Pope Marcellus Mass, Agnus Dei
Giovanni da Palestrina (1525/26-1594)
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 3 Track 37
Palestrina’s mass is enough to make one yearn to convert. Sadly, I feel safe from that temptation. I know this is an unfair comparison. One should not compare music from the Midwestern churches near me to the historical performances of the most famous cathedrals in Italy. Yet, I find it painful to think that the inheritors of Palestrina’s efforts are the guitar-strumming singers frequently accompanied by tambourine.
It is because of the conservatism of the Marcellus Mass that this music is able to effect such beautiful pain. Palestrina’s choices, though not resulting in adventuresome harmonies, are never symmetrical or dull. As a result, the conservatism is expressed not by adhering to logic and structure but by consistently pulling against them. The story that is being told here, benefits from this type of understatement.
What I like about Palestrina’s writing is the way each voice moves independently. Except for significant moments in the text, Palestrina is careful to see that when one sound event is ending another continues and overlaps into the next. In this way the voices take turns carrying the listener through the text. These details, especially these transitions, are breathtaking.