We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more


Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 16 The End of Perfection
Richard Taruskin
Palestrina and the Bishops

ex. 16-5a Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, Missa O magnum mysterium, Kyrie, beginning

Palestrina placed the ancient elite and ecumenical art to which he claimed the key at the service of “the one holy, catholic and apostolic church” at the very moment when the church, under pressure from the northern Reformation, was renewing its age-old mission as the “Church Militant” (ecclesia militans). As we will see in a later chapter, that rekindled militancy was ultimately subversive of the ars perfecta. But in its early stages it created the demand for a new clarity in texture that could be seen as the ultimate refinement—the ultimate perfecting—of the traditional style. Clearly that was how Palestrina saw it. By seizing the opportunity to satisfy that demand, he created a prestigious masterwork, an influential style he could call his own, and a durable personal legend.

At least as early as the 1540s, and particularly in Roman circles, some churchmen had taken a negative attitude toward the music of the post-Josquin generation, which for all its technical excellence ran counter, they thought, to the proper role and function of church music. To put their concerns in a nutshell, they thought that the elegantly wrought imitative texture that had gained universal currency was far too artistic, and therefore not sufficiently functional. Such music, in its preoccupation with its own beauty of form, exemplified the sin of pride, and interfered with the intelligibility of the sacred texts to which it was meant to be subordinate.

Palestrina and the Bishops

ex. 165b Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, Missa O magnum mysterium, Gloria (“Et in terra…”), beginning

Palestrina and the Bishops

ex. 16-5c Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, Missa O magnum mysterium, Credo (“Patrem omni potentem…”), beginning

The complaint, as such, was nothing new. We have heard it before from John of Salisbury, who railed at the vainglory of the singers at Notre Dame, and even from Saint Augustine, who had nothing more than the seductive beauty of Gregorian chant to contend with. Made against the music of the incipient ars perfecta, however, it carried considerable conviction, because imitative texture was an artistic value first and last, and was hardly reconcilable with the demands of textual intelligibility no matter how much attention a composer like Willaert paid to correct declamation. As one indignant bishop, Bernardino Cirillo Franco, put it of contemporary composers (and with the text of the Mass Sanctus in mind), “in our times they have put all their industry and effort into the compositions of fugues, so that while one voice says ‘Sanctus,’ another says ‘Sabaoth,’ still another ‘Gloria tua,’ with howling, bellowing, and stammering, so that they more nearly resemble cats in January than flowers in May.”3

The part about howling, bellowing, and stammering was just all-purpose invective, but the point about imitation was a fair one, and it proceeded, moreover, from a genuine, specifically Italian humanist impulse—“specifically Italian,” because as we have seen, English musicians, for one example, could be every bit as devout and yet quite indifferent to the matter of textual intelligibility, seeing music as serving another sort of religious purpose that had little to do with humanism. In Italy, though, what had been a crotchety minority opinion in the 1540s had become a concern of powerful “mainstream” Catholics by the middle of the next decade, when Palestrina was beginning to establish himself as a papal musician.

Palestrina and the BishopsPalestrina and the Bishops

ex. 16-5d Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, Missa O magnum mysterium, Sanctus, beginning

Palestrina and the Bishops

ex. 16-5e Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, Missa O magnum mysterium, Agnus Dei, beginning

According to Bishop Cirillo Franco himself, writing a quarter of a century later around 1575, one of these mainstream figures was Cardinal Marcello Cervini, who in 1555 was elected pope, and who promised his friend the bishop that he would do something about the problem. Cirillo Franco claimed that in due course he received from Rome “a Mass that conformed very closely to what I was seeking.”4 Cardinal Cervini reigned, as Pope Marcellus II, for only twenty days before his sudden death; but there is nevertheless evidence that corroborates Cirillo Franco’s testimony about the pope’s concern for “intelligible” church music. The diary of Angelo Massarelli, Pope Marcellus’s private secretary, contains an entry dated Good Friday (12 April) 1555, the third day of the pontiff’s brief reign. Marcellus came down to the Sistine Chapel to hear the choir, of which Palestrina was then a member, sing the gravest liturgy of the church year. “Yet the music performed,” Massarelli noted,

did not suit the solemnity of the occasion. Rather, their many-voiced singing exuded a joyful mood.… Accordingly, the pope himself, having beckoned to his singers, directed them to sing with proper restraint, and in such a way that everything was audible and intelligible, as it should be.5

Palestrina was one of the singers who heard this fatherly lecture from the pontiff. His second book of Masses, published in 1567, is prefaced by a letter of dedication to King Philip II of Spain (best remembered in English-speaking countries as Queen Elizabeth’s rejected suitor and later her military adversary), in which Palestrina testified to his resolve, “in accordance with the views of most serious and most religious-minded men, to bend all my knowledge, effort, and industry toward that which is the holiest and most divine of all things in the Christian religion—that is, to adorn the holy sacrifice of the Mass in a new manner.”6 The seventh and last item—the valedictory, as it were—in the book that had opened thus, with the composer’s statement of pious or chastened resolve, was a Mass entitled Missa Papae Marcelli, “The Mass of Pope Marcellus,” or even “Pope Marcellus’s Mass.” And indeed, it was a Mass that conformed very closely to what Bishop Cirillo Franco had been seeking, for it set the sacred words “in such a way that everything was audible and intelligible, as it should be.”

Was this the Mass that Bishop Cirillo Franco received from Pope Marcellus, as promised? To believe that one would have to imagine Palestrina writing the Mass, and Pope Marcellus dispatching it, within seventeen days, which was all the earthly time the pope had left. That is certainly not impossible. But by 1567 the “intelligibility movement” had gathered a powerful impetus, and the dedication to Pope Marcellus may have been commemorational, honoring the unlucky and lamented pontiff whose reign had been so abruptly terminated, but who was now looked back upon as the spur that had set an important musical reform in motion.

That reform had reached a critical point in the year 1562, when the Nineteenth Ecumenical Council of the Western Church (popularly known as the Council of Trent, after the north Italian city where it met), finally got around to music. The Council of Trent was an emergency legislative body that had been convened in 1545 by Pope Paul III to stem the tide of the Protestant Reformation. Music, clearly, was not terribly high on the Council’s agenda, but it, too, could play a part in the general effort to revitalize the church through modesty and piety, to some extent to personalize its religious message, and by so doing to steal some of the Protestants’ thunder. Appropriate music could be of assistance in the project of adjusting the traditionally unworldly, impersonal (and indeed rather haughty) tone of Catholic worship to the point where it might meet the comprehension of the ordinary worshiper halfway.

That, ideally, was the purpose that motivated the “intelligibility” crusade, and it was explicitly formulated by the Council in its “Canon on Music to be Used in the Mass,” promulgated in September 1562. The singing of the Mass, this document decreed, should not be an obstacle to the worshipers’ involvement but should allow the Mass and its sacred symbolism “to reach tranquilly into the ears and hearts of those who hear them.”7 Music was not provided in church for the benefit of music lovers: “The whole plan of singing in musical modes should be constituted not to give empty pleasure to the ear, but in such a way that the words be clearly understood by all, and thus the hearts of the listeners be drawn to desire of heavenly harmonies, in the contemplation of the joys of the blessed.” It was left to musicians to find the means for implementing these general guidelines, but it was up to the bishops and cardinals to make sure that those means were found. In the years immediately following the Council’s Canon, several important princes of the church took an active part in overseeing the work of composers. One of them was the redoubtable Cardinal Carlo Borromeo, the Archbishop of Milan and the chief enforcer, as papal secretary of state, of the Council’s decrees. Borromeo directly charged Vincenzo Ruffo, the maestro di cappella at Milan, “to compose a Mass that should be as clear as possible and to send it to me here,” that is to Rome, where it might be tested.8

This commission was issued on 10 March 1565. Several weeks later, on 28 April, according to the official diary of the Papal Chapel Choir, “we assembled at the request of the Most Reverend Cardinal Vitellozzi at his residence to sing some Masses and to test whether the words could be understood, as their Eminences desire.”9 That Ruffo’s Mass was among these seems virtually certain; the effort of this composer, famed earlier for his contrapuntal skill, to conform to the dictates of the Cardinals is touchingly evident (see Ex. 16-6).

Whether Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli was among the Masses tested that day is a matter of conjecture, but the notion is made plausible by the date of the Mass’s publication two years later, and it has formed the basis of one of the most durable myths in the history of European church music. The legend exaggerated the test at Cardinal Vitellozzi’s into a public trial, thence into a virtual musical Inquisition, with music coming “very near to being banished from the Holy Church by a sovereign pontiff [Pius IV], had not Giovanni Palestrina found the remedy, showing that the error lay, not with music, but with the composers, and composing in confirmation of this the Mass entitled Missa Papae Marcelli.”10

Palestrina and the Bishops

ex. 16-6 Vincenzo Ruffo, Missae Quatuor concinate ad ritum Concilii Mediolani

The words just quoted are from an aside by Agostino Agazzari, the maestro di capella of the Jesuit Seminary in Rome, in the course of a treatise on instrumental music that he published in 1607, a dozen years and more after Palestrina’s death. It is the first report of the post-Council intervention by the hierarchy of the Church Militant in the affairs of music to cast it in such radical and confrontational terms, and the first explicitly to associate the Missa Papae Marcelli with those events. It is hard to know whether Agazzari was drawing on “oral history” here, or on unsubstantiated rumor, or on his imagination.

But if he was the first to cast Palestrina as music’s heroic savior, he was certainly not the last. The legend passed from pen to pen throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, until it reached a seemingly unsurpassable peak in 1828 in the first full-length biography of Palestrina, by the priest Giuseppe Baini, a papal musician and composer in his own right and a follower in Palestrina’s footsteps as a Sistine Chapel chorister. “Povero Pierluigi!,” Baini wrote: “Poor Pierluigi! He was placed in the hardest straits of his career. The fate of church music hung from his pen, and so did his own career, at the height of his fame….”11

But Baini’s account was only seemingly unsurpassable. It has been surpassed many times over in popular history—“Church music was saved forever. Italian music was founded at the same time. What if Palestrina had not succeeded? The mind staggers”12 —and was even worked up into an opera. The latter, a “musical legend” in three acts called Palestrina, by the German composer Hans Pfitzner (to his own libretto), was composed in 1915, and first performed in Munich two years later, while World War I was raging. Not only Palestrina (tenor) but Cardinal Borromeo (baritone), Pope Pius IV (bass), Angelo Massarelli (transmuted into the general secretary to the Council of Trent) and even Josquin des Prez are cast as characters (the last as an apparition). Women’s roles are entirely incidental: Palestrina’s daughter, his deceased first wife (another apparition), and three angels.

In act I, Cardinal Borromeo issues the commission to a reluctant Palestrina, whom he has to cajole with actual imprisonment and threatened torture. The spirits of the dead masters (including Josquin) exhort the composer to add “the last stone” to the jeweled necklace of musical perfection, and an angel intones the first motive from the Kyrie of the Missa Papae Marcelli, followed by the whole angelic host who dictate to Palestrina the music that saved music (see Fig. 16-2). Act II shows the assembled Council of Trent engaged in luridly acrimonious debate over music, with a sizable faction calling for its outright abolition. Act III shows the outcome of the musical show trial: Palestrina, released from prison but tormented by self-doubt, receives the plaudits of the singers and compliments from the pope himself, for having emerged victorious as the savior of music.

Palestrina and the Bishops

fig. 16-2 Angelic dictation scene from Pfitzner, Palestrina (Munich, Prinzregententheater, 12 June 1917).

Pfitzner’s Palestrina is an important work—or rather, at the least, a work that raises important issues. They are issues, admittedly, that were probably more consciously pondered in Pfitzner’s time than in Palestrina’s, but they are issues that are still hotly contested today. They are spelled out in a quotation from the nineteenth-century German philosopher Artur Schopenhauer that the composer placed at the head of the score as an epigraph: “Alongside world history there goes, guiltless and unstained by blood, the history of philosophy, science and the arts.”13 The question thus raised—whether the history of art is an idyllic parallel history, a transcendent history that is separate from that of the (rest of the) world, or whether world history and art history are mutually implicated—has been the urgent subtext of this book from the very first page.

The Palestrina legend was a good symbolic medium for broaching this enormous question because the bishops’ call for “intelligible” church music, backed up by the legislated decrees of the Council of Trent and the implied power of the Inquisition and of the “Holy Roman Empire” under whose auspices the Council was convened, was a clear instance of public political intervention in the affairs of art and its makers, as opposed to the accustomed pressures of private patronage. It brings to mind—to our contemporary mind, at least—many other such interventions, some of which have had serious and even tragic implications.


(3) Letter from Cirillo Franco to Ugolino Gualteruzzi, trans. Lewis Lockwood in The Counter-Reformation and the Masses of Vincenzo Ruffo (Venice: Fondazione Giorgio Cini, 1970), p. 129.

(4) Trans. Lewis Lockwood, in Palestrina, Pope Marcellus Mass (Norton Critical Scores; New York: Norton, 1975), p. 26.

(5) Trans. Lewis Lockwood, in Palestrina, Pope Marcellus Mass, p. 18.

(6) Trans. Lewis Lockwood, in Palestrina, Pope Marcellus Mass, pp. 22–23.

(7) Trans. Gustave Reese, in Music in the Renaissance (rev. ed.; New York: Norton, 1959), p. 449.

(8) Trans. Lewis Lockwood, in Palestrina, Pope Marcellus Mass, p. 21.

(9) Trans. Lewis Lockwood, in Palestrina, Pope Marcellus Mass, pp. 21–22.

(10) Agostino Agazzari, Del sonare sopra il basso con tutti gli stromenti, trans. Oliver Strunk, in Source Readings in Music History (New York: Norton, 1950), p. 430.

(11) Giuseppe Baini, Memorie storico-critiche della vita e delle opera di Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (Rome, 1828), p. 216; trans. Lewis Lockwood, in Palestrina, Pope Marcellus Mass, p. 35.

(12) Luigi Barzini, The Italians (New York: Atheneum, 1964), p. 308.

(13) Artur Schopenhauer, Parerga and Paralipomena (1851), 2:§52.

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. 21 Sep. 2023. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-016005.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 21 Sep. 2023, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-016005.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 21 Sep. 2023, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-016005.xml