The history of music is filled with powerful myths. Most involve the genesis of a favorite work (Handel's Water Music, Mozart's Requiem, Beethoven's "Eroica" Symphony) or a crucial event in the life of a great composer (Beethoven's "Immortal Beloved," Schubert's fatal disease, Schumann's insanity). The most momentous tale of all credits Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina's Missa Papae Marcelli ("Pope Marcellus Mass") with nothing less than single-handedly rescuing the future course of the art of Western music from a ban by the all-powerful Catholic Church.
As with most legends, despite disputed details and an inevitable degree of elaboration, this one at least is based in fact. While distaste for "modern" music has been rife in every era, a uniquely pernicious esthetic crisis was brewing in the mid-1500s – leaders of the Church, which effectively controlled the development of Western art, had become so shocked at the incursion of profane elements into sacred music that they were contemplating an outright ban. Church leaders insisted that the only legitimate role of music was to convey a religious text clearly and to focus listeners' hearts upon the underlying message, as idealized in the tranquil, linear simplicity of Gregorian chant. But according to accounts of the time, in the view of Church officials these goals had become threatened by complicated polyphonic writing that obscured the words, dance rhythms and allusions to popular song melodies that sowed secular and even lewd thoughts, and an overall aura that gave "empty pleasure to the ears" rather than a focus on the purity of divine worship.
In fairness to what may seem a philistine outlook, Lewis Lockwood notes that the sixteenth century held a deep belief in the power of music, and so it was only natural for the Church to insist that the hallowed capacity of music be devoted to sacred tasks. Indeed, Lockwood notes that the redemptive power of music had venerable roots, stemming from the ancient Greek legend of Orpheus, whose beautiful playing procured the release of his wife Eurydice from the underworld (although he could not resist the forbidden temptation to look back and thus lost her again). We also should note that this attitude was hardly confined to the distant past – the 1907 edition of the authoritative Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians characterized music at the time of Palestrina as "bristling with inept and distracting artifices – the most solemn phrases of Mass set to unedifying refrains of lewd chansons" and carped that "dance music played upon the organ and other irregularities and corruptions hardly less flagrant were common."
In any event, Church discontent came to a head toward the end of the 18-year Council of Trent, convened to bolster Church doctrines against Protestant heresy and to weed out internal abuses. On September 10, 1562 the Council issued a Canon demanding that "nothing profane be intermingled [with] hymns and divine praises" and banishing "all music that contains, whether in the singing or in the organ playing, things that are lascivious or impure." To meet the Council's abstract mandate, a committee headed by Cardinal Boromeo, the Archbishop of Milan, was delegated the daunting task of determining whether music could be sufficiently purified – and was invested with the authority to implement its findings.
At that point, the facts become blurred. It is clear both that the threatened ban never took effect, and that Church composers immediately adopted a more conservative style, but the chronology is obscure, as is Palestrina's role. Indeed, there is no direct evidence that he did anything more than react to the dictate of the cultural gatekeepers, as did all other composers seeking acceptance of their work. So where did the potent myth originate?
The first explicit reference only arose nearly a generation after Palestrina's death in a 1607 treatise on figured bass by Agostini Agazzari, who asserted: "… music would have come very near to being banished from the Holy Church by a sovereign pontiff had not Giovanni Palestrina found the remedy, finding that the fault and error lay, not with music, but with the composers, and composing in confirmation of this the mass entitled Missa Papae Marcelli." Within four years, the claim was repeated in two other books. In 1629 the author of a third seemingly validated the contention by stating: "This was told by Palestrina himself to a certain member of our society from whom I heard it." Over the next two centuries the legend grew, abetted by scholarly perceptions that Palestrina had been the supreme master of the art of diatonic counterpoint, that in his hands polyphony had reached its purest form and that true mastery could best be achieved from the study of his work. Indeed, in his hugely influential 1725 Gradus ad parnassum, from which generations of composers learned the principles of counterpoint, Johann Joseph Fux declared himself a mere pupil of Palestrina's artistry. This status served only to sustain the perception; as Lockwood notes, Palestrina's reputation endured while the vast bulk of his contemporaries' music passed into oblivion. By 1828, the first comprehensive biography of Palestrina by Guiseppe Baini embellished the tale yet further; filled with purple prose ("The fate of Church music hung from his pen"), it was accepted as authoritative for generations even though, in Lockwood's view, it was heavily romanticized and owed as much to hero-worship as to erudition.
Throughout the 19th Century, when music seemed as far removed from the manner of the Renaissance as possible, such divergent composers as Mendelssohn, Wagner, Verdi and Debussy all acclaimed Palestrina as a prime inspiration. Yet, veneration for Palestrina was not universal. Reflecting the strong sense of unfettered individual creativity and the musical ideals of the Romantic era, Hector Berlioz, not only a visionary composer but one of the most influential critics of his time, disparaged Palestrina as a musician who wrote without melody or rhythm, and whose harmony was "confined to perfect chords and a few suspensions," conceding only that he "may have had some taste and a certain amount of scientific knowledge." After so belittling the narrow range of Palestrina's expression, Berlioz likened him to an artist without hands who had to work with his feet. As for calling Palestrina a genius – "the idea is too absurd!"
The legend reached its most expansive expression in a 1917 opera by Hans Pfitzner, entitled, simply, Palestrina. The meditative orchestral prologues to each of its three acts of this long and deeply moving work are occasionally extracted and heard in concert. Set in a late-romantic style, complete with Wagnerian leitmotifs, the composer's own libretto takes substantial liberties with his subject's biography and casts the tale in cosmic terms as a battle of an artist's purity of spirit, striving to create for eternity while chafing against the trivial temporal politics of an ungrateful society. In the profoundly stirring climax to the first act, the deeply-depressed composer, who has lost all desire to write anything further, is visited by shades of past masters, who urge him to take his place as the final link in the glorious chain of principled and courageous artists who had defied society and clung to their ideals, and thus to perpetuate their memory and to save music from extinction. (Rafael Kubelik, who conducted the first recording, views the visitors as not ghosts of the past but more figuratively as Palestrina's own inner voices – that is, the compulsion that drives all great artists from within.) Angels then dictate the Marcellus Mass, which Palestrina writes in a single night, to be discovered at dawn by his son and a student, who collect and marvel at the pages splayed all over his study. The second act, occasionally presented as a spoken interlude, depicts the petty squabbling of the Council of Trent, all political intrigue with only passing mention of music – a sordid temporal contrast to the purity of the artist's vision. The final act returns to the composer's apartment as strains of the Marcellus Mass drift in from a performance before the Pope, who enters to bless Palestrina. Borrameo then begs forgiveness for having entertained any doubt, and a crowd surges in to hail the composer as the savior of music. The exquisite ending leaves the hero alone at his organ, his creative spark rekindled, as he quietly begins to ponder new visions and humbly asks God's blessing to complete his life's work devoted to divine service.
Palestrina himself dropped only a few indirect, and largely self-serving, hints as to the accuracy of the tale. In dedicating his second book of published Masses to King Philip of Austria in 1567, he wrote that he "considered it my task … to bend all my knowledge, effort and industry toward that which is the holiest and most divine of all things in the Christian religion to adorn the holy sacrifice of the music in a new manner." In 1570, he wrote to the Duke of Mantua to criticize the work of another composer: "If one can do with less the harmony will sound better" and faulted "the dense interweaving of the imitations" that caused the words to be obscured. In 1584, he disavowed his own early work as: "These very songs by men carried away with the passion and corruption of youth. … I blush and grieve to have been among their number." (Ironically, his apology prefaced settings of the Song of Songs, of whose earthly lust Palestrina saw no inconsistency with his rarified ideals, as he regarded them as depicting "unquestionably the love of Christ and his spouse, the [human] soul.") Thus, while Palestrina's own writings serve to confirm his conscious adoption of a "new" conservative style, nowhere does he suggest a crucial role for himself or for the Marcellus Mass.
Stronger, yet indirect, support comes from the diary of Pope Marcellus's private secretary, who wrote that on Good Friday, 1555, on just the third day of his three-week reign, Pope Marcellus convened his papal choir (in which Palestrina served) to enjoin them to sing with "properly modulated voices, and … in such a way that everything could be properly heard and understood."
Others, though, dispute the view of Palestrina as a hero. Allan W. Atlas asserts that it was Jacob de Kirle who may have demonstrated to the Trent delegates that polyphony was capable of projecting the words in an intelligible manner. Lockwood contends that it was Vincenzo Ruffo, chapel master at the Duomo of Milan, who was asked to compose a mass according to the Council's decree "that should be as clear as possible."
Indeed, the issue of the date of composition of the Marcellus Mass has never been reliably established. Some speculate that it was written shortly after the 1555 demise of the pontiff for whom it was named, presumably as a memorial tribute to his outlook. Yet based upon a stylistic evaluation of its melodic and rhythmic patterns, Jeppeson dates it around 1562-3 and notes that it had been copied into a collection of Santa Maria Maggiore (where Palestrina was chapel master) in 1563. Atlas agrees with that dating, and suggests that it may have been written in response to signals already emanating from the Council. Lockwood notes that its words are more intelligible than in any other of Palestrina's Masses, from which he surmises that it was indeed connected with the Council of Trent, even if not strictly in response to a Papal threat. He further notes that in 1562 Palestrina dedicated a book of motets to Cardinal Rudolfo Pio, who had been an enemy of church music at the Council, perhaps as a gesture of thanks for tempering or even reversing his antagonistic position. So perhaps the Marcellus Mass was closely related to the Council of Trent after all.
In any event, it seems beyond dispute that Palestrina was in the forefront of Church composers of his time. Named for the town of Palestrina near Rome in which he was born in 1525, he gained the distinction of holding prestigious musical appointments in all three of the most celebrated Roman churches. When the bishop of his home town became Pope Julius III, he appointed Palestrina maestro of the Vatican chapel at age 26 and in 1555, following dedication to Julius of a first volume of published Masses, Palestrina was made a member of the papal choir, even though he flouted several key established requirements – he was married, never took an entrance exam and never obtained the consent of the other members. Months later, Julius died. His successor, Marcellus II, reigned only three weeks, but during that time he made known his alarm over the direction of music and thus initiated the reforms that the Council of Trent would demand. He was replaced by Paul IV, an intransigent reformer, who dismissed Palestrina due to his marital status.
Except for some secular madrigals, Palestrina's entire art was devoted to the Church. Throughout his life, his extraordinarily prolific output included 104 Masses (far more than any other composer), over 250 motets, 68 offertories, 33 magnificats and numerous hymns and madrigals. (Yet he wasn't immune to secular temptation – after the death in short order of his wife, brother and two sons, Palestrina remarried a wealthy widow in 1581.) He was deeply revered, named a "Prince of Music" by Pope Gregory XII, and in 1584 was commissioned to revise the official Church chants to conform to the new liturgy and style, the result of which endured for three centuries.
In many ways, although the Missa Papae Marcelli conformed to the purist esthetic outlook of Pope Marcellus II, to whom it was named in tribute, it veers toward Renaissance music, whose developments Church superiors had come to view with such concern. As explained by Guilio Ongaro, musical progress of the time was motivated in part by the impetus of reform, abetted by resentment over the wealth and corruption of the entrenched Church leadership. A parallel force was an emerging sense of democracy, evidenced by textual commentary and criticism, patronage of the arts by aristocrats and nobility, and the printing and circulation of music. (Yet it seems too simplistic to directly relate esthetic trends of the time to social developments, as the two primary reformers, John Calvin and Martin Luther, who led the vanguard of religious progressives, both sought to limit the role of music in religious observance.)
As Atlas observes, Palestrina's music nowadays can seem abstract and emotionally disengaged despite its technical brilliance. Yet, within the esthetic constraints of the Counterrevolution and Palestrina's own stylistic rules, there is much to admire. His continuous and overlapping lines have a natural curvature, with mostly step progressions and complex internal rhythms far removed from the modern concept of distinct "beats." Indeed, the bar lines in modern editions are mere conveniences and are largely unrelated to the actual pulse. New phrases are marked by a different combination of voices and registers, with climactic text signified by leaps and consonances that suggest chords. Andrews explains Palestrina's appeal as the successful fusion of the linear counterpoint of earlier ages with the emerging harmonic counterpoint of the coming Baroque era, weaving together individual horizontal lines to imply vertical harmony, melding the old plainsong modes with the nascent diatonic scale system, and thus creating a wide range of emotional expression without bursting the bounds of emotional restraint. Andrews further attributes the overall structure to the interweaving of the strands' independent rhythms, an approach that creates emphasis as a function of duration, pitch, repetition, leaps, and, of course, the verbal accentuation of the words, together with harmonic intimations that coalesce at appropriate intervals. Melodies, while dictated by the speech patterns of the text, are a smooth and careful balance of ascending and descending curvilinear movement, even to the extent that most upward leaps are tempered by stepwise descents. Yet, despite these and other far more complex stylistic "rules," the overall result is a natural and unstrained setting of the words, which, as summarized succinctly by Lang, manages to impress as transparent and ethereally crystalline in spite of contrapuntal complexity. Perhaps another way to characterize the wonder of this music is to marvel that while the inner voices and other harmonic lines of nearly all other types of music tend to sound disjointed in isolation, here each part is full of melodic interest and can stand on its own, even while making a substantial contribution to the whole in conjunction with all the other voices.
Despite its celebrity, scholars consider the Marcellus Mass as atypical within Palestrina's prodigious output. It is only one of six "free" masses that he had not based on motets, madrigals, chants, secular melodies or his own prior compositions (all, of course, adapted to fit the Mass text), and of those it is the most homophonic, as if (consistent with its mythical origins) it indeed had been especially designed for intelligibility of the text.
The Marcellus Mass comprises five movements (six if the Benedictus is counted separately rather than as an integral part of the Sanctus). All but the second half of the Agnus Dei are written for six voices – soprano, alto, two tenors and two basses.
Kyrie — The opening movement is in three distinct sections that follow the structure of the text ("Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison"). In a chance nod to modern ears, they end in respective cadences of C Major, G Major and C Major chords (that is, when written in the modern key of C Major – at least one score transposes the entire work into B-Flat), thus forming a familiar arc of tonic-dominant-tonic. The simplicity of the text inspires repetition and elaborate polyphonic interweaving. Each Kyrie section begins with sequential voice entrances in a layering effect that builds to a sustained level of dense variegated textures. In contrast, the central Christe, while of a similar length, radiates a lighter aura with rests and slightly more transparent part writing. The opening serves to illustrate the confusion of approaching this music from a melodic perspective – each voice begins with a repeated, held note followed by a leap of an upward fourth and then descending steps, but none of the six parts strictly imitates any other, either rhythmically or thematically.
Gloria — As with the following Credo, the Gloria begins with the second phrase of text, so the first is given in plainchant, usually by a solo tenor. As Lockwood outlines, variety is achieved within the predominantly homophonic texture by assigning each clause to a different combination among the six voices and their registers. Appropriate emphasis is conferred upon the phrases Domine fili and Jesu Christe through two textual shifts – they are the only phrases that are repeated and accented with the tutti impact of all voices. Otherwise, there is no overlapping of text, as each phrase is presented discretely and proclaimed sequentially, leading directly into the next. Voices generally sing in the same rhythmic pattern and form frequent consonant combinations as they pass by each other, thus avoiding a sense of austerity that could otherwise diminish the words' sense of praise. At Qui Tollis, the texture lightens to four voices, in preparation for building to another appropriately emphatic tutti as Jesu Christe is reached. The Gloria culminates in a "flowering of Amens" (in David Schillaci's apt phrase).
Credo — In a somewhat similar approach, the Credo presents the theological detail of core beliefs with little repetition and sparse word-painting (i.e.: an unusually long downward phrase for "descendit de caelis" – "came down from heaven"). An appropriate trace of humanization is suggested by a noticeable slowing of the motion and calming of the music at "Et incarnatus est … et homo factus est" ("And became incarnate … and was made man"), and sobriety is evoked by thinning the tenor and bass parts to one each for the Crucifixus portion. The full six-voice texture and accustomed motion are restored for "Et in Spiritum Sanctum" ("[I believe] in the Holy Spirit"). The strongest emphasis is reserved for mention of the Resurrection, which receives the only extensive repetition of any of the Credo text. As did the preceding movement, the Credo ends in an elaborate and extended Amen section.
Sanctus — With the Sanctus comprising only 15 words to be spread over several minutes, we return to the more elaborate polyphonic style of the Kyrie, which Palestrina applies to achieve a smooth and effortless calming blend. For the Benedictus that follows, he reduces the texture to the four highest voices (this time soprano, alto and two tenors), so as to magnify the impact of the soaring Hosanna that both precedes and follows it. The Benedictus achieves much of its complex aura of constant activity within overall stability through constant use of canonic entrances, first between pairs of the voices and then individually.
Agnus Dei — For the concluding section, Palestrina gives us two Agnus Deis, one for each line of the text. The first, asking for divine mercy, begins with a close relative of the musical phrase that opened the Kyrie, the similarity serving to link divinity with mortal prayer, while its held note, upward leap and descent suggest a mixture of calm and quest. The second line of text, seeking peace, expands the accustomed SATTBB distribution of all other movements (and the first Agnus Dei as well) to seven voices, but with a brighter SSAATBB distribution. Without betraying the fundamental sobriety of the work, here Palestrina inserts a remarkable yet subtle touch by incorporating a triple canon launched by B2 and followed in strict order by A2 and S2 for the entire length of the movement. It's discreet enough to avoid disrupting the mood or textual flow, can hardly be noticed in the overall blend, and serves no apparent liturgical purpose, and so perhaps functioned as a mild outburst of egotistical prowess with which the composer could personalize an otherwise abstract and rather anonymous work through a final flourish of his otherwise attenuated yet extraordinary invention and skill.
Modern performances and recordings of the Marcellus Mass pose numerous problems.
Fortunately, in at least one sense no recording is fully authentic – that would require castrati to sing the soprano parts, as women were banned from the papal choir and the choirs of other major churches. Alternatives were deemed unsatisfactory – adult falsettos' strained texture was not pleasing and their upper range was limited, while young boys could not be sufficiently trained before the onset of puberty ended their utility. The solution, (hopefully) inconceivable nowadays, was to castrate boys with promising voices before their vocal chords could thicken. The result was the range of a girl but projected with the power of a grown man. Beginning in Spain in the 6th Century, the mutilations were done by barbers and others under dreadful conditions – researchers estimate that up to 80% of the procedures were fatal. Although the practice was officially banned, poor parents in hope of a lucrative career for their offspring claimed birth defects, grievous hunting accidents and the like, after taking their boys to be butchered in hopes of gratifying the tender ears of the Vatican, whose edict was only lifted in the late 1800s. (The weird, piercing sound is preserved on a series of discs cut in 1902 and 1904 by Alessandro Moreschi, one of the last castrati to have sung in the papal choir.)
But beyond all of this, perhaps there are two even more severe, and possibly insurmountable, contextual barriers to "hearing" Palestrina's music properly nowadays. First, as Gareth Curtis notes, all his music is strictly an adjunct to liturgy, as opposed to "music for its own sake," and so cannot fully function in the isolated setting of a concert or on record. Second, while hardly cutting-edge in its time, this music reflected contemporary sensibility rather than the primordial simplicity it now suggests. We simply cannot forget all we now know of advanced harmony, musical structure and instrumental textures in order to wholeheartedly accept a Palestrina Mass as the complete expression of a composer's deepest thoughts and devotion. Rather, it can sound too restrained and even superficial to genuinely engage our sophisticated modern sensibility.
(A personal aside — Perhaps it's the influence of the Marcellus Mass, but I have a confession. While I hope readers never mistake any of my thoughts for those of a credentialed expert, I have a particular lapse when it comes to Palestrina. Even after listening to his masses for weeks, this is just about the only music I can't seem to truly appreciate, either esthetically or intellectually. Perhaps it would help to have had the upbringing and faith of a devout Roman Catholic, or perhaps it's because this music was meant for a specific time, place and purpose that are long beyond retrieval. Like most readers, my strongest empathy and appreciation begins with the Baroque era, yet I do value the predecessors – Gregorian chant for its extraordinary focus and sense of serene well-being, Medieval troubadour songs for their energy and invention, Renaissance dances for their remarkable rhythmic vitality and intriguing sonorities. But despite considerable effort, I still don't "get" Palestrina. As a result, I have relied more heavily than I would prefer upon other evaluations and appreciations, although for such a celebrated body of work I found surprisingly few musical analyses.)
For the same reasons, I don't feel comfortable to assess the variety of available recordings of the Marcellus Mass in any truly meaningful way, so the comments I'm offering should not be taken for anything more than a shallow and casual overview. By all means, read what others have to say and be guided by your own inclinations and taste.
As already noted, I have relied to a considerable extent upon a wide variety of scholarly sources in a sincere, if only partially successful, effort to understand and appreciate the Marcellus Mass. These include the following:
Copyright 2011 by Peter Gutmann
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