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Hyperion Records

CDA66266 - Palestrina: Missa Papae Marcelli & Missa brevis

Recording details: May 1987
Westminster Cathedral, London, United Kingdom
Release date: February 1988
Total duration: 67 minutes 5 seconds


'Rapt and truly inspired performances' (BBC Record Review)

'Outstanding' (The Observer)

Missa Papae Marcelli & Missa brevis
Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (his name derives from a town not far from Rome) was probably born in 1525 or 1526. After seven years as maestro di cappella at the cathedral of his native town, he went to Rome in 1551 at the summons of Pope Julius III to become chapel master of the Cappella Giulia at St Peter’s. He later became a singer at the Sistine Chapel, but was dismissed by Paul IV on account of his unacceptable married status. After other appointments, Palestrina returned to the Julian Chapel in 1571 as chapel master. He died in 1594.

Still thought of today as the grand master of the polyphonic style, Palestrina was highly regarded and much published in his lifetime. His total output comprises 104 certainly attributed Masses, over 375 motets, sixty-eight offertories, at least sixty-five hymns, thirty-five Magnificats, four (possibly five) sets of Lamentations, and over 140 madrigals, secular and spiritual. His publications bear dedications to men of great power: discerning and wealthy patrons of the arts such as Guglielmo Gonzaga, foreign princes and potentates (there are two books of Masses inscribed to Philip II of Spain), and, increasingly in his later years, popes.

The Missa Papae Marcelli is beyond question the most famous – or notorious – of Palestrina’s works. It was first published in the Second Book of Masses of 1567; the actual date of its composition has been much discussed in the light of the work’s supposed salvation of polyphonic Church music from the undiscriminating executioner’s axe of the Counter-Reformation. The source of the myths surrounding the work lies in the writings of the Abbé Baini (1828), who had undertaken extensive archival research in Rome. He recorded that Cardinal Borromeo had called for the writing of ‘la musica intelligibile’ – music rendering the texts of the Mass as clearly as possible for the congregation, following the injunctions of the Council of Trent in 1562 – and had assembled a commission to test various Masses to see whether they achieved these standards. The commission met on 28 April 1565, at the home of Cardinal Vitellozzo Vitelli. Baini thought that the Missa Papae Marcelli was written specifically for this occasion, and suggested, following Agazzari’s writings of 1607, that it singlehandedly saved the polyphony (as opposed to the monophonic chant) of the Church from official abolition. This formed the basis for several later explanations of the origins of the Mass until Haberl, writing in 1892, exploded the idea after attentive research into the relevant documentary material and of the sources for the work itself. He opined that the Mass could have been composed as early as 1555, possibly in celebration of Pope Marcellus’ election. Marcellus reigned for a mere three weeks in that year, but during that time was recorded on Good Friday as being dissatisfied with the perfunctory singing of the liturgy, admonishing the singers accordingly.

Whatever the truth of the matter, the Mass accords fully with the directives of the Council of Trent: its simplicity of manner ensures total intelligibility of the Mass text in fulfilment of the requirements of such as Cardinal Borromeo, and the beauty of its musical material has driven musicians to an excess of superlatives to the present day. Zoë Kendrick Pyne, in 1922, compared the opening of the Kyrie to a ‘benediction, quietening the spirit with a heavenly sense of peace; or it suggests a vision of the white wings of a dove folding as they come to earth’. In the Sanctus she found ‘suave harmony transfiguring the words as a nimbus adorns the pure, pale face of a saint’. Whatever one may think of such descriptions today, they do at least point to the extraordinary veneration in which the Mass has been held. Henry Coates was rather more moderate in his claims for the work; he concentrated on the derivation of the melodic themes of the Mass from fragments of plainchant, and he also seems to have been the first to notice a resemblance between the opening motif and the initial phrase of the L’homme armé song.

While it is surely going too far to derive every melodic unit from fragments of chant, in doing this Coates did put his finger on the essence of the work: it is constructed from a great array of short melodic motifs, of memorable beauty. So is a great deal of Palestrina, of course; it is simply that here the composer achieved his most memorable consistency of liturgical clarity, simplicity, and melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic refinement. These things have caught the imaginations of many. Though it may not suggest the ‘white wings of a dove’ to us today, the opening phrase does linger in the mind as a moment of exquisite poise and balance. The Sanctus and Agnus Dei too achieve that same serenity and control; but in some respects it is what happens in the Gloria and Credo that makes the work really remarkable. Without ever losing a feeling of forward propulsion, of the dynamic springing from the static, Palestrina ensures that every word of the text is clearly projected and heard. The contrapuntal nature of these two movements lies in the contrasting and alternating of groups of voices articulating sections of the text simultaneously; this ensures verbal audibility, contrapuntal flow, and the retention of the dramatic effects of truly homophonic writing.

Palestrina’s four-voice Missa Brevis was first published in 1570, in the Third Book of Masses, and several times reprinted. Its title has been the subject of considerable but fruitless speculation – it is not particularly short, and could indeed be considered quite substantial as a four-voice work. Though many have looked for a model, this does not seem to be a ‘parody’ Mass; the word ‘brevis’ was probably used simply because no other title suggested itself. Haberl’s idea that it was because each movement opens with a breve is absurd to say the least; such a device was hardly uncommon at the time, and would certainly not be worthy of note.

One of the most frequently sung Masses in Palestrina’s oeuvre, the Missa Brevis has an immediacy of melodic appeal and a notable clarity of texture. Its lack of recurrent reference to a musical model is compensated for by the regular appearance of particular melodic features, notably a descending minor third followed by a brief scalic ascent – this is clearly audible at the very opening of the Kyrie. The four-voice texture gives way in the Benedictus to a flowing trio (SAT), and in the second Agnus Dei to a five-voice setting, with trebles in canon at the unison.

Behind the mythology of both these Masses lie two transparently beautiful works, and two of the finest settings of the Mass text of any period. Lewis Lockwood has pointed out that the ‘intelligible style’ is only a tiny element in the diverse and profound musicality of Palestrina; this is a fact clearly evident in these works – if they were no more than exercises in the efficient fitting of words to music they would scarcely merit the affection and esteem in which they continue to be held.

Ivan Moody © 1987

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