BESTING THE FLEMINGS; OR, THE LAST OF THE TENORISTAS
All but six of Palestrina’s hundred-odd Masses are based on preexisting music. That in itself is not remarkable; the polyphonic Mass Ordinary cycle was from the very beginning a cannibalistic genre. But Palestrina was the only late sixteenth-century composer who retained an active interest in the techniques of the early fifteenth-century composers whose work he discovered in the manuscripts of the Sistine Chapel, where he worked in the years immediately preceding the publication of his first volume of Masses in 1554. (He was pensioned out of the Sistine Chapel choir in 1555 owing to Pope Paul IV’s decision to enforce the long-dormant rule of celibacy there; Palestrina was one of the three married members who had to be let go.)
That first volume (Fig. 16-1) was dedicated to Palestrina’s protector, the recently elected Pope Julius III, and opened with a Mass based on the Gregorian antiphon Ecce sacerdos magnus—“Behold the great priest”—presumably composed in celebration of Julius’s investiture. It was an old-fashioned tenor cantus-firmus Mass, written in imitation of the oldest music preserved in the Vatican manuscripts and possibly still performed there on occasion in Palestrina’s day. The final Agnus Dei even has some old “poly-mensural” tricks such as we have not seen since Josquin’s early days.
Palestrina demonstrated his intimate familiarity with the work of Josquin (dead before Palestrina was born) and also his lively, somewhat jealous admiration for it, in the most explicit and traditional way: by basing a Mass on Josquin’s celebrated sequence motet Benedicta es. He was the latest composer to pay this sort of direct homage to Josquin. But he often reached back further yet for his models, rooting himself as deeply as he knew how in the Franco-Flemish legacy, even taking part, enthusiastically if belatedly, in its ancient emulatory games as if staking a claim to the tradition on behalf of Italy.
This retrospective strain comes particularly to the fore in Palestrina’s third book of Masses, published in 1570. Of its eight Masses, two were as old-fashioned as could be. One of them, called Missa super Ut re mi fa sol la, was based on the old solmization hexachord, the voces musicales on which Josquin had playfully based a L’Homme Armé Mass almost a hundred years before. And sure enough, the other tenor Mass in the volume is a Missa super L’Homme Armé, one of the very latest contributions to the noblest emulatory line of all. (Palestrina’s most recent predecessor had been the Spanish composer Cristóbal de Morales, who had worked before him at the Sistine Chapel and published a pair of L’Homme Armé Masses in the 1540s.) In so demonstratively bringing up the rear, so expressly establishing a connection between his work and the half-forgotten wellsprings of the Franco-Flemish art, Palestrina could not have staked his claim on tradition more plainly.
That he regarded himself not as an antiquarian—a mere caretaker of the tradition—but as an active emulant within it is clear from the nature of the compositions themselves. They are cast on a grand scale, combining feats of ancient contrapuntal craft with the sonorous, mellifluent style that had come into vogue only during the Willaert period. The Missa L’Homme Armé is scored for a five-part chorus and the Missa super Ut re mi fa sol la for one in six parts. In both cases the final Agnus Dei adds a part, as was by then customary, for an extra-grand finale. In the hexachord Mass the extra (seventh) voice is cast as a canonic part against the cantus firmus, shadowing it at the lower fifth. Ex. 16-2 gives the beginnings of both of these final Agnus settings. In them, we may see the blazing sunset of the Franco-Flemish tradition in its Italianate “perfected” phase.
The most spectacular Mass in Palestrina’s third book, though, and the most telling instance of emulation, is his Missa Repleatur os meum laude (Mass on “May my mouth be filled with praise”), ostensibly based on a motet by Jacques Colebault (1483–1559), a French composer who worked in Italy and was known there as Jacquet (or Jachet) of Mantua. Jacquet’s motet was itself a contrapuntal tour-de-force, embodying throughout a chant-derived canon at the fifth between the “structural” voices. Palestrina, using the same basic material, constructed a vast canonic cycle in which both the pitch interval and the time interval progressively contract toward unison. In the Kyrie, sampled in Ex. 16-3, the opening section has a canon at the octave at a time lag of eight semibreves.
(In characteristic art-conceals-art fashion, the canon is hidden behind a general point of imitation for the five voices in the texture, in which the two canonic parts are the third and fifth entries, the latter further obscured by being placed in an inner voice.) In the middle section (Christe eleison), the canon is at the seventh at a time lag of seven semibreves, and in the closing section, the canon is at the sixth, at a time lag of six semibreves.
Palestrina is not vying here merely with Jacquet. He is after much bigger game: none other than Ockeghem, whose Missa Prolationum, another progressive canonic cycle (but with expanding pitch intervals) had set the Netherlandish benchmark for artifice, and whose preeminence had lately been decreed anew in Italy, in a specifically humanistic context. The famous Florentine polymath or “Renaissance man” Cosimo Bartoli, in a commentary to Dante called Raggionamenti accademici, wrote that “in his day Ockeghem was, as it were, the first to rediscover music, then as good as dead, just as Donatello discovered sculpture.”2 Bartoli’s observations, published in 1567 (three years before Palestrina’s Mass), echo all too clearly the famous theses of Giorgio Vasari, whose “Lives of the Painters” (1550) virtually created the popular notion of the Renaissance in the visual arts. Now there was such a notion for music, too, and Palestrina was getting in on its ground floor.
(2) Cosimo Bartoli, Ragionamenti accademici (Venice, 1567), Vol. III, f.35’; trans. Jessie Ann Owens in “Music Historiography and the Definition of ‘Renaissance,” ’ MLA Notes XLVII (1990–91): 311.
- 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. 28 Aug. 2015. <http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-016003.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 28 Aug. 2015, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-016003.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 28 Aug. 2015, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-016003.xml