Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes Palestrina’s Pope Marcellus Mass

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1593)

Yesterday’s Music History Monday post celebrated the 495th anniversary of the birth of the great Italian composer Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, a birth presumed to have taken place on February 3, 1525. 

During the course of that post we observed that unlike virtually every other eminent composer of the so-called Renaissance (which in music is understood as running from roughly 1400 to 1600), Palestrina’s name, reputation, and music did not fade from view in the years, decades, and centuries after his death in 1593. We attributed Palestrina’s staying power to three factors: one, the staggering size and quality of his compositional output; two, the fact that his personal compositional style was (and still is) embraced as a paradigm of utopian perfection and has thus been employed in teaching counterpoint since the early seventeenth century; and three, in the years following his death Palestrina was personally credited as being the “savior” of Catholic church music during the austere artistic climate of the Counter-Reformation.

Yesterday’s Music History Monday post dealt with factors one and two. It is time, now, to tackle factor three: whether or not Palestrina was indeed the “savior” of Catholic church music.

Here’s the legend as it has come down to us. Palestrina, challenged by the demands of the Counter-Reformation, – which claimed that Church music had grown too polyphonically complex and as a result, the words had become unintelligible – composed a six-part polyphonic mass titled the Pope Marcellus Mass. According to the legend, Palestrina wanted to prove that complex polyphony was indeed compatible with the doctrines of the Counter-Reformation. Officials of the Counter-Reformation listened to the mass and delivered their verdict: Yes, yes! The words were clear as a cellophane cassock, and consequently, polyphonic Church music was deemed okay after all, and Palestrina was thus hailed as having delivered serious Church music from the clutches of the Counter-Reformation! Palestrina’s music became the model for the next generations of Church composers, and it continues to be held as a model of polyphonic clarity.

For better or for worse, we are going to let the facts get in the way of this otherwise heroic yarn, although there is just enough truth in it to make it valid, to a point. 

Musical and Historical Background

The single most important compositional genre of the Renaissance was the musical setting of the Catholic Mass. The musical Mass was to a Renaissance composer what the symphony was to an eighteenth-century composer and opera to a nineteenth-century composer: the ultimate test of compositional prowess.

The Mass is the principal daily service of the Catholic Church. The culminating act of the Mass is a re-enactment of the Last Supper, during which Christ shared his blood and his body – through the symbolic media of wine and bread – with his disciples.

The Mass is a long ceremony, consisting of upwards of twenty separate parts. By the Renaissance, the typical musical Mass consisted of setting five of those parts to music: the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei. These parts – these texts – are part of the “ordinary” of the Mass in that they are spoken/chanted “ordinarily”: meaning every day.

These five sections of the ordinary serve very different liturgical functions, and they appear at widely separated times during the actual service. In order to unify these disparate sections into a single, coherent, compositional whole, the composers of the Renaissance based a particular Mass on a single plainchant, the constant (if most subtle!) presence of which unified the disparate sections of a given Mass. 

Employing a plainchant (or “Gregorian chant”) as a unifying compositional element was a great idea, an idea that tapped into the already time-honored tradition of incorporating the “word of God” – as manifested by plainchant – into a composition.

Three sorts of Masses evolved over the course of the Renaissance.

The most archaic type is the “Cantus Firmus Mass”. “Cantus firmus” means “fixed melody.” A Cantus Firmus mass is one in which its constituent plainchant is heard in its original medieval form, usually in the tenor voice (for which reason these are sometimes called “Tenor Masses”),

The second type of Renaissance Mass is the “Paraphrase Mass”, a Mass in which the underlying plainchant is embellished: paraphrased and modernized to the prevailing taste of the time. 

The third type of Renaissance Mass was the last to evolve, the so-called Imitation Mass: a Mass in which the unifying, pre-existing melody is not a plainchant but could be, rather, any melody at all: a dance tune, a song, an advertising jingle, the theme from “Final Jeopardy”; anything. 

The creation and growing popularity of Imitation Masses, as well as the growing polyphonic complexity of all types of Masses in the early sixteenth-century, demonstrate that the composers of these Masses were given a remarkable degree of creative freedom by what was an extremely tolerant Church.

Soon enough though, a seismic event put an end to the Church’s tolerance.… continue reading, and get Dr. Bob’s Prescribed recording, only on Patreon!

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