Mass for Pope Marcellus by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina


Have you ever wondered what heaven might sound like? I think it’s filled with the music of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, arguably the greatest composer of the Renaissance. No matter what your religious background, it’s hard to argue with the pure beauty of this music. The line between classical music and sacred music is historically very thin, and during the Early Music period, it was pretty much nonexistent. This is because churches were willing to pay BIG BUCKS for gorgeous music, and frankly, most people back then didn’t realize that it was even possible to have art without religion. Many of the great composers of history, from every time period, wrote works to be performed during the Catholic mass, including Bach, Mozart, Schubert, Rossini, and Dvorak, just to name a few.

The Catholic Mass is made up of five movements (or sections): Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus et Benedictus, and Agnus Dei. (Sometimes the Sanctus et Benedictus is split into two separate movements.) Some masses have added movements depending on the occasion, but these five make up the “meat” of the mass, if you will. The movement I have included for this entry is the first half of the Agnus Dei from the Mass for Pope Marcellus. When trying to get a first impression of a mass, it is often best to start with the final movement, the Agnus Dei, as it will usually cite sections from the previous movements. It also has very simple text, so how a composer sets it will tell you a lot about their particular style.

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem.

Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant us peace.

This music has a whole lot of meat in it, and I could spout a quite a few musical terms at you to explain it. I’m going to do my best to keep the music jargon to a minimum. The fancy words don’t make it any easier to understand how lovely this music is, but a few of them might help you to explain it to someone else (and possibly even seem like you know what you are talking about when speaking to music professors). So here we go:

Melisma- This is what we call it when you sing a whole lot of notes for just one syllable. Most music today has a very clear-cut rule that one note= one syllable. In fact, Julie Andrews TOLD us that!

At about 3:05, Julie tells us in no uncertain terms that each word (or syllable) gets just ONE note. Wait, so Freulein Maria LIED to us?! Now don’t be too quick to judge her- that’s usually a golden rule, and probably over 80% of music is written this way. But even today, we can find melismas in popular music. Alicia Keys, Christina Aguilera, Stevie Wonder, they are all masters of melisma.

Polyphony- As if the melisma didn’t make this piece incomprehensible enough, there is the added element of polyphony. That’s where more than one melody is happening at the same time. In this case, it is FOUR different melodies all happening at the same time, weaving in and out of harmony with one another. The phrases start and stop at different points, meaning the words almost never match up among the different voices. This gives the piece an ethereal, ephemeral feel, perfect for the high, echoing domes of grand cathedrals.

There was just one problem. The bishops weren’t quite sure they wanted his music there. During the 1560’s, the Council of Trent convened, and they made a lot of decisions pertaining to faith, the church, and the arts. One of the items up for discussion was the increasing amount of melisma and polyphony in sacred music. The problem? The music became more important than the words. To the church, that was a big no no. During this period, music was not a tool for self expression; its sole purpose was to praise God. Muddled words meant that listeners might forget the important messages and prayers in the text of the mass.

Supposedly, it was the music of Palestrina and this mass in particular, which changed the mind of the Council of Trent. They found his music to be so beautiful that it must certainly be a gift to God. There is, technically, no evidence to back up this widely-held belief. In fact, there may be no tie between Palestrina and the Council of Trent. It is possible that this story, much like that of George Washington and the cherry tree, was made up to prove a point. Palestrina’s music WAS beautiful, and it DID elevate the art form of sacred music. With Palestrina paving the way, and with sacred music allowed to blossom and flourish despite the incomprehensible text, Early Music would soon evolve into the high art of the Baroque period.