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Hyperion Records

CDH55420 - Palestrina: Missa De beata virgine & Missa Ave Maria
The Coronation of the Virgin by Guido Reni (1575-1642)
National Gallery, London
CDH55420
(Originally issued on CDA66364)

Recording details: March 1989
Westminster Cathedral, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Mark Brown
Engineered by Antony Howell
Release date: May 2013
DISCID: 8A11480A
Total duration: 73 minutes 43 seconds

'Powerful and intensely moving' (BBC Record Review)

'For sheer sumptuousness of sound quality and clarity of text, the performance … ranks alongside the finest' (Classic CD)

Missa De beata virgine & Missa Ave Maria
Kyrie  [4'54] GreekEnglish
Gloria  [8'09] LatinEnglish
Credo  [10'55] LatinEnglish
Kyrie  [3'45] GreekEnglish
Gloria  [6'13] LatinEnglish
Credo  [10'58] LatinEnglish

In this album we find Westminster Cathedral Choir at the peak of their powers, performing masterpieces of the Italian Renaissance. These two magnificent and contrasting settings perfectly demonstrate why Palestrina has been acknowledged as the master of this repertoire from his lifetime to the present day.


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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 output comprises a hundred and four certainly attributed Masses, over three hundred and seventy-five motets, sixty-eight offertories, at least sixty-five hymns, thirty-five Magnificats, four (possibly five) sets of Lamentations, and over a hundred and forty 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 Masses De beata virgine and Ave Maria are two of a group of several which Palestrina based on chant melodies—a technique which in some respects gave him more freedom than did the basing of a Mass on a polyphonic model. The Missa De beata virgine, one of two settings carrying this title, was published in Missarum liber tertius, a book of Masses for four, five, and six voices published in Rome in 1570. The chant melodies taken as a basis for the Mass are from Mass IX, Credo I, and Mass XVII. In the 1570 publication the text included the Marian tropes (see the Gloria in Casimiri’s edition, in which the trope Spiritus et alme may be found), but these were removed in the revised edition of 1599 in accordance with the liturgical reforms of Pius V (as in fact also happened with the Missa De beata virgine for four voices from the second book of Masses). The chant material permeates the entire Mass at various points, and appears in all six voices—the very opening of the Kyrie has the chant quoted imitatively in all the voices. In the Sanctus and Agnus Dei Palestrina makes use of the old-fashioned cantus firmus technique (that is, with the chant in even, long notes set in an inner voice part) with the chant appearing in the ‘altus’ and both ‘tenor’ parts. Elsewhere, the borrowed melodies are used much more freely, paraphrased in several voices at points throughout the work.

One of the most impressive features of this Mass-setting is the sense of grandeur and majesty which dominates much of the music. Notable examples of this reflection of an extraordinary confidence and faith appear in the Gloria at ‘Jesu Christe’, in the Credo at ‘Et in Spiritum Sanctum’, in the Sanctus at ‘Dominus Deus Sabaoth’, and in the first Agnus Dei. These are offset by passages of a more delicate character, however, as at the beginning of the Sanctus, with its graceful, flowing lines of imitative writing, or at the ethereal ‘Et incarnatus est’ in the Credo.

It is the Gloria and the Credo that make most use of homophonic writing, as is usual in these movements since they contain the largest amount of text. This causes the sudden explosions of more linear writing to seem even more brilliant: in this Mass the effect is often achieved with the use of scalic passages. Such is the case at ‘Domine Deus’ in the Gloria. The more contrapuntal aspect of the music and the increase in the use of rapid scalic figures serve to delineate this section of text from the previous one, thereby placing upon it some extra emphasis (it is, in fact, at this point that the trope Spiritus et alme came in the first edition of the work: it would seems that Palestrina wished to draw attention to this).

A much greater concentration upon rapid movement in small scalic phrases is found in the ‘Osanna’ and the Benedictus. In the former, following a passage making use of descending figures of this type, the ‘bassus’ introduces an imitative point in ascending motion which is promptly taken up by all the other voices, creating a moment of sudden exaltation which then proceeds to sustain the music until the end of the section by generating smaller ‘echoes’ of this event. It may certainly be said to be one of Palestrina’s most memorable setting of these words.

The Missa Ave Maria was published posthumously by Palestrina’s son Iginio in the Missae Quinque, liber septimus of 1594, though it would appear that the book was all but ready for issue on the composer’s death. Baini characterized this Mass as ‘simple, devout, and very clear’ (in Memorie storico-critiche della vita e delle opere di Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, Rome, 1828, reproduced 1966), and indeed these are perhaps the best words to describe the work. Derived from the well-known Ave Maria prayer (though Jeppeson thought it was built on a polyphonic model, Fogliano’s motet Ave Maria—see Acta Musicologica XVIII–XIX, 1946–7, and Gustav Reese: Music in the Renaissance, New York, 1954, revised 1959), the chant appears throughout the Mass very clearly. Its distinctive melodic shape is what gives the Kyrie its strongly profiled opening, for example, and even more that of the Credo.

In contrast to the De beata virgine Mass, Ave Maria relies much more in its construction on long melodic lines. In that it is in four parts rather than six, there is much less opportunity for a variety of contrasts of reduced scoring—this means that there are rather fewer lengthy passages of homophony. The melodic element in this Mass is most clearly shown perhaps at the ‘Crucifixus’, a long, sustained meditation, or in the Sanctus, whose long lines are taken over by the three-voiced ‘Pleni sunt caeli’.

The variety of mood in this setting is the more impressive for its relative overall brevity. Particularly memorable passages occur at the ‘qui tollis’—a quiet, dignified moment in an otherwise strong and monumental Gloria; the moving, hushed ‘Et incarnatus’ of the Credo; the breathtakingly beautiful Benedictus, and the long-breathed, spacious final Agnus Dei. To list all such details would be to give an idea of the astonishing resource of Palestrina in all his settings of the Mass text: that each setting is so distinctively different from the others is another reason for the continuous esteem in which the composer has been held from his lifetime onwards.

Ivan Moody © 1990

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