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.