2013-02-24 Notes from the Bench

‘“Missa Brevis” by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina
A commentary on this week’s music by Dr. James Gerber, Music Associate

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (c1525-1594) was an influential Italian composer during the Renaissance era that is best known for his sacred music. A prolific writer, his oeuvre includes 105 mass settings, 68 offertories, 140 madrigals, 300 motets, 72 hymns, 35 magnificats and 11 litanies. The refinement of Palestrina’s works represent the cumulative development of Renaissance polyphony has come to define the late-Renaissance style. Palestrina was an influential composer both in his day as well as today. His works are frequently performed by a variety of choirs, are considered models of polyphonic writing and analyzed by music students, and considered by many a type of “ideal” liturgical music by which other compositions are compared to.

Missa Brevis is among the numerous settings of the mass Palestrina composed during his lifetime. This work was published in his third book of masses in 1570 and has since been reprinted many times. The term Brevis as part of the title has been the source of speculation; this is not a necessarily short work nor is it a “parody” mass, a work that uses musical material from other sources. It seems the mostly likely explanation is that there simply was not another idea for a title. Today, Missa Brevis remains among the most frequently performed of Palestrina’s masses.

Giovanni Pierluigi was best known by his place of birth, the town of Palestrina which is near Rome and at that time one of the Papal states. His music education began as a chorister at the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. As a professional musician, Palestrina was the principal organist for the church of St. Agapito in his home town from 1544 to 1551. In 1551, he was appointed maestro de cappella at the Cappella Giulia, the papal choir at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and music director of the Julian Chapel. He also held other appointments as music director for a number of chapels and churches in Rome, notably, the Basilicas of St. John Lateran and Santa Maria Maggiore. He returned to St. Peter’s and the Julian Chapel in 1571 and remaining there until his death.

During the fifteenth and early-sixteenth centuries, the music culture of Italy was dominated by foreign-born composers whose work was considered superior to that of native-born musicians, and were frequently employed by the wealthy Italian nobility. North-European style of polyphony was particularly popular in Italy and the works of Franco-Flemish composers Guillaume Dufay (c1397-1474) and Jasquin des Prez (c1450-1521) was highly regarded and influential. As a native-born Italian, Palestrina was an exception to this trend and demonstrated considerable skill in writing polyphonic music and enjoyed considerable fame.

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