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Great Albums You May Have Missed: Palestrina's 'Missa Papae Marcelli'
My favorite function of air, besides perhaps its ability to keep us all alive, is its ability to move beautiful sounds from place to place. For sound to travel, each molecule in the air must internalize the vibrations and pass that energy on to its neighbors in a fraction of second, and no piece of music can remind the air of this sacred purpose more than Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina's Pope Marcellus Mass.
Written in the 16th century, it is an indisputable masterpiece of a capella, Renaissance choral music. The perfectly orchestrated rhythmic variations between parts, the linear melody lines that occasionally rise in slight leaps only to softly descend again: Listening to this Mass is like floating in an ocean full of audible yet ethereal waves washing over you, emanating from the head of some sonic divinity caught in a dream-state, and filling the vast empty spaces of the universe with all that is good, beautiful and pure.
Legend has it that at the Council of Trent, the Catholic Bishops were to meet and decide the fate of liturgical music. Music was developing away from the Gregorian-style, homophonic chants into more polyphonic textures. With several independent vocal lines not always singing in strict rhythmic parallel, the Council feared the lyrical message of the mass was getting lost in all that texture; and The Pope had proposed a draconian ban on music composed for the liturgy with more than one independent vocal line.
Palestrina, so the legend goes, composed The Pope Marcellus Mass in order to save polyphonic music: not only to demonstrate its uncanny ability to conjure feelings of the divine, but to show that simultaneous and rhythmically independent vocal lines could be written in a manner that would allow the words to remain comprehensible. The Mass was so effective and so admired that the Council then decided to allow for polyphony in liturgical music. Palestrina's Pope Marcellus Mass remains a major pillar in music history, and is still widely regarded as one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written this side of the pearly gates.
NYPL Catalog Links:
(my personal favorite recording of this piece)
-To preview the kyrie section of the Mass, click the album cover below-