The story of the Missa Papae Marcelli
is difficult to fix down in fact. The myth holds that the cardinals attending the Council of Trent were about to decide that singing polyphony in church services was unacceptable, for reasons ranging from the inaudibility of the texts to the complaint that polyphony was too sensuous and too intellectualized (quite a complaint!). There was a move to reinstate plainchant as the only permissible church music. One of the leading figures in the debate was the man who became Pope Marcellus II in 1555 and it is probable, given the title of the eventual composition, that Marcellus asked Palestrina to write a piece which would show the world that part-music could be both concise and musically valuable. Certainly in two of its movements – the Gloria and Credo – the Missa Papae Marcelli
has a precision of word-setting which was innovative, though the other three movements are much more elaborate and the second Agnus Dei possibly the most mathematically complex movement Palestrina ever wrote. The evidence is rather confused, then, though it is surely significant that the syllabic style of the Gloria and Credo was recognized at the time as being novel: when the Mass came to be published in 1567 it was prefaced with the words ‘novo modorum genere’ (broadly speaking ‘a new form of expression’).
from notes by Peter Phillips © 2007