The music of Palestrina was described by Wagner as being timeless and spaceless, ‘a spiritual revelation throughout’. With polyphony of utter purity, the Palestrina style has been a subject of study by composers for centuries. Long vocal lines flow in a continuous rhythm, imitative and with an original plainchant melodic motive for each phrase of the text. Melodies generally move in a stepwise motion with few leaps of intervals greater than a third, and those that do occur being immediately filled in by a step in the opposite direction. The result is an even, organic and graceful contour of sound with melodies from Gregorian chant being the very soil in which the music is rooted.
In 2011 Harry Christophers and The Sixteen, began a series of recordings of Palestrina’s sacred vocal works. Volume 6 in the series was released earlier this year. Having written over 450 works, including 104 masses, the series will not attempt to be anything like comprehensive of Palestrina’s entire output. Each volume will feature at least one mass and filled out with other sacred works.
Palestrina’s career coincided with the Catholic counter-reformation, specifically the Council of Trent which concluded in 1563. Among other things reforms were promulgated concerning church music with the desire to strip away any secular elements and stressing that the music not obscure the liturgy. As a consequence, the music took on a more conservative style and composers such as Palestrina strove to insure that each word of the sacred texts were understood and not lost in complex polyphony. In Rome a commission of cardinals was set up to oversee reform, both of musical style and of the papal chapel; commission members included Cardinals Carlo Borromeo, Secretary of State and nephew of the reigning Pope Pius IV, and Vitellozzi Vitelli, who is known to have had musicians in his private employ. Borromeo was also archpriest of S Maria Maggiore, and it was inevitable that he should involve its then maestro di cappella, Palestrina.
On a broader level, the real significance of the Council of Trent, for Roman music, was the liberating effect it had on what had been a fixed and backward-looking repertory. There was a strong feeling that new compositions were needed, and composers like Palestrina were the most advantageously placed to provide them. In the short term, over-emphasis on word-intelligibility might have been an impediment to creative polyphony, but this seems to have been quickly forgotten in the desire to harness music to evangelical ends. Music was increasingly seen as an important weapon in this process, provided that it was used in the service of the text.
Of Palestrina’s 104 masses, 43 were published during his lifetime, all but two of them in the six books that span the 40 years from 1554 until his death in 1594. His seventh book was presumably then ready for the press, since it appeared only a month later with a preface by his son Iginio. Between 1599 and 1601 a further six books of masses were issued in rapid succession at Venice; still more remained in manuscript sources. Elements of style and derivation in some of his masses, as well as remarks in certain of his prefatory letters, suggest that he may have written many of them long before they appeared in print. In general few of the masses can be dated, and the problem of their chronology remains almost entirely unexplored.
The tendency of earlier biographers and historians to deal with Palestrina as a great but solitary figure is nowhere more misleading than in a discussion of his masses. While his entire output spans every type of mass cultivated during the century, the largest group (53 works) is made up of works derived from pre-existing polyphonic compositions; of these, 31 are based on works by others, 22 on his own compositions. They thus correspond to the familiar 16th-century type of mass commonly called ‘parody mass’ but more accurately termed ‘imitation mass’. The masses based on works by other composers provide insight into Palestrina’s knowledge of earlier repertories, his predilection for particular groups of composers and types of models, and his specific techniques of composition.
The other broad classes of Palestrina’s output of masses may be divided into several categories: paraphrase, tenor mass, freely composed masses and, as a partly overlapping category, canonic masses. No fewer than 35 works are paraphrase masses based on pre-existing plainsong or, less frequently, secular melodies. These in turn can be subdivided into several groups. 16 masses are based on plainsong mass cycles, including the Requiem, the Missa De Beata Virgine and the Missa De feria, as well as the masses for Mantua.
Others are based on single melodies, whether longer plainsongs such as the antiphons Alma Redemptoris mater and Ave regina coelorum or short melodies, such as hymns, whose use gives rise to much cyclic repetition in the mass. The tenor mass is a relatively outmoded type in this period and is exemplified by only seven works, including the Missa ‘Ecce sacerdos for Julius III, one of the two L’homme armé masses and the rigidly structured Missa ‘Ave Maria published in 1596.
The free masses include such works as the Missa brevis of 1570 (a special type by virtue of its proportions), the Missa Papae Marcelli and several others whose movements do not exhibit the thematic correspondences characteristic of the masses based on polyphonic models. A special category is that of the Mantuan masses commissioned by Duke Guglielmo Gonzaga for his chapel of St. Barbara. In a letter accompanying his first commission from the Duke on 2 February 1568, Palestrina wrote that if the work was not satisfactory ‘I beg you to let me know how you prefer it: whether long or short or composed so that the words may be understood’. Among these masses is one for four voci mutate that is even more fully declaimed in chordal style in its Gloria and Credo than the Pope Marcellus mass. All of the Mantuan masses, except this last, are set alternatim, interspersing polyphony with plainsong, even in the Gloria and Credo.
Palestrina’s masses run the gamut of styles from the consistently contrapuntal Missa ad fugam, through the largely homophonic but texturally varied Missa Papae Marcelli, designed for word-intelligibility, to the antiphonal dialogue of the four polychoral masses.
PALESTRINA Missa Assumpta est Maria. Salve Regina à 5. Assumpta est Maria à 6. Ave regina caelorum à 5. Song of Songs : excerpts. Diffusa est gratia. Assumpta est Maria à 5. Ave Maria à 5 • Harry Christophers, dir; The Sixteen • CORO COR 16091
The is the first disc of a new Palestrina series. Excerpts from the Song of Songs will be included on each disc (three of the 29 pieces are here), but Harry Christophers makes it clear that he will not be able to cover all 104 Masses. He begins with a Mass that has been well represented in the catalogs, though the most recent version was recorded 15 years ago under Timothy Brown, the fifth choral recording of this Mass. The other two earlier recordings were made by vocal ensembles like this one under Peter Phillips and Mark Brown. In his notes Phillips wrote that this Mass ranks with the great Missa Papae Marcelli as the two most celebrated six-voice Masses among the 22 settings that the composer wrote. This is despite its late publication, a parody of a six-voice motet that likewise remained in manuscript until modern times. The motet is included here along with the five-voice setting that was part of the collection of Offertoria for the entire year published in 1593 . The rest of this program includes another of the 1593 offertories, Diffusa est gratia , and three other Marian motets.
PALESTRINA Missa Hodie Christus natus est. Hodie Christus natus est. Christe Redemptor omnium Ex Patre. Magnificat 5 toni. Tui sunt caeli. Reges Tharsis. O magnum mysterium. Song of Songs: Excerpts • Harry Christophers, cond; The Sixteen • CORO COR 16105
This is the second issue in the recently announced series of Palestrina works. In what is clearly a pattern, this disc also offers a Mass with its related motet, additional motets related to the theme of the Mass, and three more sections of the Song of Songs. Just as the first disc added Marian motets to the Mass for the feast of the Assumption, this Mass is filled out with Christmas motets. The hymn Christe Redemptor omnium is an alternatim setting, as is the Magnificat. This is at least the seventh recording of the Mass but the first in almost two decades. The most recent were directed by Jeremy Summerly with a large choir and by Paul McCreesh with a vocal ensemble; earlier examples were mostly choral renditions.
PALESTRINA Missa Regina caeli à 5. Stabat Mater. Ad caenam agni. Songs of Songs: excerpts. Regina caeli à 8. Improperium exspectavi. Confitebor tibi. Terra tremuit • Harry Christophers, cond; The Sixteen • CORO 16106
The third of the Palestrina Masses to be recorded in this series, this is the first recording of a Mass published in 1600. A similarly titled Mass for four voices, based on the same chant antiphon and published in 1601, was once recorded by Johannes Somary. Here it climaxes a group of works for Eastertide that includes the double-choir Stabat Mater , one of the composer’s finest motets, a work that was sung exclusively by the Sistine Choir during Holy Week; the hymn Ad caenam agni for Sundays after Easter, set here in alternatim style; one of his two eight-voice Marian antiphons for Easter, Regina caeli , not related musically to the Mass sung here; and three offertories for Sundays in Eastertide from the wonderful collection of offertories for the entire year published in 1593. Also included are three motets from Canticum Canticorum , continuing the series of motets that Christophers includes on each disc of this new series.
PALESTRINA Missa O magnum mysterium. A solis ortu cardine. Iubilate Deo. Ad te levavi. Ave Regina caelorum à 8. Magnificat à 4 quinti toni. Deus enim firmavit. Surge illuminare. Song of Songs : Excerpts • Harry Christophers, cond; The Sixteen • CORO 16114
I can find only three previous recordings of this Mass for five voices, published in 1582 and based on a cantus firmus from his own Christmas motet for six voices. The Christmas theme of the Mass is carried through the feast day and its neighboring seasons. The hymn A solis ortu cardine ; two motets, Iubilate Deo omnis terra and Surge illuminare ; and two offertories, Ad te levavi and Deus enim firmavit fill out the seasonal theme, while the canticle Magnificat also fits Christmas, the day that Bach first used his great setting. The antiphon Ave Regina caelorum , however, belongs to Lent, but it has the richest scoring of the composer’s three settings, and hence has been recorded more than the other two settings. The five-voice setting of that antiphon was included in the first disc of this series. Christophers carries on his practice of adding three motets from Canticum Canticorum to each of these discs, already the fourth in his series. The Magnificat, not one of the 16 in all modes printed in 1591, is found in manuscript in the Julian Chapel with the even verses in polyphony.
PALESTRINA Missa Jam Christus astra ascenderat / Magnificat quarti toni. Harry Christophers, cond; The Sixteen • CORO 16124
This album features a selection of Palestrina’s music for Pentecost including his Missa Iam Christus astra ascenderat. Alongside the Mass are motets from the Song of Songs. The Song of Songs are among some of Palestrina’s most sublime and expressive works and, as with previous disc in the series, this album includes three of them. Dedicated to Pope Gregory XIII, Palestrina’s style of writing for these sensual texts demonstrates what variety and intensity of feeling can be conveyed with the simplest of means.
PALESTRINA Song of Songs / Missa L’homme armé. Harry Christophers, The Sixteen, CORO 16133
Central to this sixth disc is Palestrina’s unjustly neglected 5-voice L’Homme armé Mass. Written before 1570, it is no mere technical showpiece, but contains music of the highest quality. It is accompanied on this disc by a group of penitential and devotional motets and Offertories on well known texts such as Parce mihi Domine, Si ambulavero in medio tribulationis, De profundis, and Super flumina Babylonis, eliciting from Palestrina his best and most moving music. Three further Song of Songs motets in The Sixteen’s ongoing survey complete the CD.