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Palestrina: Success and succession

The Missa Papae Marcelli was composed in 1562, in honour of Pope Marcellus II, who reigned for all of three weeks in 1555 (although five Popes in history have reigned for even less time). This great work has exercised influence beyond the obvious beauty of the music. The third and closing sessions of the Council of Trent were held in 1562-63, at which the use of polyphonic music in the Catholic Church was fervently discussed. It was felt by many that the long, extended and individual lines of the polyphonic music obscured the words of the mass, thus interfering with the listener’s devotion. Some petitioned polyphony should be banned outright in worship.

Many scholars now believe it was the impending ban on liturgical polyphony - in response to the unintelligibility of the words - that provided the impetus for Palestrina’s setting. It has also been suggested that the direct, declamatory style of the Missa Papae Marcelli convinced the cardinals that polyphony could be intelligible and a vehicle to enhance the worshipper’s devotion. This well-known story is probably apocryphal, although it forms the basis of Pfizner’s opera Palestrina.

Direct and declamatory the text may be, but by no means is this simple music. Primarily scored for six voices (split tenors and basses), voice combinations are varied throughout the movements, with the full forces reserved for specific climactic portions of the text. It is a masterpiece of balance between the use of block chords, such that the text can clearly be heard, alongside more melodic and contrapuntal writing, delivering carefully-chosen moments of great intensity and elevation for certain words and sections of text.

Bach’s mighty Komm, Jesu, komm is one of his six great Motets. It is characterised by a strong yet intimate and tender character throughout. Scored for double choir, it uses polychorality (interplay of the two choirs) from the very beginning, an obvious extension of the contrasting voice combinations Palestrina had deployed. The interplay becomes grander and more extended as the sections of the motet develop, with Bach using imitative writing - again much like Palestrina - to highlight carefully-chosen moments of the texts, for example ‘Mein Leib ist müde’ (My body is weary) very near the beginning of the piece.

The Finnish composer Jaakko Mäntyjärvi (b. 1963) describes himself as an eclectic traditionalist. Much like Palestrina, Mäntyjärvi has clearly adopted styles and influences from earlier periods, fusing them into his own idiom within a relatively traditional musical language. Similarly, Mäntyjärvi’s Pulchra es has an immediacy to the delivery of the text which is never purely functional. Clear, speech-like rhythms are masterfully coloured with chords, harmonies and textures, serving only to enhance and elevate certain words and sections of text.

Born the same year as Mäntyjärvi, our final work comes from the Swiss composer Ivo Antognini. Written in 2019 - not far off half a millennium since the Palestrina - it’s clear how the harmonic language of western choral music has developed. The range and demands upon the singers are, in many respects, greater: the highest notes are higher, the lowest notes are lower, and the dynamic variations are far more detailed and extreme. Beyond these relatively superficial differences, however, are important similarities. The text of Come to me is set in an equally direct way, with its verse-like structure providing the listener with a grounding repetition of the opening bars at regular intervals throughout the piece as each new section of text is introduced. The musical language employs added-note harmonies, with chromatic chords and dissonances used sparingly to highlight important moments in the text. The soprano line is used independently at key moments in dialogue with the rest of the choir.

All are compositional devices so clearly present in Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli, yet enhanced and extended for the twenty-first century.

Michael Waldron

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