Monday, October 27, 2008


Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina is sometimes called the savior of Catholic Church polyphony. During the 16th century Catholic Counter-Reformation, and the Council of Trent considered removing polyphony from the Mass. Polyphony, they thought, distracted people from the words. The point of music was to glorify and complement the text, not to completely cover it up with creative ornamentation. Palestrina, however, wrote a polyphonic Mass in which words could be understood. Because Palestrina’s writing was so beautiful and so effective at conveying the lyrics, his sound became the norm for music in the Catholic Church until Vatican II.

On this CD of Palestrina’s work called Palestrina: Motetti & Missa “Assumpta est Maria” we hear motets by Palestrina and his Mass based on his motet “Assumpta est Maria.” The CD was recorded by a group of 22 singers under the direction of Philippe Herreweghe at La Chapelle Royale in Paris. Palestrina’s Missa “Assumpta est Maria” is a parody mass, which means that it is based on a pre-existing work; in this case, the motet by the same name, “Assumpta est Maria.” Over the course of his career, Palestrina established and practiced a rigid set of composition rules, which he employed in this particular mass including text projection, the careful use of dissonances, and the use of mostly stepwise motion. All the music on the CD is performed a cappella, using the performance style used in Palestrina’s time (the Church suggested that no instruments except organ be used in the Mass). Since all voices are singing primarily the same rhythm, or homophonically, the text is easy to understand. The polyphony seems to flow endlessly; even cadences do not feel like true ends or pauses but ways to move to the next phrase.

The author of the CD liner notes Philippe Beaussant mentioned that it is critical when recording a piece from a different time period to be true to the original idea. I felt the argument was lost when after, making this point, Beaussant went on to write that this particular recording is the 19th century style. The author’s point was to inform the listener that the recording is different than what Palestrina wrote for and heard. Because today one is so used to the sound of many singers on one part, I am not opposed to the direction that this CD uses. It would have been neat to hear what Palestrina himself would have thought of as the “Palestrina sound,” but sometimes that sound was not ideal. Singers were not always available, so a 6 part motet might have 3 singers and 3 voices played on the organ. Also, musicologists today have difficulty finding the exact performance practice that Palestrina used, because he did not think it was necessary to write performance practices and after his death, people did not always follow his performance practices. This recording is metered and concentrates on harmonies rather than free flowing phrases. Also, the choir of 22 is bigger than the group of soloists probably used by Palestrina.

What struck me most about Palestrina's work was the flowing endless polyphony. I could sit back and close my eyes and envision myself in the Papal Chapel listening to the almost celestial music. My favorite track on this CD is the “Credo,” which enumerates the key beliefs of the Catholic faith. To convey that important text, Palestrina wrote so the voices sing together for the majority of movement. I enjoy the beautiful, pure aspect that Palestrina creates in order to ensure that the text is left as the principal element. He also emphasized the words by adding or subtracting voices. When all parts sing forte in the same rhythm, the listener is sure that those words are perhaps the most important text of the entire creed. Another way Palestrina manages to stress significance is through repetition. When voices sing the word “crucifixus” each voice part sings in succession. Palestrina highlights the word and makes that word’s importance clear to the listener. Palestrina skillfully painted the text for those not fluent in Latin. In the line, “Et ascendit in caelum” which means, “And ascended into heaven,” all the voices sing an upward pattern. When I listened to this part, even though I was not consciously following the Latin, I assumed that the text must be talking about Christ’s ascension. During the 16th century, most people did not speak Latin, so Palestrina’s skill was an imperative one for the congregation’s comprehension.

All in all, I have little to complain about with this recording. I have no problems with the 19th century style they chose for it, but I do, however, wish that whoever compiled this album had included Palestrina’s motet on which this Mass was based. Upon looking the motet up on Naxos, however, I discovered that the Mass and the motet sound tremendously similar. Both have seamless polyphony and use homophony. The voices of the motet, like in the Mass give the impression of flying to heaven. During this time, motets were sacred, so it makes sense that both works would sound divine. The sounds of Palestrina were heavenly, and I fully understand why the Catholic Church kept his style.

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