La Chapelle Royale (Paris)
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The 'old genius', Palestrina, was at that time seen as the founder of Western music; the romantic nineteenth century was researching its spiritual roots. Soon after the delving into music of olden times had begun, had come the rediscovery of Bach (Mendelssohn, 1829). The Renaissance effectively formed the temporal limit of practical musical research at that time, and for a long period afterwards Palestrina and Victoria were placed at the very beginning of music. And in the same way that the gothic cathedral (itself celebrated by Hugo in his great mediaeval novel 'Notre Dame de Paris') became the model for a new neogothic architecture, so Palestrina became for a long time the supreme model for spiritual music. His skilled and refinet polyphony, with its balanced construction and serenity of expression, was regarded as one of the most perfect examples of religions inspiration in music. The other example taken was the gregorian chant, newly researched at Solomes during the same period.
This posthumous glory was expensively bought. After his rediscovery, Palestrina was performed in cathedrals and parish churches, whilst the vast majority of old music remained unknown and unheard. Musicological research was in its infancy, and the performance was colored by the spiritual values and musical conventions of the nineteenth century. The music became aethereal, seraphic, angelic. To this day, performances of Palestrina retain the almost indelible imprint of the romantic era in which the music was rediscovered. The music is sung in nineteenth century style, with a massed choir sound, concentrating on melodic lines and harmony, a style which goes back to the time of Fetis, or Palestrina's first biographer Baini. The music is slow, smooth, heavy, with long phrases, reflecting the image of Palestrina creates at that time.
In music as in other things, the first becomes the last, and the earliest discoveries remain the prisoners of the customs of the time of their discovery. Machault can be sung faster than Palestrina. A new reading of Palestrina's music must start with the old sources, and remove all that had been overlaid during the past century and a half. This is easier than might appear: it requires only an unprejudiced look at the original material, and a few simple ideas.
The first thing that nineteenth century editors of Palestrina did was to put the separate parts into full score, even where four voices were originally separately printed on the same page. Secondly, they worked hard at putting in bar-lines where formerly none had existed. The new reading of Palestrina must then start with the questions 'why separate parts?' and 'what is the significance of the lack of bar-lines?'. Clearly each voice had absolute independence, and responded to a pulse based on something other than the regular repeat of the first beat in the bar. It was absurd in any case to transform the notation to accommodate the bar-lines, breaking notes and tying them across the lines purely in the interest of an arbitrarily-imposed concensus.
Once this constraint is removed, with fresh thinking based only on the original material, the freedom of the music resurfaces. The rhythms are simple ; the voices can follow one another, or develop separately, can fit one on another, come together or move apart without any mechanical constraint. And it is only then that the true driving force of the music appears : the melodic development, and (a discovery still somewhat unheeded) the rhythm of the liturgical text underlying the melody.
Thus each voice traces out for itself its own course, which has no boundary except that of the simultaneous presence of the other voices, each also following its own melodic route, contemplating and declaiming its own version of the same text. At each moment, it is this freedom that engenders the beauty of the music. It is this new reading that motivates the present recording.