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Canticum Canticorum Salomonis 'The Song of Songs'
Motettorum quinque vocibus liber quintus, 1584
author of text
Song of Songs

'Palestrina: Canticum Canticorum Salomonis' (CKD174)
Palestrina: Canticum Canticorum Salomonis
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'Palestrina: Canticum Canticorum Salomonis – The Song of Songs' (CDH55095)
Palestrina: Canticum Canticorum Salomonis – The Song of Songs
Buy by post £5.50 CDH55095  Helios (Hyperion's budget label)  
'Palestrina: Missa Aeterna Christi munera & other sacred music' (CDH55368)
Palestrina: Missa Aeterna Christi munera & other sacred music
Buy by post £5.50 CDH55368  Helios (Hyperion's budget label)  
No 01: Osculetur me osculo oris sui
No 02: Trahe me post te
No 03: Nigra sum sed formosa
No 04: Vineam meam non custodivi
No 05: Si ignoras te, o pulchra
No 06: Pulchrae sunt genae tuae
No 07: Fasciculus myrrhae dilectus meus
No 08: Ecce tu pulcher es
No 09: Tota pulchra es, amica mea
No 10: Vulnerasti cor meum
No 11: Sicut lilium inter spinas
No 12: Introduxit me rex in cellam
No 13: Laeva eius sub capite meo
No 14: Vox dilecti mei
No 15: Surge, propera, amica mea
No 16: Surge, amica mea, speciosa mea
No 17: Dilectus meus mihi
No 18: Surgam et circuibo civitatem
No 19: Adiuro vos, filiae Hierusalem
No 20: Caput eius aurum optimum
No 21: Dilectus meus descendit
No 22: Pulchra es amica mea
No 23: Quae est ista quae progreditur
No 24: Descendi in hortum meum
No 25: Quam pulchri sunt gressus tui
No 26: Duo ubera tua
No 27: Quam pulchra es, et quam decora
No 28: Guttur tuum sicut vinum optimum
No 29: Veni, dilecte mi

Canticum Canticorum Salomonis 'The Song of Songs'
When in 1584 the Roman printer Alessandro Gardano brought out Motettorum Quinque Vocibus LIBER QUARTUS there was no mention on the title page that the contents were drawn entirely from what the Latin Bible calls Canticum Canticorum. In his dedication Palestrina follows his apology with this resolution: ‘But as what is past cannot be altered nor deeds undone, I have changed my purpose’. Recently, he explains, he had laboured upon poems ‘written of the praises of our Lord Jesus Christ and His most Holy Mother the Virgin Mary’ (a reference to his Madrigali spirituali of 1581), and now upon poems containing the divine love of Christ and His spouse the soul, indeed the ‘Songs of Solomon’ (Salomonis nimirum cantica). In the numerous later editions from 1587 to 1613, the title pages become more explicit, with phrases like motettorum ex canticis Salomonis or ex cantico canticarum (sic).

There are indications of haste in the first printing. The tenor and bass part-books are dated 1583, the other three 1584. There are a few obvious errors and omissions in this original set. We may assume publication early in 1584, perhaps to meet a special demand. For these are not thinly disguised erotic madrigals that happen to be in Latin, nor are they liturgical motets. They are exactly what Palestrina said they were, and precisely what suited the private and public devotional gatherings of people encouraged most notably by St Philip Neri, a man of extraordinary influence who had transformed religious and cultural life in Rome since the early 1560s. Under his persuasion confraternities were formed for the practice of spiritual exercises. Laudi spirituali were revived and madrigali spirituali became a popular musical genre. Indeed, Palestrina was a founder member of the Compagnia de i Musici di Roma dedicated to St Cecilia, begun in 1584. Bringing out his Song of Songs collection just in time may well have been Palestrina’s inaugural contribution.

By dedicating the set to his patron and employer Gregory XIII, Palestrina not only followed convention but honoured a reforming Pope who had supported him in his post as master of the Julian Chapel Choir, who had commissioned him (with Zoilo) to revise and reform the Roman chant books, and who had continued to keep Palestrina in his private chapel as an unofficial Papal composer.

There is every reason to believe that the earliest performances would have been by Palestrina’s small group of colleagues, adult male singers of the Papal choirs, the Julian in particular. Palestrina’s twenty-nine motets are vocal chamber music with a wide appeal that was recognized in his own time. The eleven editions in part-books are testimony to the popularity that Palestrina clearly expected. He may not have been a hypocrite but he was no fool in his business dealings or his publishing acumen. His Song of Songs was eminently suitable then, as it is now, for every kind of small singing group from male-voice soloists to mixed voices in small choirs, in low- or high-pitch performance.

Our modern age can hardly avoid some cynicism in regard to the traditional Jewish and Christian allegorical interpretation of the Song of Songs: the texts clearly evolved from the love poetry of desert people, from cult-mythology and tribal wedding songs. But the Songs must be seen, and the music heard, in the context of an age of Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation fervour, an age devoted by Roman authority to the triumph of the Virgin as well as her tenderness. The Spouse of the allegory is not only the Church or the individual soul but the bride who is represented by Our Lady the Mediator and by the Queen of Heaven, the One arrayed for battle, even the woman of the Apocalypse; certainly to Palestrina’s contemporaries, the Virgin who won the Battle of Lepanto (1571) and for whom the Papacy instituted the Feast of Our Lady of Victory. The gentle enclosed garden of Virginity is balanced by the Catholic vision of triumph over evil; in the words of the Spaniard, Luis de Leon: ‘Virgin, arrayed in the sun, crowned with eternal stars, who walks her sacred feet upon the moon’. Fray Luis wrote his poems in 1572 when he was imprisoned for translating the Canticum Canticorum into Spanish. St Teresa of Avila had to burn her Meditation on the Song of Songs. It seemed to the authorities that the allegory could be preserved in the Latin but that the eroticism would prevail in the vernacular.

Although some have thought to impose a story-line upon Palestrina’s twenty-nine motets, with a narrative continuum between Bride, Bridegroom and Chorus, there is little evidence that the composer has attempted this at all. He rarely even observes these exchanges, nor does he characterize or dramatize the persons or events. His selection and division of the texts ignores what we see in modern editions of the Bible. In fact Palestrina was working from the Latin Bible prior to the Biblia Vulgata revision of 1592. This also accounts for some variants in the Latin text as set by Palestrina.

from notes by Bruno Turner © 1994

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Details for CDA66733 track 16
Surge, amica mea, speciosa mea
Recording date
7 January 1994
Recording venue
All Hallows, Gospel Oak, London, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Mark Brown
Recording engineer
Antony Howell
Hyperion usage
  1. Palestrina: Canticum Canticorum Salomonis – The Song of Songs (CDA66733)
    Disc 1 Track 16
    Release date: October 1994
    Deletion date: May 2002
    Superseded by CDH55095
  2. Palestrina: Canticum Canticorum Salomonis – The Song of Songs (CDH55095)
    Disc 1 Track 16
    Release date: May 2002
    Helios (Hyperion's budget label)
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