Friday, July 02, 2010

Ode to Palestrina

The sacred pastors of the Church had convened a great meeting, that they voiced their concerns regarding the state of Her official worship. Two problems, in particular, came to the fore. One was the use of secular tunes associated with drinking and debauchery, which were subsequently given religious lyrics. The other was the employment of elaborate settings of music and production, to such an extent as to obscure the words themselves, and their essential meaning.

This council was held in the northern Italian city of Trento (Trent), and this particular session took place in the years 1562 and 1563. There was an impending decision to ban polyphonic (multi-voiced) singing from liturgical use altogether, and to return to the exclusive use of Gregorian chant.

It was at this time, that Carlo Cardinal Borromeo, Archbishop of Milan, heard a setting of the Mass penned by one Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, an organist and choirmaster from the eastern outskirts of Rome. The clear and distinctive style of this setting, composed in honor of Pope Marcellus II (who reigned for only three weeks in 1555), convinced Borromeo of the beauty and utility of sanctioning polyphony for all time, as proper to the Sacrifice of the Mass. The sublime and pristine character of this magnum opus, so clearly inspired by the tradition of Gregorian chant, was enough to convince the Fathers of the Church meeting in Council as well. Thus the Missa Papae Marcelli (Pope Marcellus Mass) is arguably the most popular Mass setting of the Renaissance period, and Palestrina (as he is most popularly known), remains to this day, the preeminent composer of said period.

At our present time in the history of Mother Church, when She is struggling to regain Her distinct identity amidst the world, She looks to those great treasures already in Her possession, and exhorts the faithful to cultivate their use once again with vigor. Among them is the treasure of sacred music, that which has been preserved through the centuries. It is such treasure which is described in The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium) of the Second Vatican Council.

114. The treasure of sacred music is to be preserved and fostered with great care. Choirs must be diligently promoted ...

116. The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services. But other kinds of sacred music, especially polyphony, are by no means excluded from liturgical celebrations, so long as they accord with the spirit of the liturgical action ...

From the first measures of the Kyrie, we may recall the reaction of the Fathers of Trent upon hearing this work: “On Saturday, 28 April 1565, by order of Cardinal Vitellozzi, all the singers of the papal chapel were gathered together at his residence. Cardinal Borromeo was already there, together with all the other six cardinals of the papal commission. Palestrina was there as well ... they sang three Masses, of which the Pope Marcellus Mass was the last ... The greatest and most incessant praise was given to the third, which was extraordinarily acclaimed and, by virtue of its entirely novel character, astonished even the performers themselves. Their Eminences heaped their congratulations on the composer, recommending to him to go on writing in that style and to communicate it to his pupils.” (from Music in the Western World: A History in Documents, by Richard Taruskin and Piero Weiss, Schirmer, 1984.)

There is a notion that only trained, professional singers can perform work of this complexity. I beg to differ. When I came to Washington nearly thirty years ago, I was fortunate to sing with the Parish Choir at Holy Trinity Church in Georgetown, then under the direction of Mister William Parsons. We had two paid leaders for each section -- soprano, alto, tenor, baritone -- and it was in that setting that I learned many of the great works of the Renaissance and Baroque periods, the golden age of sacred polyphony. While my singing ability is quite capable, I was admittedly an amateur, one who would have been all the poorer, had such works not been so accessible. It is in the true spirit of the "amateur" (from the Latin meaning "one who loves"), that one otherwise common in one's taste can be enlightened and uplifted by such discoveries. It is such discoveries which have inspired me to this day.

The Missa Papae Marcelli will be sung by the Saint Gregory Choir of The Church of Saint John the Beloved, McLean, Virginia, this coming Sunday, the fourth of July, at the hour of Noon, under the direction of Mr David Lang, at a Traditional Solemn High Mass, for the External Solemnity of the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul. The Priest/Celebrant of the Mass will be Father Paul Scalia, Pastor. The Deacon of the Mass will be Father Jason Weber. The Subdeacon of the Mass will be Mister Zachary Akers, FSSP.

The Master of Ceremonies will be ... their servant, yours truly.

1 comment:

Dad29 said...

There is a notion that only trained, professional singers can perform work of this complexity. I beg to differ. ...We had two paid leaders for each section -- soprano, alto, tenor, baritone -- and it was in that setting that I learned many of the great works of the Renaissance and Baroque

It is true that non-"trained-professionals" can sing this music. But the presence of paid section-leaders sorta muddies the water if you wish to claim that amateurs can pop this stuff with only a bit of struggle.

The average amateur does NOT easily sing polyphony b/c polyphony, by definition, requires that each choral section sing its line independently.

(The Credo of Pp. Marcelli is not polyphonic, in the strict sense; it is largely homophonic.)

Thus, a conductor cannot do much more than cue each line's entrance; he cannot effectively 'shape' each line, as they are doing different things at the same time.

THAT'S why amateurs have a hard time with this stuff.

Not impossible. But difficult.