Volume 118, Number 3, Fall 1991
(Given as a lecture during his visit to the United States in
1965 in preparation for the Fifth International Church Music
Congress, twenty- five years later, this study of Palestrina
remains valid and useful for contemporary church musicians.)
In the history of music only a few masters have been the subject of a myth
such as the one connected with Giovanni Pierluigi Sante da Palestrina. Nor
have many composers had such an influence throughout the centuries as he
has had. He is celebrated as "the savior of church music." Hans Pfitzner
created a dramatic work of art out of that legend, and Melchior Sachs and
Carl Lowe in the last century set it to music in an opera and an oratorio.
The 19th century saw in Palestrina the ideal of creative church music. His
work embodied the "una sancta" idea, since both Protestant and Catholic
church musicians made an effort to model their evolution on Palestrina's
art. On the Protestant side men such as Thibaut, Reichardt, Zelter, E. Th.
A. Hoffmann and others were striving for the same ends as Catholics such as
Alfieri, Santini, Baini, Choron, Ett, Proske and others. The founding of
the choir at the Protestant cathedral in Berlin was equalled by the choir
at the Catholic cathedral of Regensburg. Both had the same aim of
cultivating the style of Palestrina as the backbone of church music.
Romanticism with its search for a transcendent ideal and its endeavor to
detach itself from the reality of contemporary music had prepared musicians
for the discovery of Palestrina. By the end of the 18th century, in a
period when church music was completely governed by rationalism and the
enlightenment, the number of voices that pointed out Palestrina and the old
classic polyphony as an art of special religious expression was increasing.
Masters of an entirely different style such as Mozart and Beethoven knew
and appreciated Palestrina's value.
Palestrina, and not his eminent contemporaries Lassus and Victoria, was in
the focus of 19th century interest chiefly because his serene style kept
word and music, sound and structure, homophony and polyphony in well-
established harmony. Style and idealization had come to life in the 19th
century as ideals of church music just as the imaginary ideal figure of the
Nazarenes emerged in the fine arts. Raphael was the ideal of the fine arts,
and his counterpart as the ideal of church music was Palestrina.
At the beginning of the 19th century, the meaning and character of
Palestrina's art was rediscovered, at least what was thought to be its
orchestral meaning and character. His technique of composition had, of
course, lived on without interruption and had existed in the "stile antico"
along side of the new baroque styles of the 17th and 18th centuries. Fux,
Gius, Paolucci, Martini and others had kept Palestrina's art alive both in
their writing on music theory and in their own works in the "stile antico."
We know that 19th century romanticism impressed its own ideas on the 16th
century and idealized it in a way that today's better historical research
has refuted. But romanticism, in spite of all its misinterpretations, did
set Palestrina free from a superficial rational interpretation of his
techniques of writing that had characterized the 18th century. It
experienced his true meaning in religious expression. Although some of the
romantic traits have been re-adjusted to historical fact, Palestrina's art
is today still dominant in the interpretation of church music and old
J. Samson in his elucidating book, "Palestrina ou la poesie de
L'exactitude" (1939), discusses the spiritual quality in Palestrina's work,
and Heinrich Rabe has written about Palestrina's motets in "Kirchliche
Jahrbuch" (1950 and 1951). Such research proves that Palestrina's art is
not determined by a structural pattern as had been thought in former times,
but that the determining factor is his deep interpretation of text and
music within the spirit of his time. Lassus, his great contemporary, had a
genius for enthusiastic writing of singular expression and thus
concentrated his creative efforts on the motet that always presented a new
text for his composing. Palestrina, on the other hand, kept to the texts of
the Mass, which he set more than ninety times, not interpreting them
dramatically but idealizing them, every time expressing again the spiritual
meaning of the liturgy.
This quality of Palestrina was understood in his lifetime, and it gave him
his particular position in Rome's contemporary church music scene. It was
for this reason that he became the subject of the myth of being "the savior
of church music," when the Council of Trent raised objections to
contemporary polyphonic choral music. His "Missa Papae Marcelli" was
recognized for its religious and artistic seriousness as Jeppesen correctly
The oft-discussed "problem of the Council of Trent and church music" has
been exaggerated and presented in too subtle a way in the history of music.
The documents of the council in no way indicate a problem to the extent
that has been insinuated. There is no proof of its attempting to forbid
church music in general. Yet the reform council took a stand against the
lascivious and the impure in church music and against "musica troppo
molle." Hieronymus Ragusanus in his final address at the 25th session
insisted once more upon that point and it became decisive for church music.
Actually, on September 17, 1562, only a few views were expressed at the
council on the subject of church music, but their meaning and effect were
Reflection on the position of music in the liturgy resulted in a limiting
of its form and its evolution. A committee of cardinals met in 1564-1565
and tried to judge contemporary musical activity by the standards set by
the council. It considered contemporary art in general. Palestrina's work
was particularly noted. Not the form of his art but rather its essence in
connection with the liturgy and Gregorian chant was emphaized. The humanism
of the age emphasized the importance of the word and its intelligibility,
and thus intelligibility of the text became one of the main postulates of
reformed church music. Even if these ideas were particularly emphasized by
the committee of cardinals, they were not new but rather quite familiar to
those who had themselves written music for the liturgy. Similar ideas had
long been expressed by theologians.
The artistic techniques of the Flemish composers still had an effect upon
the Italian church musicians of the early 16th century. They placed musical
composition above the word. But Italians were fond of melodies, and that,
coupled with the emphasis on the word promoted by the humanists, produced a
product that held its position along side the earlier contrapuntal
technique. Already in the 15th century, "fauxbourdon" employed such
devices. Obrecht and Ockeghem developed the contrapuntal technique but
stressed certain words with homophonic declamation. Josquin achieved a
certain reconciliation between polyphonic and homophonic devices. The
Italians, C. Festa, Annimucia and others, with their penchant for tunes,
reconciled the different styles and achieved a unified composition instead
of simply alternating polyphonic and homophonic passages without
It was into that world that Palestrina was born. His exact birthdate is
not known, but it was probably about 1525. The episcopal see of Palestrina
was his birthplace, and he was called after it. Here he had his first
musical impressions and became a choirboy at the Cathedral of S. Agapita in
Palestrina until he very soon after joined the choir at Santa Maria
Maggiore in Rome. There Firmin le Bel was his teacher.
The music of the Netherlands greatly influenced Italian practices of the
time. It was the foundation of Palestrina's musical education. When the
young Palestrina returned home as the organist and singing teacher in the
cathedral where he was born he used the Flemish art. He had satisfactory
results in those positions, leading to his appointment by his mentor,
Cardinal del Monte, to be conductor of the Cappella Giulia in Saint
Peter's, when the cardinal was elected pope in 1550.
At that time Palestrina wrote his first book of Masses which was printed
in 1554. It contains Masses proving his complete mastery of the old art.
The "Missa Ecce sacerdos" employes the chant melody continually throughout
all the parts of the Mass and accompanies it with contrapuntal movement.
The "Missa O regem coeli" no longer follows the strict chant melody, but
uses it as material for composed themes. He does not take the individual
passages of the Gregorian chant verbatim but uses the version of Andrea
Silva in his motet. Palestrina took over the whole composition in the
manner of the old parodied Mass. Yet it was not a parody of a secular
madrigal or chanson, but a borrowing of a religious motet, which itself had
a Gregorian theme for its base. In the same way, the "Missa Virtute magna"
and the "Missa Gabriel Archangelus" are based on Gregorian chant themes.
The "Missa Ad coenam agni providi" for 5 voices uses the melody of the
Easter hymn and combines a canon in all its movements with independent
polyphonic motet techniques.
It is significant of Palestrina's style that all the Masses in his first
book use chant themes, which means that they are closely related to the
liturgy. With the greatest skill, he also often uses the forms developed by
the Netherlanders: the cantus firmus, the canon and the motet Mass. In his
first printed work, written at the age of about 27, he displayed an
appreciation of church music that was very much like what the Council of
Trent required twelve years later.
Yet there was one point in which Palestrina differed from the council's
ideal: the problem of how to treat the text. According to the Netherlands
school, the musical composition is primary. In the "Missa Ecce sacerdos"
this is pushed to the point that the cantus firmus sings the text "Ecce
sacerdos magnus," while the other three voices sing the text of the Mass,
that is, two different texts are sung at once. Obviously, that does not
help to understand the sung text. Here Palestrina was complying with a
tradition that had been discredited in the minds of the humanists. They
wanted no contrapuntal writing for their odes when set to music, and all
the voices had to sing the same single text. For them, even religious texts
simultaneously accompanying the Mass texts caused all the division and
confusion that the early 16th century was accused of. His Roman
surroundings made Palestrina aware of these shortcomings, and in his
subsequent compositions he avoids such methods of mixing texts.
In 1555, Palestrina was appointed a papal chapel singer without any
examination and without the vote of the other singers. This was a sign of
how much his artistry was appreciated. To be sure, that post of honor did
not last long, for being a married man, he had to leave the Cappella
Sistina under Pope Paul IV when the rules concerning membership in the
chapel were strictly observed. He moved to Saint John Lateran and after
1561 to Saint Mary Major.
This was a period of intense creativity besides his activities as a
conductor. His motets of 1563 are arranged for four voices and to some
degree use Gregorian themes. They show the change that has taken place in
his style. His composition is approaching serene mastership, with the
exposition of the text clear and intelligible. He did this by a homophonic
procedure of combining the voices or by short motifs obviously
corresponding to the text. The melisma no longer stifles the
intelligibility of text or composition. In his preface, Palestrina points
out that new device. Thus he reduced the dominating position of the music
in favor of the word and even made the most skillful counterpoint
subservient to the text. He did not do this merely to show a new style of
writing, but rather to have his composition be grasped by the audience as a
prayer of its own, with all the reverence due to the text and the liturgy.
Although in 1567 he also included older compositions of pure counterpoint
in his second book of Masses, for example, the "Missa Ad fugam," there are
nevertheless in it also Masses such as the "Missa Papae Marcelli" that
clearly outline his new attitude towards the composing of Masses. A new
spirituality has found its appropriate musical form there.
In Rome, the ideas of church reform had gained ground and Palestrina had
close contact with the leading men of the reform movement. In 1566, he was
the first professor of music to be appointed to the Roman Seminary of the
Jesuits. It was not only his reputation as "egregius musicus atque in his
regionibus celeberrimus" that caused his appointment to that post of great
influence on church reform, but it was mainly his sincere attitude towards
the reform as shown by his life and his art. He was closely associated with
Saint Philip Neri and his oratory in trying to put into practice one of the
aspects of the reform peculiar to the Jesuits, that is, the effort to reach
the people at large. He dedicated his art to Philip Neri. Also, the
dominant humanist views on the relation between word and melody had a
decisive effect on him. On such foundation, Palestrina's new style began
Even when he had to compose secular music, when he was in the service of
Cardinal Ippolito II d'Este, he did not do so for long. His activities at
the Roman Seminary gave him a sound knowledge of the Gregorian chants and
his polyphony gave the chant new forms. A brief of Pope Gregory XIII
convinced Palestrina in 1577 to undertake a reform of the chant. He wanted
to improve the medieval liturgical melodies by adapting them to the revised
liturgical texts as advocated by his contemporaries who were interested in
the use of melody and the proclamation of texts. Palestrina shared this
task with Zoilo, but various circumstances prevented them from publishing
the work. Guidetti, who published several reform editions, was a friend of
Palestrina. Like the Editio Medicaea of 1614 and other contemporary reform
editions, Palestrina was interested in simplifying the melodies, and it was
of particular importance to him that he was forced to take a stand on all
the questions concerning the chant and its performance. He recognized the
chant as an obligatory part of liturgy and he wanted to save this living
form of art for the expression of the new ideals in religious life. He had
proved his understanding of medieval liturgical art when he composed his
first works based on chants. All the more he saw his liturgical task was to
give the Gregorian melodies such a form as to have them comply with the
humanist requirements for word and melody and thereby have an influential
position in comtemporary church music. Even if today we take different
views on revising the chant than the 16th century did, Palestrina and Zoilo
tried to solve a problem that was vital to the music of the time. It was a
problem that led Palestrina to a final musical form of liturgy. His
polyphonic work embodies those efforts.
The unity of the liturgy embraces contrasting forms. Since Nicholas of
Cusa the "coincidentia oppositorum" had become a main problem in theology
and philosophy. The arts are deeply influenced by that idea, and in liturgy
it is art that is forced to bring about the unity of opposites. The problem
of the ordinary of the Mass finds a solution in that idea, and the same is
true of the apparent diversity of expression in liturgical chant and
polyphony. Palestrina wrote more than half of his ninety Masses on
Gregorian themes. That shows how far liturgical melody and polyphonic art
became a unity. He only wrote about ten Mass parodying secular themes of
his own or of others. They hardly count against the chant Masses and the
approximately 24 Masses parodying religious motets of his own or of other
And yet, the secular themes may perhaps give us a clue to Palestrina's
spiritual attitude. That they are a part of his late work and not only his
early compositions seems to contradict his basic ideas on liturgy. However,
it seems to me that he did not give way to superannuated traditions already
done with, but that he exerted his power in order to bring secular themes
under the spell of his religious art, thus accomplishing the "coincidentia
oppositorum" promoted by church reform. If we compare the number of secular
and religious themes in Palestrina's work with those in the Masses of
Orlando di Lasso and other contemporary composers, we see Palestrina in a
different light and we recognize what is so peculiar to his views. The
extent of the individual movements of the Mass, the close relation between
the themes of the chant and the word, as well as the whole character of the
compositions indicate that Palestrina wants to write Mass-music and not
some music to go with the Mass, in that he keeps to Gregorian liturgy and
its relevant features. Nor does he merely want his music to add artistic
splendor to the liturgical text at the expense of the action proper to the
Mass, the Sacrifice. He wants his art to serve the liturgical word and to
be an instrinsic part of the Mass understood as action. Since he does not,
unlike Lassus, want to give an individual interpretation of the liturgical
text or create enthusiasm as a preacher might, he can combine pure
counterpoint and his ideal of clear recitation. He can integrate them both
into a serene composition peculiarly his own. Here is the source of that
mythical attraction, that even in times that repudiated his liturgical
theories, made Palestrina a success.
Beethoven in his "Missa solemnis" certainly gave quite a different
subjective interpretation of the liturgical text, and his music in all its
splendor celebrated the enthronement of the age of enlightenment, stressing
that aspect much more than the significance of the sacrifice in the
liturgy. Yet Beethoven held Palestrina's work and the old classic polyphony
in high esteem.
In 1825, he told Freudenberg that the old "a cappella" art was the ideal
church music. J. S. Bach adapted Palestrina's "Missa Sine nomine" for use
in Protestant services, and his deep religious views anticipated ideas that
took shape in Protestant church music during the romantic period.
Beethoven's attitude toward Palestrina was not only determined by the
contemporary "a cappella" idea of vocal tone, but also by his close
liturgical contacts with the Gregorian chant. As early as 1818 he noted "In
order to write true church music one has to study the old chants of the
monks and find out how to translate the passages most correctly. Besides
you need a complete parody of all Christian Catholic psalms and songs at
large." Beethoven like Palestrina felt that the Gregorian chant was the
source of true church music. Palestrina not only used Gregorian motifs and
themes, but he also developed his whole melos on the example of the chant.
The melodic structure modelled on the chant, as Beethoven required it for
church music, is a reality in Palestrina's work. The stepwise movement of
the chant melodies is also Palestrina's melodic principle, just as the
structure of his compositions, achieved by clearly defined motifs,
corresponds to the Gregorian melodies. Perhaps the hymns most purely embody
that principle in conjunction with the chant. Yet Palestrina wrote no Mass
nor motet that was not influenced by the Gregorian chant as an integrating
part of his art.
Among the Masses, the "Missa Papae Marcelli" is particularly well-known,
perhaps rather for the historical facts I mentioned, than for its artistic
value, since other Masses are its equal if not superior to it. His attitude
toward liturgical chant is seemingly contradicted in the "Missa Papae
Marcelli" because it is not based on a chant theme but rather a secular
chanson, the popular and frequently used "L'homme arme." His contemporaries
may have considered this an ideal integration of a chanson theme with the
Gregorian melos and praised the emphasis put on the word within the work,
the integration of the secular and the religious, the "coincidentia
oppositorum," the worldly being spiritualized as the 16th century church
reform intended it to be in order to bridge the gap between the world and
the Church, which the renaissance and humanism had caused. The "Missa Papae
Marcelli" must be seen in the light of those problems; it then has its own
religious meaning. This is true of the few Masses parodying non-religious
themes. The meaning was clear to Palestrina's contemporaries working for
When, in 1571, Palestrina was again appointed to the Cappella Giulia at
Saint Peter's, his understanding of church music had changed from what it
had been twenty years before when he was choirmaster at Saint Peter's. The
sonority of the cappella itself had changed too. The number of singers had
increased. New means were required for new sounds. Outside Rome, especially
in nothern Italy and in the lands north of the Alps, instruments were
easily added to the vocal music. This new way of composing accounted for
the practice of having both vocal and instrumental parts in place of the
former "colla parte" technique.
The 19th century romanticism did not hear that kind of sonority in the old
classic polyphony and assumed that there was a only a vocal "a cappella"
ideal. Although instruments were forbidden by the rules of the Cappella
Sistina, that was not equally true of the other Roman churches. At least
the organ was admitted as a colla parte instrument, as proved by the "basso
continuo" parts which were usually printed in the last quarter of the 16th
century with the full scores of the old classic polyphony. Even in
Palestrina's lifetime his works were edited with "basses ad organum" parts,
showing that he did not disapprove of that kind of performance of his
works. These facts change the romantic idea of Palestrina, some of which
live on today. It is high time that we revise our views on the sonority of
old classic polyphony on the grounds of better historical information than
the 19th century had. The same is true of the 19th century practice of
using large choirs and emphasizing volume while Palestrina was more
concerned for clarity of the lines and their individuality within the
The 16th century produced an original sound when compositions were
performed by small groups and also with soloists' improvization which was
an undisputed practice of the time. Palestrina himself was a singer and for
awhile he was appointed a singer in the papal chapel. The renown of a
singer rested not so much on the tone of his voice or in the dynamic
agogical proclamation of the melody and its subjective interpretation as
today, but rather it depended on his skill in improvising ornamentation
that makes use of the "res facta' of the composer and creates a new
structure using such devices as "passaggi, trilli, gruppi," etc., but
always conforming to the principal rules of composition and respecting the
rights of the other parts.
In Palestrina's lifetime Conforti was one of the most famous singers in
Rome. He has left a treatise on this practice with examples of how to do
the diminution or ornamentation. Like Bassano he also left works of
Palestrina's in the ornamented version. How far the new diminished or
ornamented version is from the "res facta" is shown by the coloraturas that
are limited to two simultaneous parts at the most. Palestrina presupposed
this performance practice for his work since it was not only being used for
polyphony but also for religious monody which was expanding at the end of
the 16th century. Thus the manner of performing Palestrina's works is
different from what the full score shows us today, a further correction of
19th century ideas about Palestrina.
Diminution or ornamentation was not just an occasional transgression
committed by vain singers as is often thought, but it was practiced in
Palestrina's lifetime without dispute, even by Palestrina himself and he
expected his singers to do so too. Only when composers began to fix the
flourishes they wanted in the new monody did the added grace note put in by
the singers seem to be overdone and contrary to the composer's rights. But
that 17th century limitation of improvised diminution was not demanded
during Palestrina's life. 19th century romanticism did not appreciate the
artistic value of diminution.
About 1600, a composer's work and style had undergone as much of a change
as art itself in proposing solo monody in place of polyphony. The new
standards of the "ars inveniendi" were as opposed to the 16th century style
as they were to the polyphonic art itself. They allowed the composer to
provide the structural frame while the sound and ornamentation belonged to
the performer. Since the 17th century the composer has tried to lay down
the ways of fulfilling that task and thus to control performance.
Palestrina's art must be interpreted in the light of the "ars inveniendi"
that provided only the structural frame. Since his art is living on as
church music as much today as in the 16th century, modern performances have
to cope with problems different from those described by romanticism with
its deep-rooted dreams and ideals.
His contemporaries thought Palestrina great because he had developed his
art according to the then dominant views. His art is still alive because
his whole personality was engaged in his creations. How much his
contemporaries appreciated his authority in church music is not only proved
by the positions he held in Rome but also by the number of great princes
bent on having him at their courts or at least on keeping in touch with
him. In 1567, Emperor Maximilian wanted him to succeed his conductor, Jacob
Vaet, at the Vienna court. The Gonzaga court fostered relations with
Palestrina and wanted to have him at Mantua. Palestrina through the
dedications of his publications cultivated contacts with many courts. Yet
Rome retained him until the end of his life. He served under ten popes.
When he died on February 2, 1594, he left a heritage that incorporated not
only musical ideas with their origins in the ars nova of the 14th century
but also the new style that was accepted only in the 17th century after the
great change in style had taken place.
Palestrina kept a balance and order between the elements of his
composition. The sound serves to glorify the word. Victoria with his
saturated sound, Gabrieli with his antithesis of sounds, or Lassus with his
dramatic enthusiasm, all adopted a course different from Palestrina. The
intelligibility of the word is his main principle, but the intelligibility
goes with a balance between homphonic and polyphonic, harmonic and
contrapuntal devices. Contrary to the humanist practice of a distinct
cadence for punctuation, Palestrina conceals his cadence as a means of
musical order. This reveals how much he was influenced by the Flemish
tradition even when the word became the center of his work. Much as his art
may seem to disavow that tradition, it had never completely escaped its
spell. Even at a time when he follows different tendencies of his own, his
publications repeatedly included some of his earlier works written in the
Flemish manner. That indicates how much the old and the new were really one
Baini has tried to distinguish a number of different styles in
Palestrina's work. Whatever one thinks of this attempt, at least Baini has
recognized that Palestrina knew how to use the various turns of style
popular in his time, beginning with the cantus firmus, the canon and on to
the serene style of declamation. Incongruous as those various styles may
seem, they became one in Palestrina's search for a religious art that
integrates itself into the liturgy and does not remain indifferent to it.
For that reason his later editions could include works of different styles.
In the end, later generations could call the accomplishments of his century
after him, "stile di Palestrina." That "stile di Palestrina" found a
meaning of its own in its close connection to church life and a form of its
own in its serenity.
The same problem always exists that Palestrina solved for his time with a
perfect mastery of the traditional and the contemporary means of
expression, inspired by the idea of church reform. That is why his work
remains as a model for all liturgical church music, a model half seen even
by the enlightenment though not realized then.
Because of its spirituality Palestrina's art has kept its authority as
church music throughout all the centuries. It stayed alive and its
existence is not only a historical problem but the essential problem of
true liturgical church music in all ages, and certainly that is true of our
Palestrina's work is alive today in the practice of church music, not by
mere imitation as the 19th century Cecilian movement thought of it.
Performing his works according to the discoveries of historical research is
one reason for its life today. It is our task to modernize and relive that
liturgical music with the means available to us today. We must again think
of Palestrina as the master of church music, who in his time and with the
means afforded by his time made church music and liturgy a perfect unity.
Even if our age does not especially appreciate Raphael or Palestrina's
ideal of serene beauty, still they are significant for us, historically
speaking. The structural principle of his art has become a modern principle
of composition although in a different tonal context. Certainly the
serenity of his declamation and basic harmony has been replaced by
abstraction and realism. Those are modern traits that also were
characteristic of his art, but in an idealized form. Those traits could
also be found in abstract Flemish art.
Our interest today is less centered on Palestrina's way of idealizing the
composition than on the art he amalgamated in his personal mature style.
For there we find parallel tendencies similar to those leading nowadays to
dedecaphonic composition. Yet we are not so much concerned with his
technique of composing nor his sound structure, as with the particular
spirituality bringing about a synthesis of liturgy and church music in an
artistic form adequate to his period. And that is why his work is so
influential even at a time that has its own tendencies in church music.
The II Vatican Council has attributed new tasks to church music,
especially the encouragement of congregational singing and the vernacular.
Yet beside composing new music and vernacular songs one of the main
obligations has remained to preserve the "thesaurus musicae sacrae."
Gregorian chant and old classic polyphony are the great persistent artistic
values in liturgy. Palestrina made his church music to be an artistic
synthesis of those values according to the aims of the Council of Trent.
His art is still authentic for all those who experience liturgy in its
artistically integrated form, and for whom art still has a meaning in the
worship of God and in their conception of man. That is why it is so
important for us to steep ourselves in his work and know the obligation we
have toward Palestrina's church music that for centuries has been the ideal
of man at worship.
KARL GUSTAV FELLERER