Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Day #2

I am pleased that so many people seem to have listened to my reccomendations over the last day. I will probably have more posts than usual this first week, then get in a rhythm of about 3 posts per week in the future, so I guess enjoy the honeymoon. Also, if you have any of your own comments, recording reccomendations, or whatever that you want to post, feel free to reply to my posts, I appreciate it.
Today's work is Giovanni Palestrina's Missa Brevis. I have always been a big fan of Palestrina, ever since I got my first recording of his most well known work, Missa Papae Marcelli. I even wrote some liturgical music when I was a lot younger that was pretty heavily inspired by listening to his stuff. He was a composer who worked in Rome in the 1500s, during the counter-reformation. He is the focus of a story that says during the council of Trent, the church was discussing banning polyphony* in church music because it made it much harder for the congregation to follow what was being said, and it was profance and whatnot. If not for Palestrina writing the Pope Marcellus Mass in a way to show how sublime that kind of music is, perhaps the church would have stunted the growth of music forever.
At least, that's what a lot of stories say. The reality is that Palestrina did not save music or anything that dramatic, but he did write what is arguably the most beautiful vocal music ever. This particular work is not quite as famous, but it is very well written. It was originally written to be sung during a Catholic mass, presumably at the Vatican, and the way a Catholic mass is set up, there are a few particular statements that are present in every regular ceremony, and these are the Kyrie (actually in Greek), the Gloria (essentially a poem praising God's glory), the Credo (the Nicene Creed), the Sanctus and benedictus (another poem praising god), and the Agnus Dei (a work discussing the lamb of God). These are the five sections that will be set to music in a work entitled a mass, and they were not intended to be performed without break like they are now in concert. Instead, they were broken up by things like the sermon, the readings, and the like. Often, those sections would be set to music too, although they would be in the form of individual motets. Later on historically, they would also use instrumental music to fill up some time, although right now, the world was dominated by strictly vocal music.
The Missa Brevis, unlike some of Palestrina's other works, was not based on a cantus firmus, which was a common technique whereby a composer would pick an external melody and then base all of their music off of it (usually something like taking the notes of a chant, and then setting them to a really dragged out rhythm in the bass voice). This means that there is not really any consistent musical theme between the movements. Something worth noting though, is that the opening statements of the Gloria and Credo use a traditional chant fragment, although they are not used further. This was a common practice when writing the mass until probably a century later.
Anyway, I really like this piece, I know it's maybe a little long when taken together, about 20 minutes total, but I definitely recommend it as background music if you need to relax or something like that, it's really amazingly beautiful.

My recommendation for a CD is The Tallis Scholars Sing Palestrina, that being the group in the above recordings. The CD has a lot of other cool stuff, like the Pope Marcellus Mass, and I have always been impressed with the vocal quality of that group when it comes to emulating Renaissance style. If you like this kind of music too, check out other things by Palestrina, as well as Josquin Desprez. I will probably return to some other composers from that time frame later on.

* Polyphony is another word for counterpoint. In a nutshell, it means music that has 2 or more distinct melodies being played at once. Gregorian chant was monophonic, because it is a bunch of people all singing one melody in unison. Homophony became prominent later on, and is basically where there is one main melody and a series of chords to support it, instead of multiple distinct melodies.


  1. I have this recording and adore it. The Tallis Scholars did a great recording of the Allegri Miserere as well.

  2. Yes, that is actually the CD I had that had Missa Papae Marcelli on it. Good reccomendation.