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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 16 The End of Perfection
Richard Taruskin

The first native Italian to be a major creative player in this narrative (as opposed to theorists like Aaron or Zarlino), Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina—the name means “Giovanni Pierluigi, from Palestrina”—was born either in Rome or in the nearby ancient town whose name he bore, called Praeneste by the Romans. He died in Rome, by tradition in his 69th year, on 2 February 1594. By then he had been either directly in the papal service or at the musical helm of one of the major Roman churches for more than forty years, beginning in 1550 with the election of Pope Julius III (formerly the bishop of Palestrina), and ending ten popes later, with Clement VIII. That is the central fact of Palestrina’s career. He was the pope’s composer, a veritable papal institution in his own right.

That status made him the recipient of an amazing and paradoxical commission: in 1577, at the height of his fame, Palestrina (then choirmaster of the Cappella Giulia at the Vatican, named after Julius III, his original patron) was enjoined by Pope Gregory XIII to revise the plainchant that bore the sainted name of the pope’s predecessor and namesake, Gregory I. That chant was supposed, by long tradition going back to the Franks, to be divinely revealed (as we have known since the first chapter of this book). Yet it was now subjected to a “modern” stylistic and esthetic critique, and purged of its “Gothic” impurities completely in the spirit of the ars perfecta. Palestrina did not complete the project, which reached publication only in 1614; indeed it is not known how much of the revision he (or his appointed assistant, Annibale Zoilo) actually accomplished. The result, however, was exactly what one might expect: a simpler, less tortuous, more “directed”—in short, a more “classic”—melodic line.

In Ex. 16-1, a matins responsory for Easter is given in two versions. The one printed below is the “perfected” version published in 1614 by the Medici Press in Rome (and therefore called the Editio Medicaea), which remained standard until the end of the nineteenth century. The one above is the “restored” text prepared in the nineteenth century by the Benedictines of Solesmes expressly to supplant the Editio Medicaea and put back the “barbarisms, obscurities, inconsistencies, and superfluities” Gregory XIII had ordered pruned away.1 By then, of course (and under the influence of Romanticism), the “Gothic impurities” had taken on the aura of authenticity.

Palestrina and the Ecumenical Tradition

ex. 16-1 Responsory Angelus Domini, in Medicean and Solesmes (Roman) versions

Both the Medici and the Solesmes editions carried the papal imprimatur, and so each in its respective time carried the only authority that mattered so far as the church was concerned. What was different was the source of authority the editors themselves relied upon to guide their work. In the nineteenth century it was “scientific” philological method: historical evaluation and comparison of sources. In the sixteenth century the authority came from within: from the religiously informed musical sensibility of the editors, especially the one originally appointed to execute the task, who had become something like the gatekeeper of the church’s musical utopia.

That same status as a virtual musical pope—the musical head of what Catholic reformers pointedly referred to in those days of religious unrest as the Hierarchical Church—made Palestrina the most prolific composer of Masses that ever lived. Complete settings of the Ordinary securely attributed to Palestrina number 104(exactly the same number, by bizarre coincidence, as that of symphonies traditionally attributed to Haydn) and another dozen or so survive with disputed attributions to the composer, whose fame, like Josquin’s before him, had made him a brand name. Forty-three were published during his lifetime, in six volumes beginning in 1554. Another forty were posthumously issued, in another six volumes, the last appearing in 1601. The resurgence of the Mass as dominant genre is striking after such a long period—beginning with Josquin and Mouton and encompassing all the mid-century composers whose works we examined in the previous chapter—when motet composition had decisively overshadowed the Mass. It testifies to the quasi-official, “papal” and hierarchical character of Palestrina’s activity.

Not that he neglected the motet by any means, with upwards of four hundred to his credit, including a celebrated book of fairly lively works based on the Song of Songs and another fifty with Italian rather than Latin texts, called “madrigali spirituali.” Palestrina also composed two ambitious books of service music that sought to outfit the whole church calendar with items of a particular type: the first of these was a book of Vespers hymns that appeared in 1589; the other, considered by many to be his masterpiece, was a complete cycle of Mass Offertories that appeared in the last full year of his life, 1593. Finally, and definitely least, come two books of secular part-songs (madrigals)—but even in this genre, which Palestrina devalued in his devout maturity and even went so far as to recant, he wrote one indisputable “classic” (Vestiva i colli, “The hills are bedecked”).

The man couldn’t help setting an example, it seemed. His staggering output is not only in itself exemplary (of industry, the opposite of one of the deadly sins) but implies commitment to what has already been identified as the “classical” ideal, that of conformity with established excellence—or, better yet, the refinement of existing standards. To do best what everybody does is the aim of a classicist. One does not question aims, one strives to improve one’s performance. Practice makes perfect. Continual striving after the same goal is the kind of practice that results, at the very least, in facility. That is how one becomes prolific, and why certain historical periods (the “classical” ones) are so full of prolific composers. The sixteenth century was the first of them.

Palestrina exemplified that aim and that facility, perfected his style to a legendary degree, and in so doing brought the ars perfecta to its final pitch. But no matter how you explain it, that output of Masses remains a fairly mind-boggling—and a very telling—achievement. The idea of setting the same text to music a hundred times is on one level the ultimate stylistic exercise, the supreme expression not only of the ars perfecta but of the religious and cultural attitudes that undergirded it. It bespeaks a ritualized and impersonal attitude toward composing—a “catholic” attitude. The aim is not to express or illuminate the text, as one might seek to illustrate the unique text of a votive motet, but rather to provide an ideal medium for it. A body of work produced under such ritualized conditions and with such transcendent aims will constitute a summa—an encyclopedic summation of the state of the perfected art.

And that seems only just, because no composer ever harbored a more demanding sense of heritage than Palestrina. He practiced the branch of Western musical art that had the longest written tradition, and that had just begun to monumentalize its great figures. Hence Palestrina was easily the most historically minded composer we have as yet encountered. He was the first to do what so many have later done in his name (in counterpoint class, if no longer in church schools)—that is, deliberately master archaic styles as a basis for contemporary composition.


(1) Raphael Molitor, Die nach-Tridentinische Choral-Reform zu Rom, Vol. I (Leipzig: F. E. C. Leukart, 1901), p. 297. The complete document is translated in Piero Weiss and Richard Taruskin, Music in the Western World, 2nd ed., p. 117.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 16 The End of Perfection." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 16 Sep. 2014. <http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-016002.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 16 The End of Perfection. In Oxford University Press, Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 16 Sep. 2014, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-016002.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 16 The End of Perfection." In Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 16 Sep. 2014, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-016002.xml