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Hyperion Records

CDA66316 - Palestrina: Missa O rex gloriae & Missa Viri Galilaei
Photograph of Westminster Cathedral by Malcolm Crowthers

Recording details: June 1988
Westminster Cathedral, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Mark Brown
Engineered by Antony Howell
Release date: May 1989
Total duration: 66 minutes 39 seconds


'Under a new Master of Music, James O'Donnell, the Westminster Cathedral Choir are as intense and fervent as ever' (BBC Record Review)

'Such committed singing of such wonderful music makes this a CD not to be missed' (Organists' Review)

Missa O rex gloriae & Missa Viri Galilaei
Kyrie  [4'55] GreekEnglish
Gloria  [5'41] LatinEnglish
Credo  [9'55] LatinEnglish
Kyrie  [3'12] GreekEnglish
Gloria  [5'04] LatinEnglish
Credo  [8'04] LatinEnglish
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 at the summons of Pope Julius III to become chapelmaster 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 chapelmaster. 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, 68 offertories, at least 65 hymns, 35 Magnificats, 4 (possibly 5) 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.

Both O rex gloriae and Viri Galilaei are motets for Ascension, the former published initially in the now lost 1563 book Motecta festorum totius anni … but subsequently reprinted elsewhere, and the latter published in the 1569 Liber primus motettorum containing motets for five, six, and seven voices. The joyful element of the Ascension is what gives these motets their character: the phrase ‘qui triumphator hodie super omnes caelos’ in O rex gloriae, for example, is given pointed emphasis by being resonantly set in homophony after the consistently contrapuntal texture of the music up to that point. The phrase is nevertheless then developed contrapuntally and dominates the central part of the motet. This is dramatically followed by the other face of the Ascension—Christ’s parting from mankind—in the semitonally inflected phrase at ‘ne derelinquas nos orphanos’ which is subsequently echoed then varied, inverted, and expanded before a return to the triumphant mood at the final ‘Alleluia’.

The six-part Viri Galilaei is a more dramatic work, with striking use of different groupings of voices: the opening duet is succeeded by a five-voice passage, then by a high-lying quartet and a lower-pitched passage again for four voices. This continues throughout the motet, as also does the constant use of homophony (which is used to astonishing effect for dramatic purposes, for instance at the five-voiced entry at ‘Viri Galilaei’ and at ‘quid statis’). There is an excursion into more florid writing at ‘Hic Jesus’, but this again returns to homophony to great effect at ‘sic veniet’. This consistent investment in homophony is explained by the sudden dazzling cascades of descending figures at the ‘Alleluia’, which make some of the most bright and shining music Palestrina ever wrote.

The Masses built on these two motets were both printed in the same book, the Missarum liber duodecimus of 1601, published in Venice. In fact, the book contains another Mass based on one of Palestrina’s own Ascension motets, Ascendo ad Patrem. The Missa O rex gloriae is very faithful to its motet model in terms of balancing of technique and texture as well as of strict musical quotation and parody. All the movements begin with reminiscences of the motet’s opening in one form or another, and there are exact and nearly exact quotations throughout the Mass. The semitonal ‘ne derelinquas nos’ reappears in the second Kyrie, and also at ‘Tu solus’ in the Gloria; as with the motet, the figure is the more effective for its contrast with the other musical material. Homophony is also extensively used in the Mass, often interrupted by sudden explosions of counterpoint, as at ‘Filius Patris’ in the Gloria. There is a remarkable passage too at ‘Jesu Christe’, with a descending octave leap in the soprano part.

It is in the Credo that the use of static homophonic writing is most effective. ‘Et incarnatus’ is set entirely in very severe, slow chords following a dramatic musical descent at ‘descendit de caelis’. ‘Et iterum venturus est’ echoes the motet’s ‘spiritum veritatis’ in its trumpeting rhythms, and the ‘Alleluia’ figure appears at ‘et vitam venturi’, as it does also in the bouncing ‘Hosanna’ of the Sanctus. The Agnus Dei, perhaps unexpectedly, turns to an atmosphere of calm and serenity that is not really present elsewhere in the Mass.

The Mass on Viri Galilaei makes much less use of the homophonic writing of its model (perhaps strange when one considers the extent of its use in the motet), exploring instead the contrapuntal possibilities inherent in the scalic figures of the motet’s ‘Alleluia’—these appear early in the Kyrie. When reference is made to the static passages of the motet, it tends to be of an inexact nature, though it is always entirely clear. This is the case with the Kyrie’s reference to ‘Hic Jesus’: the reminiscence is quite detectable, but the counterpoint is more developed.

As with the four-part Mass, there is a scalic point to highlight ‘Jesu Christe’ in the Gloria, though here it is even more pronounced and remarkable in the context of the surrounding stasis. The contrasting of different groups of voices is also carried over into the Mass, particularly in the Gloria and Credo in which the volume of text demands contrast. The meditative quartet at the ‘Crucifixus’ is particularly beautiful, seeming to contain the essence of the text of the Creed. The Agnus Dei is in a similar vein, being a calm remembrance of the motet, but turning the original descending scales into ascending ones.

This, the first recording of these works, should be a provocative reminder of how little of Palestrina’s output is actually known and how much less is actually performed. These two motets and Masses contain some of his finest music. They should go a long way to balance the lop-sided view we have of Palestrina both in historical and musical terms.

Ivan Moody © 1989

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