Palestrina: Kyrie, Gloria, and Agnus Dei from Missa Papae Marcelli

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina was born in the town of Palestrina, outside of Rome, between 1525 and 1526, and died February 2, 1594 in Rome. The Missa Papae Marcelli was published in 1567; the work was likely composed in the years before then. The score calls for a chorus of soprano, alto, tenor, and bass divided into six parts (with the addition of a second soprano part in the Agnus Dei II). These are the first San Francisco Symphony performances. Performance time: about seventeen minutes.

The Missa Papae Marcelli (Pope Marcellus Mass), composed in the late 1550s or early 1560s in memory of the short-reigned Pope Marcellus II, is considered the most famous of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina’s more than one hundred Mass settings. The Mass’s popularity has endured, in part due to its perfect balance of form and feeling (a hallmark of the composer) but also to a legend that arose around the piece shortly after Palestrina’s death.

Palestrina is credited with “saving” church music after the Catholic Church’s Council of Trent (1545-63) decried liturgical music that was “lascivious or impure.” Among the offenses cited were masses and motets based on bawdy secular tunes and elaborate polyphonic writing that obscured the words of the Mass. In composing the Missa Papae Marcelli, Palestrina gave the Council what it wanted: clean, singable lines that allowed for clear declamation of the natural drama of the text. As a result, composers were allowed to continue to write polyphonic music and music was saved (or so the story goes). It seems unlikely that the Missa Papae Marcelli was written with the intent of saving music, but was rather the work of a career church musician who (like J.S. Bach) was willing to make a few minor adjustments to fit certain requirements because it was the sensible thing to do.

Palestrina’s flexibility and skill as a composer is on display in the selections from the Missa Papae Marcelli heard this evening. Set for choir in six parts (soprano, alto, divided tenors and basses), Palestrina gives equal weight to each voice, resulting in a supremely balanced vocal texture. In the opening Kyrie eleison (Lord, have mercy), Palestrina weaves two simple melodic threads into a rich tapestry of cascading lines. In the Gloria, different groups of voices trade phrases antiphonally, before coming together in exalted tuttis on phrases such as gratias agimus tibi (we give thanks to you) and, later, Domine fili unigenite, Jesu Christe (O Lord, the only begotten Son, Jesus Christ). A more introspective section at Qui tollis peccata mundi (You who take away the sins of the world) provides dramatic contrast before launching into a joyous conclusion beginning at Quoniam tu solus sanctus (For you only are holy). The Agnus Dei is set in two sections. The first iteration of Agnus Dei recalls the melodic shape and feeling of the Kyrie while the second Agnus Dei introduces anadditional soprano part to the texture and explores all manner of canonic imitation as the work comes to a tranquil close.

—Steven Ziegler

More About the Music
Recordings: Simon Preston conducting the Choir of Westminster Abbey (Archiv)  |  Dennis Keene conducting Voices of Ascension (Delos)  |  Peter Philips conducting the Tallis Scholars (Gimell)

Reading: Lewis Lockwood’s critical edition of the score features extensive background, commentary, and analysis (W.W. Norton). |  Palestrina and the German Romantic Imagination, by James Garratt (Cambridge University Press)