The story behind the composition of Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli is one of the most famous – and least proven – in music history. As the story goes, the liturgical politics of the day attacked the elaborately composed polyphonic masses that had been the norm of the great Renaissance composers. The councils of the Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation didn’t want complicated Mass compositions, where the words were hidden beneath a dense blanket of musical counterpoint. They wanted simple music where the words could be understood easily. Palestrina’s Pope Marcellus Mass was written to show that classical counterpoint and clarity of text setting could live together, and thus Palestrina “saved music.”
Like many music history stories this one probably has at least some elements of truth in it. It does seem that there was a movement in the church for greater textural clarity. During his three weeks as pontiff, Pope Marcellus (for whom this mass may well have been written) did indeed express his desires that the words should be clearly understood. And we have the mass itself as evidence. The two movements which would have been at issue – because of their long texts – the Gloria and the Credo – most certainly do set forth the Latin words in the most clear manner imaginable. But to say he “saved music”.
The mass is in seven movements. The Kyrie, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei 1 & II represent the highest achievement of Palestrina’s serene, flowing, spiritually elevated style. They are quintessential Palestrina, each individual vocal line rising and falling on its own while at the same time combining with all the other vocal lines to create those wonderful soaring sonorities, the rise and fall of the whole ensemble of voices. The Benedictus, scored only for sopranos, altos, and tenors I & II, provides a delicate, tender, ravishingly beautiful interlude between the other full chorus movements. The Gloria and Credo are composed with a brilliant combination of traditional Renaissance counterpoint (each voice part independent) and chordal, block-like musical treatment of the text. In the latter style Palestrina would group together some of his six voice parts and contrast them with another group of voice parts, achieving a wonderful variety of choral textures. This technique, employed as Palestrina did, was actually quite ahead of its time, pointing to the chordal, block-like writing for varying sonorities as perfected by the Venetian school. (An interesting further similarity is a detail from the last measures of the Gloria: while the rest of the choir is sustaining the final chord of the Gloria the first basses sing a little flourish which sounds exactly like a trademark ending of Giovanni Gabrieli. Here Palestrina uses it about thirty years before Gabrieli.)
It has been the tradition to characterize Palestrina as a conservative composer, primarily because one does not find in his music some of the mannerisms of late Renaissance composers, for example chromaticism or figurations. But I think this is an erroneous evaluation, and I expect the scholarly writings on Palestrina will change in the coming years. There are three aspects of his music which actually point forward to the baroque: his use of harmony, rhythm, and his use of contrasting groups or blocks of sonority. We’ve already discussed the last aspect. The Gloria and Credo also provide perfect examples of modern use of harmony and rhythm. Throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance – in broadest generalities – the harmonic language of sacred choral compositions was modal. In the baroque period a tonal language of harmony was gradually developed. This is the major-minor, tonic-dominant harmonic language of most of Western music composed between 1600-1900, roughly.
Most of Palestrina’s music was still written under the spell of the church modes. But much of this mass has a definite tonal feel, including dominant-tonic relationships. Likewise, this particular Gloria and this particular Credo are not written with the normal arsis and thesis (rise and fall) rhythmic feeling of most Renaissance choral music. Except for certain sections in the older style, most of these two movements have a genuine feeling of meter (regular strong and weak beats – another baroque aspect), even syncopations (accented off-beats). After years of working with this music, I feel there is a completely different internal rhythm in these movements – a livelier rhythm which is married perfectly with the natural declamation of the Latin words. Perhaps you will agree!