IV. PALESTRINA: 1526–94

The Catholic Church remained the chief patron of music, as of the other arts. North of the Alps Catholic music proceeded along the lines set by the Flemish School. This tradition was confirmed by Ysaac in Austria, and by Di Lasso in Bavaria. One of Luther’s most generous letters was addressed (1530) to Ludwig Senfl, complimenting him on the music he was composing at Munich, and praising the Catholic dukes there because “they cultivate and honor music.”13

The choir of the Sistine Chapel was still the model on which kings and princes established their “chapels” in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Even among Protestants the highest form of musical composition was the Mass, and the crowning glory of a Mass was to be sung by the papal choir. The supreme ambition of a singer was to join that choir, which was therefore able to include the best male voices in Western Europe. Castrati—then called eunuchi—were first admitted to the Sistine Choir about 1550; soon afterward some appeared at the Bavarian court. The emasculation was performed on consenting boys who were persuaded that their soprano voices would be a greater asset to them than fertility—a vulgar virtue generally supplied beyond demand.

Like any old and complex institution, which has so much to lose by an unsuccessful innovation, the Church was conservative, even more in ritual than in creed. Composers, on the contrary, were weary of old modes, as they have been in all ages, and experiment was to them the life of their art. All through these centuries the Church struggled to prevent the artificiality of the ars nova, and the subtlety of Flemish counterpoint, from weakening the dignity and grandeur of the High Mass. In 1322 Pope John XXII issued a stern decree against musical novelties and decoration, and ordered that the music of the Mass should keep to unisonal plain song, the Gregorian chant, as its foundation, and permit only such harmony as would be intelligible to worshipers, and would deepen rather than distract piety. The order was obeyed for a century; then it was evaded by having some of the performers sing the bass part an octave higher than written; this faulx bourdon—false bass—became a favorite ruse in France. Complexities in Mass music developed again. Five, six, or eight parts were sung in fugue and counterpoint, in which the words of the liturgy ran upon one another’s heels in professional confusion, or were drowned in musical flourishes sometimes inserted by the singers ad libitum. The custom of adapting popular tunes into a Mass led even to the intrusion of profane words into the sacred text. Some Masses came to be known from their secular sources, like The Mass of Farewell My Loves, or The Mass in the Shadow of the Bush.14 The liberal Erasmus was himself so disgusted with the artificiality of “art Masses” that he protested, in a note to his edition of the New Testament:

Modern church music is so constructed that the congregation cannot hear one distinct word. The choristers themselves do not understand what they are singing.... . There was no [church] music in St. Paul’s time. Words were then pronounced plainly. Words nowadays mean nothing.... . Men leave their work and go to church to listen to more noises than were ever heard in Greek or Roman theaters. Money must be made to buy organs and train boys to squeal.15

In this matter the reform party within the Church agreed with Erasmus. Bishop Giberti of Verona forbade the use of amorous songs or popular melodies in the churches of his diocese, and Bishop Morone of Modena prohibited all “figured” music—i.e., music adorned with the elaboration of motives or themes. At the Council of Trent the Catholic reformers urged the exclusion of all polyphonic music from church services, and a return to monodic Gregorian chant. The predilection of Pope Pius IV for Palestrina’s Masses may have helped to save the day for Catholic polyphony.

Giovanni Luigi Palestrina took his name from a little city in the Roman Campagna, which in ancient days had entered history as Praeneste. In 1537 we find him listed, at the age of eleven, among the choirboys at Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. He was not yet twenty-one when he was appointed choirmaster in the cathedral of his native town. So established, he married (1547) Lucrezia di Goris, a woman of helpful but moderate means. When the bishop of Palestrina became Julius III he brought his choirmaster to Rome, and made him head of the Cappella Giulia, in St. Peter’s, which trained singers for the Sistine Chapel. To the new Pope the young composer dedicated his First Book of Masses (1554), one of which presented a three-voice counterpoint accompaniment to one voice in plain song. The Pope liked these Masses enough to give Palestrina membership in the Sistine Choir. As a married man Giovanni’s position in this usually tonsured group seemed irregular, and evoked some opposition. Palestrina was about to dedicate a book of madrigals to the Pope when Julius died (1555).

Marcellus II lived only three weeks after his elevation to the papacy. To his memory the composer dedicated (1555) his famous Missa Papae Marcelli, which was not published or so named till 1567. Pope Paul IV, a man of inflexible and puritan principles, dismissed the three married members from the Sistine Choir, allotting each a small pension. Palestrina was soon made choirmaster at St. John Lateran, but this position, though it buttered his bread, offered no patronage to cover the expense of publishing musical compositions. With the accession of Pius IV (1559) papal favor returned. Pius was impressed by the Improperia that Palestrina wrote for the Good Friday service, and from that time this composition became a regular part of that ritual in the Sistine Chapel. Palestrina’s marriage still excluded him from the Sistine Choir, but his status rose with his appointment (1561) as choirmaster at Santa Maria Maggiore.

A year later the reassembled Council of Trent took up the problem of adjusting church music to the new spirit of reform. The extreme proposal to forbid polyphony altogether was rejected; a compromise measure was passed urging ecclesiastical authorities to “exclude from churches all such music as .... introduces anything of the impure or lascivious, in order that the house of God may truly be seen to be... the house of prayer.”* Pius IV appointed a committee of eight cardinals to implement this decree in the diocese of Rome. A pleasant story relates that the commission was on the verge of banning polyphonic music when one member, Cardinal Charles Borromeo, appealed to Palestrina to compose a Mass that would show the full congruity of polyphony and piety; that Palestrina wrote, and a choir sang, for the commission, three Masses, one of them the Missa Papae Marcelli, and that the profound union of religious elevation and chastened musical artistry in these Masses saved polyphony from condemnation. However, theMass of Pope Marcellus was already ten years old, and the only known connection of Palestrina with this commission is its extension of his pension.16 We may none the less believe that the music which Palestrina had presented in the choirs of Rome—by its fidelity to the words, its avoidance of secular motives, and the subordination of musical art to religious intent—played a part in leading the committee to sanction polyphonic music.17 It was an added argument for polyphony that Palestrina’s ecclesiastical compositions normally dispensed with instrumental adornment, and were almost always written a cappella—“in chapel style”—i.e., for voices alone.

In 1571 Palestrina was again made choirmaster of the Cappella Giulia, and ne kept this post till his death. Meanwhile he composed with uncontrollable fertility—in all, ninety-three Masses, 486 antiphons, offertories, motets, and psalms, and a great number of madrigals. Some of these were on secular themes, but as Palestrina aged he turned even this form to religious purposes. His First Book of Spiritual Madrigals (1581) includes some of his most beautiful chants. Personal misfortunes may have colored his music. In 1576 his son Angelo died, leaving to his care two beloved grandchildren, who died a few years later. Another son died about 1579, and in 1580 the death of his wife moved the composer to think of becoming a monk. However, he married again within a year.

The astonishing abundance and quality of Palestrina’s product raised him to the leadership of Italian, if not of all European, music. His setting of the Song of Solomon to twenty-nine motets (1584), his Lamentations of Jeremiah (1588), his Stabat MaterandMagnificat (1590) confirmed his reputation and his persisting power. In 1592 his Italian competitors joined in presenting him with a Collection of Vesper Psalms honoring him as the “common father of all musicians.” On January 1, 1594, he dedicated to the Grand Duchess Christina of Tuscany a Second Book of Spiritual Madrigals, combining again religious devotion with musical mastery. A month later he died, in the sixty-ninth year of his age. His tomb bore under his name the title he had earned, Musicae Princeps, Prince of Music.

We must not expect to appreciate Palestrina today unless, ourselves in a religious mood, we hear his music in its proper setting as part of some solemn ritual; and even there its technical aspects may leave us more marveling than moved. In a literal sense the proper setting can never return, for it was music of the Catholic Reformation, the somber tone of a stern reaction against the sensuous joyousness of the pagan Renaissance. It was Michelangelo surviving Raphael, Paul IV replacing Leo X, Loyola displacing Bembo, Calvin succeeding Luther. Our current preferences are a transient and fallible norm; and an individual’s taste—especially if he be lacking in technical competence, in mysticism, and a sense of sin—is a narrow base on which to rest a standard of judgment in music or theology. But we can all agree that Palestrina carried to its completion the religious polyphony of his day. Like most high artists, he stood at the crest of a line of development in feeling and technique; he received a tradition and completed it; he accepted discipline, and through it gave structure to his music, an architectonic stability against the winds of change. Who knows but some not very distant age, tiring of orchestral sonorities and operatic romances, may find again in such music as Palestrina’s a depth of feeling, a profound and placid flow of harmony, better fitted to express the soul of man cleansed of pride in reason and power, and standing again humble and fearful before the engulfing infinite.

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