Listening Log- [Pt. V- Proj.4]- Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina’s – Missa Papae Marcelli

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina’s – Missa Papae Marcelli (1562)

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525 –1594) wrote his Latin Mass Ordinary ‘Missa Papae Marcelli’ somewhere around 1562 although it was not published until 1567. Historians and critics have long believed that Palestrina composed the Mass in a response to the Catholic Church’s concern about the use of polyphony in sacred music. This was an issue discussed at the meeting of the Council of Trent in 1563. The Church’s concern was twofold, namely that secular song melodies were often either parodied or used as cantus firmus in polyphonic music. This was considered a potentially ‘impure’ source and secondly that the use of polyphony and too many imitating and overlapping lines obscured the text. Although it seems like Palestrina had begun his composition before the abovementioned meeting rather than in response to it, it does appear to have eased the Church’s mind in terms of using polyphony in church music.

The way in which Palestrina’s ‘Missa Papae Marcelli’ assuaged their fears was also twofold. The composition is not based around previous music but is rather newly composed by Palestrina himself and secondly, Palestrina restricted the counterpoint to stepwise motion (using a motif of a rising perfect fourth interval, descending back down stepwise) and barely used imitation, thus avoiding text overlapping. He used one note per syllable (syllabic) and endeavoured to use block chords to make the voices change syllables at the same time (homorhythmically). This declamatory style made the text much easier to hear. He made an exception for certain lines which he scored melismatically, such as the word ‘Fili’ in order to enhance their spiritual meaning, using ‘word painting’. These instances were rare and strategically placed as a sort of ‘spiritual punctuation’ of certain lines. He also varied the texture by using different combinations of voices. Although the mass was written for a six-voice a Cappella chorus the number of voices heard together changed throughout the mass. For instance, all six voices (SATTBB) joined in to emphasise the words ‘Domini Fili’ but otherwise rarely all sing at once. The opening textures were instead monophonic and sung by the cantor as had been the norm in early Renaissance masses.

As the typical norm of a Mass Ordinary it is in five sections, although Palestrina created a subsection out of the last part creating an extra movement, he called Agnus II. The movements vary slightly in compositional styles.

Kyrie is made up of three sections and resembles his earlier style the most, expanding on a main motif into imitative polyphony. The text here is brief rather than ‘wordy; which makes polyphony possible. Quite typically the subject enters in one voice first, here it come is in on a D with Tenor I, then followed by the Cantus, outlining a rising fourth motif to the G after which a second duet between Bassus II and Altus takes place, preserving the melodic shape of the rising fourth and cadencing on G. The entire Kyrie section eventually cadences on C (making G the co-finalis). This type of imitative contrapuntal writing was very typical of the time and of Palestrina’s work up to that point.

Gloria opens with the typical monophonic cant (plainchant) ‘Glory to God in the highest’ to which the chorus responds ‘Et in Terra Pax’. The chorus is divided up into smaller cells of three or four. All voices join in for the words ‘Jesu Christe.’ In places where the text is easily intelligible there is some additional polyphonic writing but generally the pattern follows a homophonic, syllabic entrance of four voices then answered by another set of voices and the only ‘tutti’ sections are the ones mentioned above.

Credo has homorhythmically sung text and only longer syllables are decorated; like the downward phrase ‘descendit de caelis’ where word painting is used. Palestrina uses a sequence of cadences to propel the music forward. The lines are sung by alternating parts of the choir apart from ‘Et in Spiritum Sanctum’ and when the Resurrection is mentioned, where everyone joins in. The ‘Amen’ at the end of the section is long and drawn out.

Sanctus elaborates and develops the idea of using cadences as a means of forward movement with cadences moving from C, F, D, G and back to C again. This seems to me a precursor to later key modulating techniques. The text is very sparse so there is more opportunity for polyphonic writing. The Benedictus has canonical writing, first entering with dual voices and then individually.

Agnus Dei mimics Kyrie’s the imitative polyphony, repeating the opening

Agnus II is actually scored for seven voices, partially made up of a three-part canon of the main motif. All the 7 voices finally join in for the textual climax.

Having listened to numerous recordings of the Missa my preferred performance is one I found on youtube by the Tallis Scholars. It is credited as; “Peter Phillips: The Tallis Scholars” [Album]“Palestrina: The Tallis Scholars sing Palestrina”. Licensed to YouTube by GimellRecords (on behalf of Gimell), and 5 Music Rights Societies.

My enjoyment of Palestrina’s music very much depends on the setting in which I am listening to it and also my own state of mind. In a church, in the right quiet atmosphere I can find it exceedingly beautiful, however when I am not in a particularly contemplative state of mind I do struggle with boredom and a sense of ‘sameness’. This Missa is a bit more interesting since there are both polyphonic and heterophonic sections. The styles and size of choir vary from section to section which helps things from getting too repetitive or noodle-y. Regardless of my mood I do remain impressed by Palestrina’s mastery of his style.