Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina
Missa Papae Marcelli



by musichub USER (11 Reviews)
December 11th, 2021 | 3 replies

Release Date: 1562 | Tracklist

Review Summary: Part X: The Saviour of polyphony

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (c. 1525 - 2 February 1594) was, after Josquin des Prez, the most popular composer of the entire Renaissance. His popularity was indicative of the gradual relocation of musical development's centricity, from the Burgundian school of thought in the Frankish/Flemish lands to a new school developing in Italy. The burgeoning spread of printed music publications was of special benefit to Italian-born or -employed composers, both of sacred music and of a newer secular genre popularized by names like Philippe Verdelot, Jacques Arcadelt and Cipriano de Rore: the madrigal. An heir to previous Italian secular genres such as the frottola, the madrigal grew exceptionally popular because it lent itself to being easily singable, even by amateurs, and madrigal collections were selling furiously as early as the late 1530s, maybe ten years after the genre first came into being.

Palestrina's sacred music has endured much more than his madrigals (in fact, it's said he held the secular genre in contempt for much of his life), but it's important to understand the broader context in which his career took place. Born in the town of Palestrina in central Italy, the young lad was an organist at his hometown church before being appointed maestro di cappella (musical director) at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome when he was only 26. Unlike other composers of the day, who often jumped from patron to patron, Palestrina would stay in Rome for the remainder of his life, attaching himself to a firm nationalistic identity that others would not have had the luxury of doing. This identity is particularly interesting when you consider that Palestrina's principal interest was the composition of masses, a practice slowly becoming out of fashion in the West generally in favor of settings for shorter sacred texts, and one that had never been especially in fashion among Italians to begin with.

The Missa Papae Marcelli ("Pope Marcellus Mass"), Palestrina's most popular composition in his day and in ours, is actually a relatively early work of his, and one that derives from somewhat bizarre inspiration (as the Pope Marcellus in question reigned a grand total of 22 days). Contrary to many masses of the day, it is not thematically strong, not being based around preexisting melodic material or even a consistent cantus firmus. Melodic motives are ephemeral, short-lived and not especially homogeneous. And yet, the listener is not especially inclined to fixate on this lack of homogeneity - in fact, the work is seen as a high point of Renaissance music as a whole, one of the definitive mass settings ever written.

The appeal of Palestrina comes down to his harmony-writing, which ranks among the most fleshed-out and mature of any composer to have ever written music around this time. There is a heavy focus on hierarchy between consonant and dissonant musical sections: the consonant sections are generally placed in strong metrical positions (strong beats, in other words), and dissonances are placed in weak positions. It allows the listener to experience the dissonance as subservient to the consonance, emphasizing the warmer open sections of music while coasting through the tensions, necessary as they may be. Palestrina also writes this mass in a relatively homophonic style, focusing on making the text easily understood to listeners (a technique further expanded upon by English composers of the day, such as Thomas Tallis). Given how Western music has evolved in the 450-ish years since this piece's composition, it feels exceptionally palatable to modern ears; it's aged very, very well.

Legend has it that Palestrina wrote the Pope Marcellus Mass as a response to the Catholic Church's attempt at banning polyphony for being too unintelligible, too "impure". This is an overstatement at best: while the Counter-Reformation was in full swing at this time, the closest thing we have to documentation about musical bans is discussion at the Council of Trent about banning certain kinds of "lascivious" music, perhaps a reference to pieces inspired by especially raunchy secular melodies. Nevertheless, the narrative of Palestrina as Saviour of Western polyphony spread over the coming centuries, which is part of why his works have endured with the high esteem that they have. But there can be no doubt that these works are beautiful, and for the uninitiated wanting a starting point into the world of Renaissance choral music, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better starting point.

The Tallis Scholars (1980): mp;utm_source=copy-link

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December 11th 2021


Album Rating: 4.5

If you couldn't tell, the Tallis Scholars are hard to beat in my eyes when it comes to interpretations of Renaissance music. Hope to be writing more again soon.

December 11th 2021



December 14th 2021


The sanctus is beautiful

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