The Joy of Renaissance Music: Palestrina’s “Pope Marcellus” Mass

It’s another school year, which means another year going through the history of Western music in Pre-AP Music Appreciation.  This week we’re diving into Renaissance music, after spending last week covering the music of the Middle Ages.

Contrary to popular belief, the Middle Ages were not a period of depressing darkness, but rather a lively age.  I certainly wouldn’t want to be a peasant pushing an ox cart full of dung, but that peasant knew his place in the universe, in the sense that he knew he was part of an ordered cosmos with God at both its head and its center.

More on that another time, but I mention it to note that the Renaissance would not have been possible without that long age of faith in the Middle Ages.  Still, the Renaissance Period—variably dated, but starting roughly sometime in the fifteenth century, and extending to the seventeenth century—was a period of increased interest in the art and literature of ancient Greece and Rome, especially the human realism depicted in the art of those great civilizations, both a continuation of and a departure from the Middle Ages.

It also saw the declining influence of the Catholic Church in Europe, especially in the wake of the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century.  As Protestantism and other social forces broke the Church’s monopoly on education and its dominance over art and music, Catholicism mounted a Counter-Reformation, aimed at both reducing the influence of Protestantism and reforming real abuses within the Roman Church.

That effort, naturally, involved revisions to music.  Catholic priests denounced the increasingly theatrical nature of church music, decrying it as distracting from the simple message of the Gospel and the sacred Latin text, instead serving as gaudy entertainment for Mass goers.  Much like the megachurch arena rock concerts of today, services had become garish and maudlin, a reflection of the corruption within the Church.

It was in this context that Giovanni Pieluigi da Palestrina composed his greatest works.  According to Roger Kamien in Music: An Appreciation (the eighth brief edition, which I use with my students), Palestrina composed some 104 masses and 450 other sacred works, and his music became, essentially, the gold standard of church music until modern times (“masses” in the musical context are works built around five sung prayers, the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei, not to be confused with the Catholic service).

As Kamien writes (on page 83 of Music: An Appreciation):

The restraint and serenity of Palestrina’s works reflect his emphasis on a more spiritual music.  For centuries, church authorities have regarded his masses as models of church music because of their calmness and otherworldly quality.  Even today, the technical perfection of his style is a model for students of counterpoint.

And what a master of masses he is!  We listened to the “Kyrie” from Palestrina’s Pope Marcellus Mass in class.  It’s a beautiful, intricate, yet effective polyphonic rendering of the prayers Kyrie eleison, or “Lord, have mercy” and Christe eleison, or “Christ, have mercy.”  In the spirit of the Counter-Reformation’s emphasis on the text, the lyrics consist of just those four words, with the Kyrie eleison making up the first and final sections, and the Christe eleison in the middle.

Even despite that lyrical simplicity, the piece is richly textured and detailed.  Each section ends with a glorious chord.  If you’re wearing headphones, listen for the glorious overtones as the six different lines come together in a beautiful C major chord at the end of each section.

Rather than include a video showcasing a live choral performance, I’ve included this video, which shows the music written out in the unusual 4/2 time signature (basically, half notes are quarter notes, quarter notes are eighth notes, etc.).  I think it gives a good sense for the intricacy of the different moving lines:

Also, note that the final Kyrie section is much quicker than the preceding two sections, with more moving lines (lots of quarter notes) in the voices, especially the sopranos and the altos (the top two lines).  That quickness suggests something of the excitement—even the urgency—of the plea for the Lord’s Mercy.

This performance is by the Oxford Camerata, and they surely deliver, with very tight vocals.  As Kamien notes, Renaissance music is challenging to sing, but rewarding for that very reason.  It is certainly beautiful.

I find much pleasure and joy in the simplicity of hymns.  But voices coming together to praise God polyphonic nuance and harmonic beauty surely offer a glimpse into what the songs of angels must be like.  Palestrina’s Pope Marcellus Mass certainly does.

27 thoughts on “The Joy of Renaissance Music: Palestrina’s “Pope Marcellus” Mass

  1. Wonderful article, Port.

    Back before the Episcopal Church became apostate, we used to chant the Kyrie. As a child and as a teenager, I loved listening to the voices of the congregation chant the words Kyrie Eleison, Christe Eleison, Kyrie Eleison. (Lord have mercy upon us. Christ have mercy upon us. Lord have mercy upon us). There was something I can’t describe – a ‘lifting’ or maybe a ‘heavenly moment’ – happened every time I joined in the voices of the congregation.

    I am Anglo-Catholic now and we are seeing our churches bringing chant back, which is a nice return of our historic service/Mass but we say the English words and it’s simply not the same. The tune is lost, too, that used to transport me. Sigh. But the memory lingers on.

    I’m afraid I’m one of those people who would rather there were no hymns sung during Mass. Sigh. I know. I’m hopeless. I think they interrupt what is happening between the Holy Trinity and the people of the Word made flesh. Procession and recession is fine but not during. On the other hand, out of church I can listen to and love hymns all day every day.

    As an aside, imagine my shock and surprise when this became ‘a thing’:

    Liked by 2 people

    • Would you be surprised that while I like Mister Mister, I strongly prefer Palestrina?

      In a properly constructed liturgy, the hymns do not distract from the Mass, they add to it. Funny that your church(s) fails on this point, it has always been the strength of the English church, even before the Reformation. This is usually where a contemporary service fails, and badly.

      The hymns are so important to the service, that when Rev Dr Luther couldn’t find an appropriate one, he wrote them, as did that other great hymn author, Wesley.

      As to the Kyrie, we have always spoken (or chanted, occasionally sung responsively, depending on the minister, and the church calendar) it, usually in vernacular, mostly English, but I have participated also in German, and Norsk, but now and again in the Latin as well. And yes, there is a translucence in it.

      A side note. In my youth, our programs simply said “Doxology” with no further information. In both my, and my ex’s families it is also the table grace at reunions and sometimes at home. It is always and only this:

      Liked by 1 person

      • I agree with Neo: the message of hymns is so important to the service. I see Audre’s point about distracting from the miracle and mystery of the Mass, but I take Neo and Luther’s approach: have the write hymn for the occasion. I am given very wide latitude in picking what we sing on Sunday mornings, and while I’d like to say I prayerfully consider each selection, or that God has “put this message on my heart,” I usually am picking out of expediency—what do I know well enough that I can get through it this morning?

        Ha! That said, there have been many times where a piece I _think_ I am choosing out of expediency ends up being directly tied to the pastor’s sermon.

        I come from the Pentecostal tradition, which is waaaaaaay less structured than the liturgical one. The justification was that we didn’t want to restrict the moving of the Holy Spirit with a pre-planned program (as if _we_ could control Him!)—or, more accurately, we didn’t want to restrict _ourselves_ should the Holy Spirit move. On balance, I think the liturgical structure can be quite beneficial and spiritually satisfying, so long as it doesn’t descend into rote and routine.

        Liked by 2 people

      • It’s just me, Port – another one of my many failings. My sister in law, may she rest in peace, was Pentecostal. Bless her heart – she made me laugh; she and my brother attended the Easter Mass at my church. It was the first time they’d visited church with me. After it was over and we were walking out, lol, she said to me, “That whole thing came from the Bible!” Lol! Bless her heart, I don’t know where she imagined it might have come from but her joy of discovery was wonderful. Miss you, Donna Marie.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Haha, yes, I have a friend who is a Lutheran – Missouri Synod, and his wedding was highly liturgical. My brother and I left baffled (it was also veeeeeeeery long—there is something to be said for Low Church Protestant simplicity and ten-minute wedding ceremonies). I dated a Catholic girl for a year, and it took quite a while to get used to Mass. It’s really something you have to be born into, or have to attend a LOT, to get down all the recitations and such.


      • But here’s a funny thing … Donna had a very good friend, Bobbie, who is Pentecostal but attends our Anglican Mass, lol. Figure that one out, lol!

        Liked by 1 person

      • There’s lots of slack in hymn choice, even in ours. The lectionaries sometimes have suggestions but really say things like “Hym of Praise” or Gathering Hymn”.

        We believe (and Luther’s reforms stripped everything the Gospel didn’t require and promoted that which they mandated that there are four essentials to make a valid service.
        1) Gathering
        2) The Word
        3) The Meal
        4) The Sending

        All else is designed to fulfill these essentials, which is why we have Gathering hymns and Hyms of praise. This is what a full liturgy contains
        Confession and Absolution
        Hymn of Praise
        Word of God and Sermon
        Words of Our Lord
        Agnus Dei
        Nunc Dimittis

        BTW: the Creed is any one of the the three, Nicene, Apostles, or Anthanasian, all of which are approved in most churches, including the Catholic. The Athanasian is long, and mostly used on Reformation Sunday.

        Liked by 2 people

      • Nope – not surprised at all about your choice.

        The church doesn’t fail – Audre fails; we have – and have always had – hymns throughout the Mass, I just don’t care to be interrupted by them. It’s just me. After the kids were grown, I stopped going to the ‘family Mass’ and attended, instead, early Mass – no hymns. Of course, that was when the congregation was of sufficient size to accommodate two Masses.

        My whole life the doxology has been with me. I think you’ll find it on a DNA strand somewhere. Good for when you’re afraid, good for when you’re happy and good every other time as well. Sometimes I sing it in my head as I’m falling asleep. To me, there is nothing else quite like it. I like your video; I like this one, too:

        Liked by 2 people

      • Yep, I liike that one too. The only one I’ve seen that I don’t is too formalized – too perfectly performed, if you will. It works best as a small group or congregational fral, not a professional coir, for me anyway.

        Liked by 2 people

      • I am not unsympathetic to your preference for a hymnless Mass, Audre. There are times when visiting larger churches that I am ready to get through the half-hour (!) of music to get to the sermon. My parents’ church has great musicians, but they’ve largely done away with the old hymns and tunes in favor of contemporary Christian music, which I can’t stand (I stopped the “Doxology” video you sent on the first lyric because I could tell by the guy’s voice and the production that it was too “contemporary” for me, haha). Some of it is fine and hews to the Gospel message, but much of it I find musically boring, even offensive—atonal or excessively simplistic melodies; egregious repetition; and predictable harmonies. Not to say hymns don’t have repetition and predictable harmonic structures—they often do—but they seem so much more engaging and fun to me.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Audre! I really loved listening to this piece with my students.

      I remember reading William F. Buckley, Jr.’s book about his faith, and he made a similar remark about the Latin Mass, and how it enhanced the mystery of the Mass for him. It sounds like you experienced a similar sensation singing the Kyrie.

      At my little church, we open the service with a hymn singing, followed by brief announcements, then another congregational hymn singing. After that, it’s all sermon until the invitation at the end, where I come up and play an invitational hymn while people pray and/or come to the altar for prayer. I will then usually play some recessional music while everyone leaves (it’s also a good chance to practice more, haha). I also will noodle around before service playing the two congregational hymns as prelude music (and, again, to practice), sometimes weaving in other hymns.

      But I take your point. I can see how even simple hymns might distract from the main point of the miracle occurring in the Mass.

      Ha, yes! I was thinking of Mr. Mister yesterday while listening to this Kyrie. Great song!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Alys has commented now, Audre. WordPress still makes me approve her comments, as it apparently believes she is some manner of Internet impostor. I’ve tried to see if I can “add” her to some “safe list” or “white list,” but no such feature seems available.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I was listening to Palestrina in the car yesterday on my short trip to work but I do love a good choir and the English choral tradition which for me is at its best with an all male choir and boy choristers. Sadly there are now very few such choirs left as the femintistas have infiltrated and distorted a tradition dating back hundreds of years. I love hymns too and I do agree up to a certain point with Audre about hymns deflecting from the purity of an Anglo Catholic mass. Having only recently found a dedicated and charismatic Anglo Catholic priest and a church which does not allow female clergy, has an excellent organ and organist, I can mumble along with the hymns quite happily after a thirty mile trip. I find the whole experience of the mass with the incense, the procession of the officiants into the church and up to the altar, the music, the presentation of The Gospel, the responses and the liturgy, deeply emotional and the closing hymn and blessing comes all too soon. I sit in the pew until the last chord of the organ dies away while contemplating the huge crucifix hanging from the roof of the church before I can bring myself back to earth.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I knew you’d appreciate this post, Alys; indeed, I had you in mind when I wrote it. You’re the only person I know cruising down the highway blasting Palestrina.

      I agree re: the deteriorated nature of the male choral tradition. I was commenting to some students today that, while I have a strong instrumental background, and I can sing and harmonize, I do not have a strong choral background. I still have a hard time teaching vocals beyond basic harmonies.

      Your Mass experience sounds truly awe-inspiring, Alys—awe in the God’s Presence. Glad you found a church that hasn’t sold out to the world.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I was hardly cruising PP, my ancient Honda potters along but it is reliable. So much ‘church’ music is awe inspiring. I don’t know how it is possible to listen to the best of it and not Believe. So often I am moved to tears by music. For me it has the capacity to reach into one’s soul in a manner which no other art form possesses not even the paintings of the great masters such as Caravaggio, Raphael or Giotto.

        Liked by 2 people

      • I rather the like the idea of you “cruising,” Alys. I used to “cruise” in my ancient minivan, but that’s the kind of cruising that raises eyebrows.

        I agree: music is exceptionally powerful. I think it’s the most moving of all the art forms, but, then, I’m quite biased.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. For Audre: The Mr Mister thing is an abomination.

    For Neo: I love The Creed, it is one of my favourite parts of a mass. I have actually managd to memorise The Apostle’s but the Nicene come a close second.

    Liked by 2 people

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