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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 16 The End of Perfection
Richard Taruskin

More than thirty of Palestrina’s Masses are of the paraphrase type—pioneered by Josquin in his late Missa Pange lingua and standard practice (as we have seen) for ars perfecta motets—in which a Gregorian chant is absorbed into a pervadingly imitative texture. But the lion’s share, accounting for almost exactly half of Palestrina’s output in the genre (fifty-three to be exact), are parody Masses, in which the motives of a polyphonic model are exhaustively rewoven into new textures. The sources of these Masses were most often motets by composers whose works were popular in local liturgical use during Palestrina’s youth. More than twenty times, though, Palestrina based a Mass on one of his own motets (or even madrigals, including Vestiva i colli).

When this is the case, it suggests that both the motet and the derivative Mass may have been meant for performance in tandem on the same major feast. Palestrina provided three such motet-plus-Mass sets for Christmas. The one on O magnum mysterium (“O great mystery!”—motet published 1569, Mass in 1582) has become particularly famous, and with good reason. The motet begins with a marvelously effective rhetorical stroke: a series of colorful (i.e., chromatic) chords and a reiteration of “O!” that conspire vividly to portray a state of wonder. The chords are connected for the most part along an ordinary circle of fifths (the C being elided)—ordinary, that is, to us; in Palestrina’s time it was a striking novelty, and the speed with which the implied bass progression traverses the tritone from E to B-flat is still a little disorienting and “uncanny.” The string of successive leading tones (Gé–Cé–Fé–B), each contradicting the last, does the very opposite of what a leading tone is supposed to do in “common practice” (known as such to us but not, of course, to Palestrina). Far from tightening the focus on any particular harmonic goal, it keeps the tonality of the music blurred until the cadential suspension, coinciding with the “uncanny” B-flat, concentrates expectations on A (Ex. 16-4).

Parody PairsParody Pairs

ex. 16-4 Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, O magnum mysterium, opening phrase

That is the sort of thing one fairly expects in a “humanistically” conceived motet, especially one with a text as charged as this one is with emotion. The composer “recites” the text like an orator, highlighting its meaning by modulating his harmonies as an orator modulates his tone of voice. When colorful harmonies or effects imitative of speech patterns occur in tandem with affective words, they seem to “point to” or refer to those words, ultimately to symbolize them. Such symbolism, in which signs point to something “outside” the system of sounds themselves (in this case to words and their embodied concepts) is called “extroversive” symbolism (or, more formally, semiosis—“signing”). Humanistic, rhetorical text setting encourages such effects, which became increasingly prevalent during the sixteenth century.

When the motet is transformed through parody technique into a Mass, what had been affective and rhetorical becomes syntactical and structural. The “uncanny” progression that launches the motet on a note of awe serves the Mass as a suitably ear-catching “head motive.” Each of its five constituent liturgical units opens by invoking the phrase before proceeding to other business, stirring memories of its predecessors and thus integrating the service by structuring its duration around a series of strategic returns to symbolic, hence inspiring, sounds (Ex. 16-5). Within the Mass, the symbolism or semiosis is entirely “introversive” (inward-pointing). What is emblematized or signaled is precisely the integration of the service—already an emotionally intensifying, uplifting, effect, but one that carries no external concepts with it.

(This remains true even if, as suggested, the motet is also performed as part of the same Mass service. Places where motets might be sung, so far as we know, are the same sorts of places as those where a ricercare might be played: during the elevation of the host or during Communion, when there is an activity that takes up time that is otherwise unfilled by sounds. Thus the motet O magnum mysterium, if performed at Christmas Mass, would be performed only after three or four Ordinary items had already been sung. Once it has been performed, of course, the referents for its harmonic and declamatory effects will be both introversive and extroversive at the same time. That kind of mixture or complexity of reference is the normal state of affairs for music, which is why musical symbolism or “expression” has always been such a complicated, contentious, and even mysterious issue.)

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. 17 Jan. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-016004.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 17 Jan. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-016004.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 17 Jan. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-016004.xml