No student of counterpoint remains unaware of the name Palestrina for long. The composer’s work has long been upheld as the apotheosis of sacred music, a style to be mastered by all who endeavour to study the art of composing, scoring, arranging or choral conducting.

Giovanni Pierluigi (or the latinized Petraloysio, or the Italian Prenestino, “of Palestrina”) is most commonly known by the presumed place of his birth, although there are claims that he or his Palestrina
(Wikimedia Commons)
family may have hailed from Rome. Little about his early years is known — he was born in 1525 or 1526 — but it appears he was trained at the church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. He spent about six or seven years in Palestrina as organist and teacher, where he married in 1547. A year after Cardinal Giovanni Maria del Monte, Bishop of Palestrina was named Pope Julius III in 1550, His Holiness summoned Pierluigi to Rome, where the latter spent the rest of his life, almost entirely in the service of the church.

The Counter–Reformation was just weighing anchor; Julius’s predecessor Pope Paul III had convoked the Council of Trent five years earlier. Once the excommunications, condemnations, and canonizing of religious policy were out of the way, the council got around to considering sacred music. Their deliberations stopped short of an outright ban on polyphony in favour of plainsong, but the consensus was that the words of sacred works had to be understandable. This was not a new idea; it was one of the things that the church’s critics had objected to, even before Luther. Palestrina, living and working at the intellectual nexus of the Counter–Reformation, had certainly heard it often enough. The Florentine Camerata’s ideas about intelligible lyrics turned out not to be so radical after all.

A deal of historical nonsense has persisted about Palestrina and his most famous work, the Missa Papae Marcelli (“Mass of Pope Marcellus”), adding to the mystique of the ‘Palestrina style.’ Some of the mythology began while he was still working, when his music was pointed to as a model of all that sacred music should be: dignified, pure, without showy effects or harsh dissonances, remaining true to its devotional intent. The Marcellus mass was purportedly written explicitly as a proof of concept by which all other sacred music should supposedly be judged.

The orthodox sacred polyphonic style consisted, as every novitiate of counterpoint knows only too well, of a series of episodes in which various voices expound each phrase of the chosen text in imitation, moving steadily from one section to the next. The first voice begins with the opening sentence or phrase of the work, usually in long sustained notes. Another voice joins in with the same words and melody, perhaps at the interval of a fifth, fourth or octave higher or lower, while the first voice continues on. A third or fourth voice may join in after several more bars, until the section concludes. Then the next phrase or sentence is taken up, one voice expounding the second theme, perhaps as other voices finish up with the first; additional voices join in their turn with the second theme. As the work unfolds, the tension might increase through the use of heightened motion through notes of shorter duration, ultimately culminating in a final, sustained cadence. That, in grossly over–simplified terms, is how sacred music was written.

The kinds of motion that the melodies could trace, and the intervals between the notes in each voice (i.e. chords), were governed by strict rules. Rigid conventions determined what intervals could occur between voices, how dissonances should be prepared and resolved, and how leaps or stepwise motion in a melody should be handled. At least in theory, according to almost all the textbooks that ever were written: the grown–ups were of course allowed to break those rules in certain ways.

Palestrina’s motet Nigra sum sed formosa (“Black am I, but beautiful”), from the Canticum Canticorum (“Song of Songs” or “Song of Solomon”), serves as a brief example. The opening theme ① begins in the tenor; after two bars, the bass joins in with the same theme a fifth lower while the tenor continues with the second half of the phrase. After the quintus interjects with some free counterpoint, the altus and cantus take up the theme in imitation.

Now the next phrase filiae Jerusalem (“daughters of Jerusalem”) is taken up ②: the tenor and bass expound it, and it is repeated three beats later by altus and cantus.

As this section comes to a close in a cadence, the tenor enters ③ with sicut tabernacula Cedar (“as the tents of Kedar”), followed immediately by the bass, then by altus.

The motet proceeds generally in the same fashion through to its final cadence.

...nigra sum sed formosa filiae Hierusalem

...I [am] black (i.e. tanned), but comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem,

sicut tabernacula Cedar sicut pelles Salomonis

as the tents of Kedar, as the curtains of Solomon

nolite me considerare quod fusca sim quia decoloravit me sol

Look not upon me, because I [am] black, because

   the sun hath looked upon me:

filii matris meae pugnaverunt contra me

my mother's children were angry with me;

posuerunt me custodem in vineis...

they made me the keeper of the vineyards...

When we turn to the Gloria of the Missa Papae Marcelli, the texture has become almost entirely homophonic; the voices are almost always singing the same words at the same time. Where there are imitations, the same phrase is typically passed back and forth between groups, or one group finishes a phrase as the next is taking up a repetition. It would be easy to imagine singing a single line, say, the cantus, while strumming the chords otherwise heard in the other voices on some instrument like a lute, harpsichord or organ.

[Gloria in excelsis Deo]

[Glory in the highest to God]

et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis

and in earth, peace to men of good will

laudamus te benedicimus te glorificamus te

we praise thee, we bless thee, we glorify thee

gratias agimus tibi propter magnam gloriam tuam

we give thanks to thee for thy great glory

Deus pater omnipotens Deus fili unigenite Jesu Christe

God [the] father all powerful, God the once begotten Jesus Christ

Domine Deus agnus Dei filius patris

Lord God, lamb of God, son of the father

Neither work is entirely polyphonic, or entirely homophonic: few are. The imitations in the motet are not always exact, continuing only long enough to sustain the forward motion until another voice enters. For example, the first entry of the quintus ④ is an echo–like imitation of the second half of the theme (from the third bar of the tenor), but is only a few beats long. Before we have time to notice, the altus and cantus have entered with their own statement and response of the theme. Again, the entrance of the altus on the second statement of sicut pelles Salomonis (“like the curtains of Solomon”) is a similar, but not exact, imitation of the theme already taken up by the cantus and tenor a little earlier. The texture becomes decidedly homophonic beginning at nolite me considerare (“do not regard me”), then again at pugnaverunt contra me, bringing emphasis to those particular words not so much because of the texture itself, but because of the change in texture. Meanwhile, although each phrase of the Gloria is sung mostly once only, yet beginning at Domine Fili there are repetitions and hints of imitation, albeit in a more antiphonal spirit, with different voices joining together to answer groups of others.

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