Choir of Westminster Abbey - Simon Preston, director
========= from the cover ==========
Music of the Counter-Reformation in Rome
In the middle of the 16th century, having been shaken by the impact of Lutheran-ism and Calvinism, the Catholic Church began a gradual recovery of strength. The Council of Trent, sitting intermittently between 1545 and 1563, patiently formulated that great movement of reconquest, the Counter-Reformation, which was to be further developed in the 17th century by the newly formed Society of Jesus. At the last meetings of the Council, in 1562 and 1563, the Fathers of the Church occupied themselves with problems of the liturgy and music, a debate not easily resolved. It is within this context - Conciliar and post-Conciliar Rome - that the music presented in this recording must be understood: the works of Palestrina, of course, and of those who emulated and succeeded him, such as Rug-giero Giovannelli, Felice Anerio, Giovanni Bernardino Nanino and Gregorio Allegri. All these musicians, singers and maestri di cappella in the service of the Church, shared the same sphere of activity, and they held similar posts, each one important in Roman musical life and the Counter-Reformation. Thus, on the death of Palestrina in 1594, Giovannelli left the Collegium Germani-cum for the Cappella Giulia. At the same time, Felice Anerio succeeded Palestrina as composer to the papal choir of the Sistine Chapel, where Allegri in his turn was to sing a generation later, during the reign of that great patron of the arts Pope Urban VIII. At some point in their careers all these composers sang at S. Luigi dei Francesi, where they could have met. Allegri, at any rate, must have sung there as a child under Nanino, from the year 1591. The Roman settings charged with history, the period, the ritual associated with this music, and its neo-Gothic rediscovery in the 19th century, have sometimes given it a quasi-mythical aspect. Allegri's Miserere and the Missa Papae Marcelli are thus more than just musical works. They partake of the mythology handed down to us by Romanticism. In his poem "Que la musique date du XVT siecle" ("Music begins in the 16th century") from the cycle Les Rayons et les Ombres (Rays and Shadows), Victor Hugo calls Palestrina "the old master, the old genius... father of harmony...". And there is no doubt that Palestrina played an important role in saving music from the murderous designs of the Fathers of the Council. Yet it is very hard to disentangle history and legend on this point: much is unclear about the Missa Papae Marcelli (supposedly the work that saved music), beginning with its title. Cardinal Marcello Cervini reigned for a bare three weeks, in April 1555, at which date the Council was not yet considering musical questions. We do know, however, that on Good Friday Pope Marcellus had occasion to speak to the singers of the Sistine Chapel on the subject of liturgical music, telling them to suit their singing to the circumstances and make sure the words could be understood. Was Palestrina's mass composed at this time? Musicologists still debate the matter, but have reached no definite conclusions. The sources, whether manuscript (Codex 22 of the Sistine Chapel and Codex 18 of the archives of Santa Maria Maggiore) or printed (Missarum Liber Secundus, 1567), as well as certain stylistic features, seem to argue for a date around 1562-63, the years when the Council discussed music. And so it may well contain some part of the truth, this legend which took root a generation later: in 1607, scarcely 15 years after the death of Palestrina, Agostino Agazzari (Del sonare sopra il basso...) gave that version of the facts, and was followed in 1629 by a Jesuit who asserted that a colleague of his had the story from Palestrina himself. In any case, the Missa Papae Marcelli appears to be an application of the Council of Trent's musical guidelines (perhaps a manifesto?). Palestrina banished from it "all matters lascivious or impure", those themes from love songs and madrigals which sacred polyphony then liked to borrow. Some have claimed to see elements of the melody of L'Homme Arme in certain of the "themes" of this mass: but this question is of no more than secondary importance. The Mass of Pope Marcellus does not present the compositional features of a tenor mass or parody mass: it is a free composition. The choice of contrapuntal techniques, in particular, make it clear that Palestrina was striving for greater intelligibility of the text: the ideas of Pope Marcellus and of many humanists before him, taken up again by the Conciliar canons of 1562, were thus put into practice.
The genius of Palestrina - which distinguishes him, for instance, from the scrupulous rigour of a Vincenzo Ruffo - was to succeed in avoiding dryness and monotony. In his setting he makes a distinction between the short texts (the Kyrie, Sanctus, Agnus Dei) and long texts (the Gloria and Credo) of the Ordinary. While in the former he allows himself complex polyphony - extending to a canon in the second Agnus Dei for seven voices - in the latter he concentrates wholly on a straightforward declamation of the text. The forces he employs, consisting of six voices (soprano, alto, two tenors, two basses), permit him to divide the discourse into short phrases declaimed in turn by varied polyphonic groups. In this typically antiphonal technique he thus revives an old liturgical practice in an original way. The six voices occur tutti only occasionally, to emphasize certain words in a highly rhetorical manner: "Domine Fili unigenite, Jesu Christe", "Filius Patris", "Jesu Christe"... These effects, sometimes associated with repetition of the text (except in the Gloria and the Credo), are expressively integrated into the modal economy of the polyphonic discourse, marked by a continual oscillation between G (Mixolydian) and C (Ionian). Palestrina's handling of his choir of six voices is not fundamentally different in the motet Tu es Petrus, composed in 1573. This technique was obviously to culminate in the eight-part polyphony in which Roman composers were very soon contending with the Venetians. In Giovannelli, the antiphonal dialogue of the two choirs is distributed throughout the text of the Jubilate with relative freedom, and with the sole object of achieving playful or imposing expression in keeping with the text's jubilant character. The occasional use of ternary dance rhythm fits in well with this lively expression of divine praise, while also contributing to contrast in the setting of the text, subdivided by means of the polychoral dialogue. Nanino similarly emphasizes the words "exultemus et laetemur" in the motet Haec Dies, which, however, is written in a more traditional five-part polyphonic style. The absence of any reference to the Gregorian melody of the Gradual (Easter-tide), and the fact that even the character of the piece would not allow the addition of a versicle, leads one to suppose that the motet was not intended for this liturgical purpose, but should rather be regarded as a separate antiphon.
The motet Venite ad me by Felice Anerio, with a text deriving from St. Matthew, is also polychoral. However, applied to the words of the consecration pronounced by Christ, their statement thus divided into clauses alternately sung by one or the other choir or by both, the dialogue for double chorus here appears stripped of all dramatic expression: the effect is one of great serenity, both solemn and contemplative. Quite a different effect is made in Gregorio Allegri's famous Miserere for nine voices. Here we find falsobordone - a polyphon-ically ornamented psalmody for double chorus, one of five, the other of four voices, alternating with monodic verses. This psalm, traditionally sung in the Sistine Chapel during the ceremonies of Holy Week, has always made a great impression on its hearers, partly because of the ritual accompanying it and the jealous secrecy with which the Pontificate guarded it for so long, and also because of the embellimenti apparently passed on from generation to generation by the tradition of the papal choir. "These are groans to rend the heart", wrote one traveller (the Abbe Coyer: Voyages d'ltalie et de Hollande, 1775), at the time when Mozart defied the prohibition by writing the work down from memory. Among the many Romantics - including Goethe in his Italieniscbe Reise and Madame de Stael in Corinne ou l'Italie - who bear witness to having heard it with emotion, Mendelssohn gives a detailed description: "... at each verse, a candle is extinguished ... the whole choir ... intones, fortissimo, a new psalm melody: the canticle of Zacha-riah in D minor... then the last candles are put out, the Pope leaves his throne and prostrates himself on his knees before the altar; everyone kneels with him, and says what is called a Pater nosier sub sikntio ... Immediately afterwards, the Miserere begins, pianissimo. For me, this is the most beautiful moment of the whole ceremony. You can easily imagine what follows, but you could never form any idea of that opening ... " (letter of 4 April 1831). "During this Pater noster, deathly silence reigns throughout the chapel, after which the Miserere begins with the singing of a quiet chord of voices, and then the music unfolds in the two choirs. It was this opening, and in particular the very first sound, that made the greatest impression on me. After an hour and a half in which one has heard nothing but unison singing, and almost without modulation, the silence is suddenly broken by a magnificent chord: it is striking, and one feels a deep sense of the power of music ..." (letter of 16 June 1831).