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

The final stage in Palestrina’s texturally clarified, harmonically saturated, motivically economical—in a word, “classical”—ars perfecta polyphony is reached in the book of Offertories that he published in the last year of his life. Tui sunt coeli (Ex. 16-13) is the one for Christmas. Compared with the Missa Papae Marcelli this pervasively imitative composition might seem a relapse into some bad old pre-Tridentine habits. But this is pervasive imitation with a difference. The points are tightly woven out of laconic motives that are precisely modeled on the pronunciation of the words.


ex. 16-13 Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, Tui sunt coeli (Offertory), mm. 1-22

Many motives (“et tua est terra,” “orbem terrarum,” etc.) are well-nigh syllabically texted in all parts. Elsewhere, Palestrina deploys the fuga sciolta technique in a way that maximizes intelligibility. The words are concentrated at the heads of the motives, the parts that all the voices have in common. In the first point, for example, the syllabically texted head exactly coincides with the verbal phrase; everything that follows is freely molded melisma. Thus every entrance stands out in note-lengths, in texting style, and by virtue of its wide skips, from the placid melismatic note-river that murmurs in what is definitely the aural background.

At the same time that this sense of perspective has been introduced into the polyphonic texture, a similarly hierarchical sense of perspective orders the harmony as well. It is virtually taken for granted by now that imitation will be “tonal” rather than literal. The setting of the text incipit (“Tui sunt coeli”), for example, contains entries on the final (D) and on the tuba (A). In every case, the downward contour is adjusted so that the two notes in question will define its limits: either A proceeds downward to D by way of G (producing the intervallic succession step+fourth) or D proceeds downward to A by way of C (producing the intervallic succession step+third).

In a way that is almost shocking for Palestrina, the next interval, while reversing direction as expected, does so by means of a spectacular leap that emphatically requires a full “recovery.” The ensuing stepwise melismatic “tail” (cauda) supplies precisely that. And it does not come to rest until full recovery—return to the starting note—is achieved, which is how Palestrina is able to maintain melodic tension over a considerable melismatic span, and why the tunes in his late compositions, however decorative, always have a pressing sense of direction.

To pick one example: the altus, entering first, has to recover the whole sixth from B-flat to D in its descending melisma; it proceeds immediately as far as E, but then reverses direction; it then overshoots its top and skips down from C so as to require another recovery before it can go farther; that recovery having been made, it teasingly moves down again to the E; finally it gives the ear what it craves, through a circle of fifths; the D having at last been regained, the voice now—and only now—can rest. The line is complex and tortuous, but as it keeps making and (eventually) keeping promises, it sounds at all times purposeful, never meandering.

The high tonal definition and tonal stability established at the outset is maintained throughout the motet, and the projecting and achieving of tonal goals are among the factors contributing fundamentally to the impression of the music’s overall “shape,” the coherence of its unfolding. We are, in other words, just about at the point where it makes sense to start replacing the old “modal” terms like “final” and “tuba” (first employed some seven centuries earlier to assist in a purely melodic classification) with modern terms like “tonic” and “dominant,” which refer to harmonic functions. The age of functional tonal harmony, it can be argued, begins with pieces like this, although the full panoply of tonal functions will not come into play until complete diatonic circles of fifths become standard—in about a century’s time, and also in Italy.

The extraordinary lucidity and rational control that Palestrina achieved in his late work corresponds quite closely with the ideals of the Society of Jesus, popularly known as the Jesuits, a religious order founded by Palestrina’s older contemporary Saint Ignatius of Loyola (1491–1556, canonized 1622), devoted equally to learning and to the propagation of the faith. The use to which Palestrina’s music has been put in educational institutions both sacred and secular substantiates the affinity. The incipient tonal functionalism one finds in his music does seem to have something to do with his being an Italian composer—the first to achieve parity with the northern masters of the literate tradition, and for that reason an inspiring historical figure for Italian musical nationalists in years to come, especially after the period of Italian musical hegemony that began quite soon after his death had ended. (To Giuseppe Verdi in the nineteenth century, Palestrina was not only the pure spring of Italian melody but the best shield against the “German curse.”)

The relevance of Palestrina’s nationality to his tonal practice, and the way the latter inflected his style, had to do above all with the nonliterate musical culture that surrounded him in his formative years, as it did every Italian—the art of improvvisatori, whether poets declaiming their stanzas (strambotti) to stock melodic-harmonic formulas (arie) or instrumentalists making their brilliant divisions and passaggii over ground basses, all defined by regularly recurring, cadential chord progressions. The earliest written “part music” to emulate these improvisations were settings of Italian poetry that began appearing near the end of the fifteenth century, and were published in great quantities in the early 1500 s by Petrucci and the other early printers. These simple part songs called frottole have long been viewed as a major hotbed of functional or “tonal” harmony, and we will see some specimens in the next chapter. Palestrina, being (after Ruffo) the first important native-born Italian composer of church music, was among the first to transfer something of their tonal regularity to the loftiest literate genres. And it was the technical regularity of his music, along with its towering prestige, that made Palestrina the basis of the most enduring academic style in the history of European music. At first this was a matter of turning the Sistine Chapel—the pope’s own parish church—into a musical time capsule, sealing it off from history by decree and freezing the perfected polyphonic art of Palestrina into a timeless dogma, as it were, to join the timeless dogmas of theology. Long after the “concerted” style that mixed separate vocal and instrumental parts (the topic of a coming chapter) had become standard for Catholic church music, especially in Italy, the Sistine Chapel maintained an a cappella rule that forbade the use of instruments and mandated the retention of ars perfecta polyphony as its standard repertory.

Palestrina remained the papal staple: he is thus the longest-running composer in Western musical history, the earliest composer whose works have an unbroken tradition in performance from his time to ours. What is even more remarkable, composers continued to be trained to compose in the a cappella, ars perfecta style (or what was taken as the “Palestrina” style) for Roman church use long after Palestrina’s time. By the early seventeenth century, two styles were officially recognized by church composers: the stile moderno, or “modern style,” which kept up with the taste of the times, and the stile antico, or “old style,” sometimes called the stile da cappella, which meant the “chapel” style, which is to say the timelessly embalmed Palestrina style, a style that had in effect stepped out of history and into eternity.

Ex. 16-14 is the opening of O magnum mysterium, a setting of the same text Palestrina himself had set (Ex. 16-4) and then made the basis of a Mass (Ex. 16-5). It was composed for the Sistine Chapel by a member of the choir named Balthasar Sartori, and it is preserved in a Sistine Chapel manuscript alongside the works of Du Fay, Ockeghem, Busnoys, Josquin, and of course Palestrina. The manuscript’s date, however, is 1715—a century and a quarter after Palestrina’s mortal expiration. When it was put together, the streets and theaters of Rome were filled with the sounds of Vivaldi concertos and Scarlatti operas. Inside the Sistine Chapel, though, it was as if Palestrina had never died. In the most literal sense he had been canonized.


ex. 16-14 Balthasar Sartori, O magnum mysterium, mm. 1-10

Of course a connoisseur can easily tell an eighteenth-century imitation like this one from a Palestrina original; but that it is a studied attempt to write in “the Palestrina style” is nevertheless patent. Interestingly enough, it is not the style of Palestrina’s own O magnum mysterium that Sartori’s motet imitates, but the much more rarefied, cerebral, and impersonal—one might even say “Jesuitical”—style of the late Offertories like Tui sunt coeli (Ex. 16-13). Only such a style, rather than an “expressive” one, could aspire convincingly to “timelessness.” But the stile antico lived on longer still and has assumed another role entirely in Western musical culture. In 1725, ten years after the manuscript containing Sartori’s motet was compiled, an Austrian church composer named Johann Joseph Fux (1660–1741), who as it happened was trained in Jesuit schools and colleges, published a treatise called Gradus ad Parnassum (“Stairway to Parnassus,” that is, to the abode of the Muses). Like many Catholic musicians of his time, Fux composed “bilingually,” turning out operas and oratorios in the stile moderno of the day, and Masses and motets in the immutable stile antico. His treatise was a brilliantly successful attempt to reduce the stile antico to a concise set of rules, which Fux accomplished by dividing the realm of old-style polyphony into five “species” (as he called them) of rhythmic relationships, as follows

  1. 1. Note against note (or punctum contra punctum, whence “counterpoint”)

  2. 2. Two notes against one in cantus firmus style

  3. 3. Three or four notes against one in cantus firmus style

  4. 4. Syncopation against a cantus firmus

  5. 5. Mixed values (“florid style”)

—and prescribing the “dissonance treatment” for each. Fux’s rationalization of the stile antico gave it a new lease on life, not only as an artificially preserved style of Roman Catholic church music but also as basic training for composers. As the bible of the “strict style,” Fux’s Gradus ad Parnassum became the first “counterpoint text” in the modern sense and the greatest schoolbook in the history of European music. Starting with the generation of Haydn, musicians—at first in Austria, gradually everywhere—used it to gain facility in “the first principles of harmony and composition,” which were regarded by teachers as an eternal dogma in its own right, a bedrock of imperishable lore that “remains unaltered, let taste change as it will.”14 Thus the stile antico, in the form of Fux’s rules, became the gateway to the stile moderno.

Its derivation from Palestrina, far from being forgotten in the course of its transformation, was emphasized for its prestige value. Indeed, Fux cast the whole treatise in the form of a dialogue between the master “Aloysius” (= Palestrina, “Petroaloysius” being the Latinized form of Pierluigi) and the pupil “Josephus” (= Fux). Either in itself or as absorbed or cribbed by later writers, Fux’s treatise remained current into the twentieth century, when several other major counterpoint texts educed from Palestrina were written, further updating the stile antico as a purely pedagogical style, no longer in active use even in church.


fig. 16-3 Johann Joseph Fux, author of Gradus ad Parnassum.

The most influential of these books was Kontrapunkt, by Knud Jeppesen (1892–1974), a Danish musicologist and composer, who based his method on his doctoral dissertation, a fresh description of Palestrina’s style that was published in English in 1927 as The Style of Palestrina and the Dissonance. Either in the original or in its English language edition, published in 1939, Jeppesen’s Counterpoint was standard pabulum in European and American conservatories and universities at least until the early 1960s, when the author of this book worked his somewhat lugubrious but finally profitable way through it. Many have questioned its relevance to modern composition by now, and its hold on the curriculum has loosened. But for historians traditional counterpoint training is invaluable. His territory has been shrinking, but Palestrina lives.


(14) Johann Joseph Fux, Gradus ad Parnassum, Sive Manuductio ad Compositionem Muscae Regularum, etc. (Vienna: Typis Joannis Petri van Ghelen, 1725), p. 278.

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. 4 Dec. 2022. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-016007.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 4 Dec. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-016007.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 4 Dec. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-016007.xml