top of page
  • Writer's pictureMarkdavin Obenza

Notes on Prince of Music: Palestrina

Sat, April 15 at 7:30pm

Holy Rosary Church - 4139 42nd Ave SW, Seattle, WA 98116

Buy tickets 30% Discount code: PALESTRINA30

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina Tu es Petrus​

​Orlando Lassus Osculetur me​

​Tomás Luis de Victoria Alma redemptoris a8

Tomás Luis de Victoria Versa est in luctum

​Tomás Luis de Victoria Magnificat primi toni a8


Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina Missa Papae Marcelli

Roman Catholic bishops assembled at the Council of Trent intermittently from 1545–1563, largely driven by the imperative to respond to the Reformation. Part of this response was to require greater uniformity of practices in worship, including, naturally, the style of music that would be deemed acceptable. Although the decrees related to music in worship were few in number, there was considerable interest in them, from their concoction right through to present-day scholarship. Given that, it is a surprise to see how little impact there was on the sacred music written by the great composers of the time. The primary objectives of the decrees were the clear intelligibility of the text in polyphonic music (text clarity in homophonic music was a given) and an absolute prohibition of vernacular language. Another aim was to purge sacred music of all secular musical influences. This included the common practice of using a secular tune such as would be sung to entertaining (and sometimes lascivious) texts. According to Dyer, “Anything redolent of secular music was strictly forbidden, as was music intended merely to give pleasure (‘inanem auriem oblectation’) to the listeners.” (Dyer, “Roman Catholic church music,” in Oxford Music, 2001)

Sacred music composed during the High Renaissance was already largely in agreement with these rules, so the transfer of some new rules to the work on master composers was practically unnecessary. “The music of Palestrina, which represented for succeeding generations the epitome of the sacred in music, reconciled the demands of linear elegance, harmonic clarity, contrapuntal mastery, control of dissonance, and clarity of textual declamation in a music of rich sonority.” (Dyer)

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525/26–1594) has been called “the savior of church music” in response to the dictates of the Council of Trent. But the savior from what? The music being written by him and the other illustrious, influential composers of the High Renaissance—Orlandus Lassus (1530–1594), Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548–1611), and William Byrd (1539/40–1623) in England, the great pillars of the High Renaissance in Europe—already satisfied those rules. Even though Lassus was known to have balked at applying any changes to the music he wrote and employed at the cathedral in Munich (where he was the long-time director of music), there wasn’t a gulf between what he created and what the Council of Trent attempted to codify. A lesser-known Netherlandish composer, Jacob de Kerle, wrote some sacred music intended to follow the few rules from the Tridentine council; and another minor composer wrote a mass setting that included only four-part homophony—simple triadic chords. It followed the rules but was pretty boring.

Our concert today presents motets and canticles that are as grand, expressive, varied, and impressive as one would expect from these important composers for the places and patrons for whom they composed.

As a group, these pieces are not related by source of text, liturgical function, suitability for a particular time of year, or by devotion to a single saint. They range from a celebratory motet in honor of St. Peter, the first pope, Tu es Petrus, to sensuous poetry from the Song of Songs, Osculetur me Osculo; from a devotional antiphon to the Virgin Mary, Alma redemptoris à 8, to a funeral motet, Versa est in luctum; and then to Mary’s song of praise in response to Gabriel’s Annunciation, Magnificat primi toni à 8. We conclude with Palestrina’s monumental Missa Papae Marcelli, dedicated to Pope Marcellus II.

What holds these remarkable compositions together in a concert program? The lush, complex, beautiful sound. These pieces are written for between six and eight voices, primarily applying the new cori spezzati style of divided groups that present contrast as well as unity. Cori spezzati refers to choirs that are separated spatially, or at least sonically. Pieces for two four-part choirs juxtapose one against the other, even in rapid alternation, and also bring the voice together in a unified texture. In the case of Tu es Petrus the juxtaposition is between the three higher parts and the three lower parts. This interest in contrast, homophony, rhythm based on the text pronunciation, and high levels of emotional content prefigures the Baroque period which was just over the horizon in the 17th century.

Owing to the importance and grandeur of Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli, here is more discussion about that masterpiece. The date of composition of Missa Papae Marcelli is unknown, perhaps 1546, perhaps 1562–1563. The work is in Palestrina’s “mature” style, devoted "to chordal writing and simultaneous, syllabic declamation." We get the overall impression of balance from the entire work. The sections with the shortest texts — Kyrie, Sanctus-Benedictus, and Agnus Dei — are fairly polyphonic, with overlapping entries of voices and relatively equal importance among the voice parts. Each new text phrase presents a new motive, picked up by each voice in turn. The opening motive of the Kyrie is a leap up followed by a smooth descending line — a balance of energy followed by relaxation — and cascades of these descending scales are heard through the Mass. The Gloria and Credo are primarily homophonic, with voices moving together in block chords, resulting in ultimate text clarity: The homophonic texture makes it possible to get through a lot of words in a hurry! Palestrina achieves variety here with contrasting density—three voices for one phrase, more in other phrases, and all six parts reserved for the most important words. Again we have balance: polyphony at the beginning and end of the mass, with sturdy homophony anchoring the central statements of faith.

-Notes by Kirin Nielsen, DMA, © 2023.

68 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page