Palestrina – Missa Papae Marcelli – beauty farm
Limited edition in honor of Bruno Turner to celebrate his 90th birthday with great gratitude
To the most highly esteemed Bruno Turner on the occasion of his 90th birthday
For almost half a century now, musical journeys have taken me to the land of Mvsica Antiqva.
There has been much to discover and still more remains. Many friends I found there and of some have since lost sight.
You were and have remained a steadfast friend and beacon on my sometimes crooked path. And all that despite our becoming aquainted in Britain but a few years ago.
Even as a teenager, recordings with your ensemble Pro Cantione Antiqua were my vace mecum. The pure, «unscented» spacious ideal of a group of single voices continues to transfix me even today and remains the still unattained but noble objective of my own modest strivings.
May this «unadorned» recording of a concert with young singers be a modest gift on your 90th birthday!
Written for the 7th of February 2021
Ad multos annos!
frabernardo | Bernhard Trebuch
Palestrina «Missa Papæ Marcelli»—the crown of sacred music
Pope John Paul I, who has gone down in history as «Il Papa del sorriso» and in whom many of the faithful set great hope, broke with a long-standing tradition at his coronation ceremony. Palestrina’s Missa Papæ Marcelli was routinely performed at papal coronations, but the new pope put an end to this tradition. Moreover, he dispensed with the usual ornate coronation tiara and incidentally also refused any deployment of the sedia gestatoria (the traditional papal sedan). We may mention in passing that his pontificate only lasted thirty-three days, a fact that has exercised countless historians to date. From our point of view it is remarkable because the dedicatee of Palestrina’s masterpiece, Pope Marcellus II (1501–1555), also died within a few weeks of taking office.
Dangers both internal and external have repeatedly threatened the Catholic Church. We may recall here the Eastern Schism (generally dated 1054) between the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches. Five hundred years later, in the mid 16th century, the church in Rome once again faced a crucial test. Only a few decades previously Martin Luther had more or less declared war on Rome with the attack of his famous theses. Whereas the burgeoning Protestant movement was at first centred in German territories, it soon spread further abroad. It may seem exaggerated to talk of a pandemic spread by the Protestant virus in the first century of modern times, for at the same time the «Church’s» missionary work was in full spate in South America.
Rome recognised the signs of the time however and convened a council in Trent focussed on strengthening the Church, thereby directly challenging the Protestants. According to pious wishes the post-Tridentine era would set the seal on Rome’s hegemony in questions of faith once and for all.
Quite a different sort of pandemic had already spread through the Church some decades before the Council of Trent. On the third day of his pontificate, on Good Friday in 1555, Pope Marcellus II summoned his chapel singers and insisted that suitable music be chosen for the occasion and that the texts should be comprehensible. Both demands also preoccupied the Council of Trent from 1545 on. Secular melodies were sometimes employed as cantus firmus—as a kind of scaffold—in sacred music. Composers may have been well-intentioned in providing something easily recognisable to the general public, such as Heinrich Isaac in his Missa Carminum, but ultimately it was not very conducive to the desired reinforcement and popularity of belief. We may understand what it was like if we just imagine setting a mass to the pop song «Anton aus Tirol» today.
It is interesting that comprehensibility of the text in music should be an issue. Texts heard in church at the time of the Tridentinum were always in Latin and would remain so for centuries to come, as is well known. So in any case they remained incomprehensible to the common people, something we find hard to imagine, even intolerable today, but which probably contributed considerably to the mystery of belief…
History ascribes Giovanni Pierluigi of Palestrina in Lazio as the saviour of church music from this situation. Born around 1525, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina—known simply as Palestrina—worked as a singer and later choir master of the Cappella Giulia in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Over a hundred masses and numerous motets testify to Palestrina’s industry and artistry, and his style was to characterise post-Tridentine church music. The Council not only banned any secular elements from sacred music but also demanded a classical polyphony subject to strict rules. Leading clerics were convinced that if this were unachievable, it would mean a return to simple monodic chant.
Palestrina easily fulfilled these requirements. There were hardly any questions of musica ficta in his music, a theory governing harmonic and melodic progressions only mastered by a few adepts. Wide intervallic leaps or dissonances on strong beats were to be avoided. A school grew up in whose eyes masters such as Nicolas Gombert were almost considered heretics. Palestrina thereby created a style which, only a few years after his death, composers such as Monteverdi and his comrades-in-arms were to oppose so vigorously.
The Missa Papæ Marcelli, the classic example of the new sobriety in church music, does however pose several questions. Appearing in 1567 in Palestrina’s second book of masses, as usual in part-books rather than in full score, this setting of the Mass ordinary represents the epitome of Renaissance polyphony even today. Palestrina dedicated it to the above-mentioned Pope Marcellus II and set the work for six voices. It may seem surprising to us that an additional seventh voice was added in the second Agnus Dei, but this was nothing out of the ordinary in the Renaissance. Incidentally, seven is the number associated with the Holy Mary.
The work was added to the repertoire of superior choirs in the 19th century and has remained a standard in the classical recording catalogue for almost a hundred years. Notwithstanding the heterogeneity of existing recordings, they more or less share a fundamentally romantic interpretation and approach.
Like works by Ockeghem, Josquin or de La Rue, Palestrina’s sacred music was written for specialists. As to the forces employed in Palestrina’s time and indeed for hundreds of years thereafter, the rule «Mulier taceat in ecclesia» meant that only male singers were used. At first this seems highly improbable, given that both upper voices go up to high g2. Knowledgeable readers will immediately counter this with the fact that the lowest voice is written in tenor rather than bass clef. This very particular kind of notation, known as chiavette, signals that the mass should be transposed downward in performance. So today the piece is usually sung a fourth or fifth too high. Then there are questions of tempo, whose answers are usually obscured by modern editions. In any case, the Kyrie starts in tempus perfectum diminutum, generally called alla breve nowadays. Simply put, the breve—like a double whole note—becomes the pulse. If this pulse, the so-called «beat», is compared to the human pulse, almost all performances of Palestrina’s most famous mass are far too slow. But to be fair, tempo is always relative, whereas pulse (i.e. «beat») is extremely important, especially in terms of interpretation.
Renaissance music enthusiasts will notice that, contrary to general practice, no instruments accompany the voices colla parte, or for that matter appear at all in the performance. This may seem all the more surprising given that music in the Renaissance was adorned with a colourful array of bowed and plucked string instruments, winds and keyboards, the like of which was never heard before or after. And yet St. Peter’s Basilica was apparently the only place of Catholic worship where music was performed a-cappella. Why this was remains a matter of conjecture. The fact that no instrument comes close to the emotional depth of the human voice may be a starting point for any explanation.
We may compare Palestrina’s unique, finely-honed music to that pure, minimalist form of liturgical music from the Middle Ages known today as Gregorian chant. After all, the Council of Trent almost ended up reducing church music—on account of its uncontrolled development—to this unadorned form. Luckily it didn’t come to that, thinking now of the multitude of church works composed since the Tridentinum, such as the Monteverdi Vespers, the Fauré Requiem or the Missa Papae Marcelli.
But as children of the Enlightenment we may well recognise how this apparently simple plainchant, a kind of Sprechgesang, can be extremely moving. In a tradition still carried on by monks today, these «melodies» function purely to transport the all-important text. Often performed alternately between precentor and «schola» (the body of monks) in the choir, these chants strikingly demonstrate how the means of communicating texts, indeed their content, have changed over the centuries. Whether Palestrina, Pärt, Mozart or monks in the Middle Ages, it is—we may assume—all about the palpable communication, the internalisation of (liturgical) texts. Seen in this light, perhaps the dear reader may agree that a simple recitation of the text to sense the content—a prayer—would be a noble ideal indeed.
frabernardo | Bernhard Trebuch