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

Such parallels are only too easy to overdraw, and we may take comfort on behalf of poor Pierluigi that he never suffered the imprisonment or mortal duress that the operatic Palestrina had to endure. Not only that, but Palestrina’s third book of Masses, published in 1570, contained the extremely complicated and “artificial” works in Netherlandish style already discussed and sampled in Ex. 16-2 and 16-3. Clearly there was never any actual inquisitorial ban on any form of Catholic worship music, at least in territories subject to the strictures of the Council of Trent.

Still and all, the style of the Missa Papae Marcelli remains arguably a coerced, official style—not a style, in other words, that Palestrina or Ruffo or any other composer would have adopted spontaneously (to judge by their prior output and the values implied therein) but one imposed by an external force to suit purposes that arguably ran counter to the interests of composers, but that were not negotiable. And yet the style was (or could be made) a very beautiful and moving one, and one that later artists found sufficiently inspiring to emulate willingly. As Pfitzner implied in his melodramatic way, it was a tribute to Palestrina’s artistic imagination to have found so successful a means of reconciling artistic and ecclesiastical criteria—a manner, moreover, that was very much in the spirit of the Church Militant.

As the Credo and the Agnus Dei from the Missa Papae Marcelli especially confirm, Palestrina’s post–Council-of-Trent style was not a chastened, ascetic, quasi-penitent affair like Ruffo’s but a style of special opulence, grace, and expressivity. Missa Papae Marcelli is a “freely composed” Mass, one of the few by Palestrina that incorporates no preexisting material—or, at least, none that has been acknowledged by the composer or subsequently detected. The composer’s shaping hand is all the more crucial, then, and the Mass is given a musical shape more elegant than ever, in demonstrative compensation for the loss of the usual external scaffold.

Freedom and Constraint

ex. 16-7 Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, Missa Papae Marcelli, opening Kyrie

The opening idea of the Kyrie, the one intoned by the angel in Pfitzner’s opera, is both the subject of the Mass’s first point of imitation (Ex. 16-7) and the Mass’s main melodic building block; and it embodies the quintessence of Palestrina’s style, as identified by the many who have studied it with an eye toward extracting from it a compositional method. That quintessence is the “recovered leap.” This model motif (we’ll call it the “Ur-motif,” German-style) begins with an ascending leap of a fourth, which is immediately filled in, or “recovered,” by descending stepwise motion. (Fascinating never-to-be-answered questions: Was the similarity of this phrase to the opening phrase of the old L’Homme Armé tenor (Ex. 12-10) fortuitous or emblematic; and if emblematic, of what?) It is the double reciprocity—immediate reversal of contour after a leap, the exchange of leaps and steps—that creates the “balanced” design with which the name Palestrina has become synonymous. The wealth of passing tones (many of them accented), vouchsafed by the stepwise recovery of skips, is what gives Palestrina’s texture its much-esteemed patina. Otherwise the style of Palestrina’s Kyrie does not differ especially from the ars perfecta idiom with which we are familiar, because the Kyrie is a sparsely texted, traditionally melismatic item where textual clarity was not of paramount concern.

It is in the “talky” movements of the Mass—the Gloria and Credo—that the special post-Tridentine qualities emerge. The setting of the very first phrase of polyphony in the Credo (Ex. 16-8) can serve as paradigm. The bass has the Ur-motif, its first note twice reiterated (or, to put it more in sixteenth-century terms, its first note broken into three) to accommodate two unaccented syllables. Four of the six voices sing the phrase in choral homorhythm, with melodic decorations taking place only where syllables are held long, so as not to obscure the text. The top voice uses its chance for decoration to mirror the Ur-motif, substituting a reciprocal fifth from C to G (embellished with passing tones) for the bass’s fourth from G to C. That fifth having been achieved, the contour is reversed and the melody descends to its starting point, just like the Ur-motive in the bass.

Freedom and Constraint

ex. 16-8 Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, Missa Papae Marcelli, Credo, mm. 1-8

The second phrase of text (“factorem coeli…”) employs another sort of reciprocity: it is scored for a different four-voice sample from the six available parts, chosen for maximum contrast. The two voices that had played the most conspicuous melodic role in the first phrase are silenced and replaced by the two voices that had been silent before. The result is a kind of ersatz antiphony within the single choir, and it is a device that will in effect replace imitation as the prime structural principle for the Credo. The replacement bass, meanwhile, sounds the Ur-motive a second time, its notes broken up into a new rhythmic configuration to accommodate another set of words, and it is again doubled homorhythmically by remaining voices.

The close on the final (C) at “terrae” is emphasized by a gorgeous, and very characteristic, double suspension (7–6 in the alto over the bass A, 4–3 in the first tenor over the bass G). This ornamental approach to functional articulation is one of the secrets of the post-Tridentine style: to create opulence out of sheer grammatical necessity is a high rhetorical skill. It reaches a peak in the Sanctus, characteristically the most luxuriant movement of all, since it is identified by its liturgical Preface as a portrayal of the heavenly choirs (the source, evidently, of Pfitzner’s sentimental representation).

The music at the beginning of Palestrina’s Sanctus (Ex. 16-9), so magnificently evocative of infinite space, is in essence just a rockingly reiterated cadence with a decorated suspension (passed from Cantus to Bassus II to Bassus I). Again, reiteration and varied choral distribution take the place of imitation. Ever increasing spaces are then suggested by extending the span between suspension-cadences from two bars to three (mm. 7–9) and then moving the cadential target around from C to F to D to G (mm. 10–16) so that when C finally comes back (not until m. 32, not shown) it carries enormous articulative force and effectively finishes off a section.

Freedom and ConstraintFreedom and Constraint

ex. 16-9 Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, Missa Papae Marcelli, Sanctus, mm. 1-16

This sort of tonal planning, necessitated by the absence of a cantus firmus and the need to keep the music “in motion” without the propulsion that pervasive imitation can afford, amounted to something quite new. The harnessing of tonal tension by delaying cadences (or, more subtly, delaying points of necessary arrival) undoubtedly depended on aural memories—on the composer’s part and that of his audience as well—of the sort of improvisatory music over ground basses that we observed briefly at the end of the previous chapter.

Returning to the Credo, we can summarize its structure as a strategically planned series of cadential “cells,” or “modules,” each expressed through a fragment of text declaimed homorhythmically by a portion of the choir in an iridescently shifting succession and rounded off by a beautifully crafted cadence. In the middle section (“Crucifixus”) Palestrina apes the tenor-tacet sections of old by scaling down the performing forces to a four-voice “semichoir,” but the nature of the writing does not differ; it still consists of a kaleidoscopic interplay of homorhythmically declaimed, cadenced phrases.

The third and last part (“Et in spiritum”) returns to the full six-part complement, which is deployed more frequently than before at full strength, reaching a massive tutti at the final “Amen” (Ex. 16-10) that develops the arching “recovery” idea—upward leaps followed by downward scales—into a thrilling peroration. (The first tenor attempts for a while to swim against the tide with downward leaps and upward scales, but is finally caught up in the cadential undertow; the plagal cadence at the very end is an embellishment of the long-sustained final C in the second tenor—an archly deliberate whiff of the old, decisively superseded cantus-firmus texture.)

The expressivity of this music arises out of the cadence patterns, not to say the “tonal” progressions. It is with Palestrina that we first begin to notice—and, more, to feel the effects of—strategic harmonic delays. It is an expressivity that is based almost entirely on “introversive” (inward-pointing) signification and the emotion that delayed fulfillment of expectations produces in the listener. There is little or no extroversive symbolism in this—or any other—Mass setting by this time. As one can readily imagine, relying on extroversive symbolism when setting the same text repeatedly would drastically restrict rather than enhance one’s creative choices.

Freedom and ConstraintFreedom and Constraint

ex. 16-10 Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, Missa Papae Marcelli, Credo, mm. 186-97

Freedom and ConstraintFreedom and Constraint

ex. 16-11 Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, Missa Papae Marcelli, Agnus Dei, mm. 1-15

The only text-derived symbolism one can point to in the Credo are the virtually inescapable contrasting melodic contours on the phrases “descendit de coelis” and “et ascendit in coelum.” To contradict the implied “directions” in the text at these points would be bizarre. The reason why this particular pair of images has become such a compulsory trope or “figure” for translation into sound seems to be precisely that it is a pair—or rather, an antithesis. (By way of contrast, look back at Ex. 16-1, the Easter responsory chant, and note how the single word “descendit,” in the absence of its opposite, is allowed to ascend melodically.) As we shall see in the next chapter, figural symbolism in music thrives on antithetical relations, and antithetical figures in texts seem to demand musical illustration.

Freedom and Constraint

ex. 16-12a Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, Missa Papae Marcelli, Agnus II, mm. 1-10

The opening point in the Agnus Dei (Ex. 16-11) recapitulates the beginning of the Kyrie (compare Ex. 16-8), an effect calculated to give this “freely” composed Mass an especially rounded and finished shape. The technique of composition, not only here but in all the melismatic sections of the Mass, reverts to the freely imitative style Zarlino called fuga sciolta. Only phrase-beginnings are imitated; continuations are “freely” adapted to the harmonic design. The concluding Agnus (designated “II” but meant for the third section, with its separate textual ending “Dona nobis pacem”) expands, following custom, into seven parts. It is very unlikely that anyone listening to this triumph of art-concealing art (Ex. 16-12a) could tell without following the score that its luxuriant contrapuntal unfolding was scaffolded around a three-part canon (bassus I, altus II, cantus II) based, initially, on the Ur-motive. It is a very spaciously laid out canon in which the parts hardly overlap, again putting a kind of antiphony in place of imitation. The interval of the canon is a rising fifth that proceeds in two stages, from bassus to altus and from altus to cantus, so that the first and third voices are in fact a ninth apart. That layout, strange from the purely intervallic point of view, is harmonically a very strategic move, giving further evidence of Palestrina’s inclination to plan his works out “tonally,” in terms of fifth-related harmonic regions.

Freedom and ConstraintFreedom and Constraint

ex. 16-12b Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, Missa Papae Marcelli, Agnus II, mm. 40-53

The payoff comes at the end. The last phrase of the canon begins with the Bassus’s “Dona nobis pacem” in m. 40. Its progression from the final (I) to the subsemitonium or leading tone (vii) by way of an initial descent to the subdominant or lower fifth (IV) elegantly prepares the final cadence in the second Cantus a ninth above: supertonium (ii) to the long-held final (I) by way of an initial descent to the tuba (V). These sequences of degree functions, modeled on those of the ground basses and reinforced by constant use, were eventually stereotyped into the familiar tonal cadences of what we, looking back on it, call the “common practice.” Palestrina’s I–IV–vii//ii–V–I, arising out of his strange canon-by-two-fifths, is none other than the essential frame of the common-practice circle of fifths, lacking only the middle pair (iii–vi) for completion.

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 Jan. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-016006.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 Jan. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-016006.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 Jan. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-016006.xml