A Great Story, If Apocryphal

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The New York Sun

The most powerful scene in the opera “Palestrina” by Hans Pfitzner occurs while the title character is unconscious. Granted one night to produce a Mass that will convince the officials of the Council of Trent not to impose draconian restrictions on the creation of church music, the harried composer falls asleep, only to be visited by a group of his predecessors, who beg him to rally and save the future of sacred tone painting. After these shades have departed, a celestial choir performs the most sublime music that Palestrina has ever heard. He awakens and writes down his Missa Papae Marcelli from memory.

A great story, even if apocryphal. At the very least, the music of Palestrina was instrumental in convincing the church fathers to continue the use of both polyphony and vulgate sources. Ultimately, at least in music, the Council of Trent took no action, thus reinforcing the hundreds of years of tradition that went into composing the Mass. On Sunday, the Summer Festival of Sacred Music continued at St. Bartholomew’s Church with a performance of Missa Brevis from Palestrina.

The music began with an interesting rarity, the Organ Suite of Jean-Adam Guilain.Roughly a contemporary of J.S.

Bach, this Parisian organist may have had his origins in Germany, since there is strong evidence that his real surname was Freinsberg. The Suite opens with a very major key, triumphal section that often promises to develop into a fugue, but always stops short. The second movement is one of quiet contemplation while the third is a round in two playful voices, which again suggests the possibility of a fugato section that never materializes. The finale, a full-blown and extremely powerful fugue, is even more cataclysmic following Guilain’s portents and anticipations.

“Missa brevis”is an example of some of the thickest polyphony in the literature. In the opening Kyrie, the line Christe eleison is chockablock with notes, extremely difficult to follow or, I would guess, to sing clearly. But one of the most impressive aspects of the St. Bart’s choir is its limpidity which, when coupled with its magical acoustics, produces some of the most beautiful sounds on the island.

The Gloria, written to express the highest possible admiration for the Lord, is stunning right from its opening notes because it begins with a single tenor voice. After what sounds like hundreds of parts in the previous section, the simplicity and humility of the tenor is purposefully beyond description.In fact, writing about works such as this and the Josquin Mass a few weeks ago points out the inadequacy of language when dealing with such elevated spiritual matters.

At the line “qui tollis peccata mundi,” more tender and caressing female voices introduce the Agnus Dei section of the Gloria — as opposed to the later Agnus Dei movement — and lead to the introduction of the type of fugal elements so prominent in the organ prelude at the concluding cum Sancto Spiritu.The highest celestial notes, however, are reserved for the Sanctus itself, an entire movement of complex polyphonic peregrination.

Of course, Palestrina, working with an already established text, has little or no ability to alter the wording of the Mass, but his innate sense of the shortcomings of language leads him to compose the Benedictus almost as if it were a vocalise. Sunday, the choir stretched the individual syllables so that they were both intelligible and communicative on a much higher level. It was this sort of creative manipulation that allowed the church composers of the day to express themselves, yet stay within the bounds of the Gregorian tradition.

There was an unexpected treat at this particular service.The outgoing director of choristers, Preston Smith, was honored for his tireless participation and especially for his preparation of the younger singers. He led the choir in a motet by Palestrina on the text of Sicut cervus (as the hart longs for water) that featured a more modern sounding melody. This tune was undoubtedly either copied or directly appropriated from the popular music of the day and highlighted Palestrina’s contribution in convincing the church fathers to recognize the power of musical adaptability. An examination of sacred music since the beginning of the 16th- century yields many tunes first heard and enjoyed in the town square.

One more note about Palestrina. His name was actually Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, indicating the place where he was born. It is thus incorrect to refer to him as Palestrina in the same sense that the famous artist’s name was Leonardo, not da Vinci. Come to think of it, the Palestrina Code has a rather nice ring to it.

Until September 13 (109 E. 50th St. at Park Avenue, 212-378-0222).

The New York Sun

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