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Hyperion Records

GIMSE402 - Palestrina: Missa Benedicta es
Drawing by Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564)
Reproduced by courtesy of The Trustees of the British Museum
GIMSE402

Recording details: Various dates
Merton College Chapel, Oxford, United Kingdom
Produced by Steve C Smith & Peter Phillips
Engineered by Various engineers
Release date: May 2006
Total duration: 75 minutes 4 seconds

Palestrina: Missa Benedicta es

The first release on the Gimell label, an analogue (AAD) recording made in Merton College Chapel, Oxford, on 21 & 22 March 1981. Palestrina's Missa Nasce la gioja mia is included as a bonus and was recorded digitally on 11 January 1984.


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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
The reputation of a composer of Palestrina’s enormous output is necessarily based on a selection of his work. Since there have been no recordings, no offprints, no very accessible discussions of the Missa Benedicta es, it has been impossible for the work to become widely admired. It shows a side of Palestrina’s writing which is not fully recognized: his indebtedness to Josquin. In addition, apart from its remarkable music, it has an important place in musical history.

For many years it was catalogued as the Missa Sine titulo: it is so described in the fifth edition of the Grove dictionary (1954), though not in the sixth (1980). This anonymous label was attached to it, for want of a more appropriate one, by Franz Xaver Haberl who supervised the first complete edition of Palestrina’s music between 1862 and 1907. By the time Peter Wagner came to write his Geschichte der Messe (‘History of the Mass’) in 1913, a number of scholars had remarked on the Franco-Flemish musical traits in the setting, and the names of Josquin, Mouton and Carpentras had been mentioned as possible influences; Wagner himself said that it reminded him (he put it no more strongly) of Josquin’s famous motet Benedicta es. A connection with Josquin was always likely because the Mass was known to be an early work: on 8 November 1562 a friend of Palestrina had reported in a letter that it had been completed. Since 1913 several writers – Jeppesen, Antonowytsch, Reese and Lowinsky – have analysed the close musical connections between the Josquin motet and Palestrina’s Mass and shown, in turn, how Josquin based his motet on a paraphrase of the plainchant sequence Benedicta es. Palestrina’s setting was duly renamed.

This discovery led to some others. In parodying Josquin’s motet, Palestrina was contributing to a whole series of compositions which had done the same thing. There are extant at least four Mass-settings based on it, by Willaert, de la Hêle and de Monte as well as Palestrina; Guyot in 1568 published an edition in which he added to Josquin’s six parts another six of his own in counterpoint; Claude Le Jeune based an instrumental five-part fantaisie on it; Mouton wrote a motet of the same title and so similar to Josquin’s that Glareanus confused them in his Dodecachordon; Morales wrote a Mass which ostensibly is based on both the Mouton and the Josquin and thereby started a tradition in Spanish polyphony of basing parody Masses on two motets. This Josquin motet was particularly highly regarded in Spain and in 1578 Cabezón published two alternate intabulated versions of it.

Most significantly of all, however, it has been shown (by Knud Jeppesen, ‘Marcellus-Probleme’, in Acta Musicologica XVI–XVII, 1944/5, pp.11–38) on stylistic grounds that this work was the immediate predecessor in Palestrina’s output and inspiration for his Missa Papae Marcelli, which he was asked to write in a hurry while the music of Benedicta es was still uppermost in his mind. It has also been suggested (by M Antonowytsch in Die Motette Benedicta es von Josquin des Prés, Utrecht, p.25) that, through the medium of his Missa Benedicta es, ‘sogar die Missa Papae Marcelli in gewissen Sinne eine inspirierte Uebernahme der Josquinischen Benedicta-Motette darstelle’ (‘even the Missa Papae Marcelli in a certain sense displays an inspired assimilation of the music of Josquin’s motet Benedicta es’). The model for Missa Papae Marcelli has long been debated: few have been thoroughly convinced by the idea that the frequent use of an upward leap of the fourth suggests the secular melody L’homme armé. In putting forward Josquin’s Benedicta es as the model, once removed, there is much more concrete evidence. Several passages in the Missa Benedicta es are note-for-note the same as in Missa Papae Marcelli: at ‘Qui sedes’ in the Gloria of the former we hear the opening two bars of the ‘Christe’ in the latter. The motif which Josquin used to set the words ‘Te Deus Pater’ (towards the end of the first part of his motet) occurs extensively in both the Palestrina Masses and most regularly where the word ‘Deus’ is involved (at ‘Deum de Deo’ in the Credo of Missa Papae Marcelli and at ‘Domine Deus’ in the Gloria of Missa Benedicta es). This phrase is taken directly from the opening of the third verse of the plainchant. Both settings have highly ornate ‘Amens’ to their Creeds, which are related and derive from the ‘Amen’ of the Josquin as may be clearly heard.

The plainchant Benedicta es is a sequence with six verses, which are musically paired. Josquin’s motet similarly has three sections and the sopranos start the motet with the plainchant melody given in long notes. Palestrina starts his first Kyrie in exactly the same way – the chant in the soprano – but the two composers immediately show their different temperaments and styles in the counter-melodies which they wrote to it. Josquin highlights his melodies by consistently breaking the six-part choir down into duets and trios so that the span of his phrases is clearly delineated; while Palestrina creates a full six-part texture to which any single melody is only a contributor. In this respect Palestrina’s later style is apparent; but in harmonic terms he is still under Josquin’s influence in, for instance, regularly using the minor supertonic triad even when it is leading to the dominant chord. The underlying harmonies are, for Palestrina, unusually simple and modal. Unlike Missa Papae Marcelli and many later pieces, the musical interest is here thrown heavily onto the counterpoint.

If ever it was thought necessary to prove that Palestrina early in his life gained much from coming under the influence of the great Franco-Flemish composers, this resplendent parody Mass shows how important they were to him and how he could turn their idiom to his own ends.

While Palestrina’s Missa Benedicta es can now be seen as an important step in his progress towards a mature style – what might be called an Italianized Flemish style – the Missa Nasce la gioja mia, also an early work, surely represented for him a cul-de-sac. This is possibly the last time Palestrina used a madrigal as a model, and the only time he turned to a composer like Primavera, renowned for light-weight three-voice napolitane to texts in Neapolitan dialect. If he parodied Josquin in his early years to learn more about his trade, and extend the scope of his polyphony, one wonders why he bothered with the straightforward musical idiom of someone like Primavera, except to say that there was a challenge here too.

Palestrina’s instincts were towards long phrases, interweaving counterpoint and bright sonorities. What he found in Primavera’s madrigal were very short phrases, chordal movement and fairly bright sonorities, briefly maintained. Throughout his Missa Nasce la gioja mia Palestrina was at pains to extend the basic material of his model while increasing the brilliance of the overall sound: partly by raising the tessitura of the two tenor parts and partly by always keeping the two soprano parts from the original in the foreground. As so often in his output – one thinks of his Missa Assumpta est Maria – the scoring of SSATTB seemed to suit him better than any other. He can be heard constantly deploying the sopranos and tenors in imitative schemes, turning round and round on each other, spinning out material which Primavera only hinted at. By the end of this action-packed piece of music, a gloriously typical piece for all that the original material was unpromising, the listener may reflect that like every great composer in history Palestrina could take absolutely anything from anybody and make it his own.

Peter Phillips © 2006

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