s reputation as a composer spread throughout Europe from the 1560s and he continued to publish volumes of sacred music and madrigals throughout his life. In 1571 he took up his final appointment, one which would last him 23 years until his death: he returned as choirmaster to St Peter’s and the Capella Giulia, where he had worked in the 1550s.

Regardless of his professional stability, Palestrina suffered great personal hardship in the 1570s and 80s. His brother and his two elder sons died of plague, and 1580 his wife also died. He considered joing the priesthood after Lucrezia’s death but decided against this and remarried eight months later. His second wife, Virginia Dormoli, was a wealthy widow and in his later years Palestrina combined his extensive musial work with a keen interest in his wife’s business dealings, investing in land and property.

Even before his death in 1594, Palestrina had taken on the status of the greatest composer of church music in the world. He was held in awe by his contemporaries and his iconic status as composer of perfect Renaissance polyphony only continued to grow after his death. This has tended to overshadow the fact that Palestrina was not, as Pfitzner’s self-confessed “musical legend” would have us believe, holding out for polyphony against the philistine zeal of the counter-reformation. Palestrina was a practical man, who managed to synthesise the beauty of earlier Renaissance polyphony with the new wind which was blowing through the church, and through the arts generally.

A great deal of Palestrina’s music was published during his life, mostly in Rome, in collections according to type: volumes of masses, motets and madrigals. It may come as a surprise to learn that Palestrina wrote secular music, but he did. Here’s an example of his secular madrigal writing, from the Second Book of Madrigals for Four Voices, published in 1586. Alla riva del Tebro sets a poem of unrequited love, a popular theme for madrigals at the time. [listen]

Actually, madrigals in the late 16th and early 17th centuries were not exclusively secular compositions. While Palestrina did write many secular madrigals, he also wrote what are known as spiritual madrigals, a peculiarly Roman form of partsong which was used as part of devotional practice in the many oratories and confraternities which flourished in the counter-reformation period. Here’s an example, a setting of a cycle of meditations by Petrarch on the Virgin Mary. This cycle was set to music by a number of composers, and Palestrina’s cycle sets the first eight poems. [listen]

The counter-reformation, that movement within the Catholic church which sought renewal and the curbing of secular influences as a direct response to the Lutheran reformation, is integral to an understanding of most of Palestrina’s work. He wrote at a vital time in the history of the church and in the history of western music. The Council of Trent, held in northern Italy in three separate periods between 1545 and 1563, had sought to encourage private devotion and faith. In public worship this had its strongest impact in the area of the words used in the liturgy. Renewed emphasis was placed on the words being clearly intelligible in worship and this had a direct and obvious influence on church music. Overly-complex polyphony was frowned upon; the music had to be simpler and the words clearer. Palestrina wasn’t the composer who had to deal with these issues; they were issues which affected every musician in the western church.

Council of Trent, painting in the Museo del Palazzo del Buonconsiglio, Trento

This is not to say that polyphony died out, of course. But these developments came in the late 1500s, at exactly the same time as western music in general was becoming simpler, less polyphonic, more direct. This is the period of the Florentine intellectuals whose experiments led to the birth of opera. It’s also the period which led to the developments of Monteverdi, who was a generation younger than Palestrina, and in due course, the birth of the Baroque. Palestrina wasn’t separate from all this; he was part of the same world.

There are 104 masses definitely by Palestrina which have survived. These are settings of the Ordinary of the Mass: Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus and Benedictus, and Agnus Dei, for choirs ranging from 4 parts to 8 parts, plus one movement from a mass in 12 parts. Palestrina’s settings are always unaccompanied, although there is some evidence to suggest that in some churches instruments may have been added according to local practice, but this is highly conjectural.

Of these 104 masses only 9 are not based on any known pre-existing material. It was very common in the 16th century to use other music as a starting point for a polyphonic mass such as those written by Palestrina. 53 of the 104 are based on pre-existing compositions, 22 by Palestrina himself and 31 by other composers. In these types of masses, segments of the earlier works are adapted and rewritten to some degree, providing a recognisable seed from which the new mass grows. Such masses are called “parody” masses. A more accurate term, suggested in the New Grove Dictionary, is “imitation” mass, which gives a much clearer idea of what’s going on.

Here’s an example. In 1565 a secular madrigal by the minor Neopolitan composer Giovan Leonardo Primavera was published, and it obviously caught Palestrina’s eye as he used it as the basis of a mass. Primavera’s madrigal, called Nasce la gioja mia, is scored for six voices (2 sopranos, alto, 2 tenors and bass). [listen]

Palestrina used different bits of this madrigal as starting points for different bits of the mass. For example, listen to the opening of the madrigal again, and then listen to this link, which is the opening of Palestrina’s mass. [listen]

In the case of masses based on pre-existing material, the mass is known by the title of the foundation work. Therefore, Primavera’s madrigal, Nasce la gioja mia, is the basis of Palestrina’s Missa Nasce la gioja mia. “Missa” means mass.

Among the 53 surviving “parody” or “imitation” masses of Palestrina, 9 are based on secular partsongs like this. Of these 9, 3 are by Palestrina himself and the other 6 are by other composers. However the vast majority of the parody masses - 44 of them - were based on sacred works. Here’s the opening of Palestrina’s sumptuous motet Tu es Petrus, published in 1572. Note the division of the choir into high and low voices at the start. [listen]

Palestrina used the motet very clearly as the basis of every movement of one of his greatest masses, obviously called Missa Tu es Petrus. He sometimes kept the basic material fairly much as it was in the motet, such as in the opening of the Kyrie. In the motet, though, the high voices started and the low voices responded. In the first Kyrie, it’s the other way around. Then the music suggests different ideas and courses of action to Palestrina, and it goes its own way, referring from time to time to the music of the motet. [listen]

In other parts of the mass Palestrina overlays the material from the motet with extra ideas. In the Sanctus, the opening of which includes the same material which opened the motet and the Kyrie, but in this case there are extra moving parts against it. [listen]

So, 53 of Palestrina’s 104 surviving and authentic masses are based on pre-existing polyphonic works by himself or others. What about the rest? Of the remaining 51, 42 are “paraphrase” masses. These are also based on pre-existing material, but the material is not a multi-voiced composition. Rather, the mass is based on a single-voiced melody, usually a Gregorian chant but in some cases it’s a secular song. In some cases, such as the Missa Ecce sacerdos magnus, the Gregorian chant is exclusively in one of the voice parts in long notes, with all the other parts weaving free parts around it, but this was a rather old-fashioned approach by Palestrina’s time. More commonly paraphrase masses have all the parts in some way derived from the original melody. Here’s the Gregorian antiphon Ave regina caelorum. [listen]

The chant falls very naturally into smaller self-contained sections, each of which provided Palestrina with the melodies for a new mass. Here’s part of Palestrina’s Missa Ave regina caelorum, based, believe it or not, on what you just heard.

Of Palestrina’s 9 “free” masses, those masses not based on any known pre-existing material, the most famous is probably the Missa Papae Marcelli, dedicated to Pope Marcellus II who only reigned for three weeks in 1555 while Palestrina was a member of the Sistine Chapel choir. On Good Friday 1555, the third day of his tragically short reign, Marcellus called his singers together to inform them that the music for Holy Week should be more in keeping with the character of the season, and that the words should be clearly understood. The Mass dedicated to Marcellus II was published in 1567 and quite possibly the dedication to the long-dead Pope is a reference to this requirement of austerity and verbal clarity. The Missa Papae Marcelli was seized upon by those seeking to portray Palestrina as the champion of musical art, as it was claimed that this mass persuaded the Council of Trent not to rule against polyphony and demand that all worship revert to Gregorian chant. This is what Pfitzner’s opera is all about, but it’s basically a fiction.

What is true, though, is that this mass is a wonderful compromise between elaborate polyphony on the one hand, and clarity of text on the other. In the longer Gloria and Credo movements, where there is a lot of text to get through, there is almost no real polyphony at all, but such is the beauty of Palestrina’s art that we don’t really notice. And while there are many fine recordings of this beautiful and famous work, I can’t go past the famous Tallis Scholars recording, released 40 years ago this year and still as moving and as beautiful a benchmark for Palestrina performance as one could hope for. [listen]

Palestrina’s music seems to speak to us from another world, but a world in which we can somehow gain a foothold. To me its purity is somehow cleansing, and I often listen to Palestrina if I need to relax or clear my mind from the turmoils of daily life. I hope this article has helped you understand the man and his wonderful music a little more.

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in July, 2004.

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