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Palestrina’s Marcellus Mass

Vespers Sequence was written for New York Polyphony in 2016. Much of my work as a composer has been concerned with bringing the concepts and principles underlying Orthodox spirituality as expressed through its various musical traditions into dialogue with modernity; examples of this include not only m​y large-scale oratorios ​Passion and Resurrection (1992), ​The Dormition of the Vi​rgin (2003), ​Ossetian Requiem (2005) and ​Qohelet (2013), but ​a cappella works su​ch as​ Led by the Light (2008), Hymn to St Nicholas (2009) and The Paschal Canon: Ode VIII (2012), and instrumental works including the double-bass concerto ​The Morning Star (2003) and the piano quintet ​Nocturne of Light (2009).

Vespers Sequence continues this chain of ideas, in that it exploits both the tremendous skills of the ensemble so evident in their performances of Renaissance polyphony and their interest in exploring new territory in their championing of contemporary repertoire. In addition, it aims to contribute to the creation of a specifically Orthodox para-liturgical repertoire that brings together liturgy and concert.

To this end, the sequence adopts the basic structure and dramatic curve of the vespers service of the Byzantine rite, beginning with verses from the opening psalmody, Psalm 103 (​Bless the Lord, O my soul) and ​Blessed is the man... Alleluia (verses from Psalms 1-3) and progressing to the fixed parts of ​O Lord, I have cried unto Thee (verses from Psalm 140), the structure into which are inserted verses according to the liturgical occasion, represented here by a setting of one of the theotokia, or hymns to the Virgin. The verses from Psalm 103 are in fact what are known as the Anoixantaria, the final troped verses in praise of the Trinity sung at festal vespers in Greek use from the ph​rase “When Thou openest Thy hand” onwards. ​O Gladsome Light, the evening hymn, is common to Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Protestant traditions (it was translated, for example, in the 19t​h ​century, by the renowned Anglican scholar John Keble), and also relates to the ancient Jewish tradition of the evening lighting of the lamps. As such, it is in many senses the central pillar of this sequence.

Following this there is a setting of the ​Doxastikon (hymn of praise) from the vesperal ​Aposticha verses, to b​alance the earlier ​Theotokion, and the Canticle of Simeon (Nunc dimittis), again a common element in Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant traditions. The sequence ends with the hymn R​ejoice, Virgin Mother of God, the Byzantine-rite version of the “Ave Maria.” The musical material for all the movements in the Sequence is derived from three Orthodox chant traditions, Russian, Serbian and Greek, and another aspect of the sequence is its multi-lingual character. While ​O Gladsome Light sets English and Slavonic, the one language “commenting” on the other, other movements also make use of liturgical Greek, and continue the interaction between these languages, as a symbol both of the plurality of languages in contemporary Orthodox worship and of the multicultural character of the contemporary world.

Rome - known as the “Eternal City” during the period we now usually characterize as the Renaissance - was simultaneously a magnet for adventurous and ambitious artists from abroad and, in keeping with its “eternal” character, transmitted from paganism to the Christian era, a bastion of conservatism. As musicologist Christopher Reynolds has pointed out in discussing Roman art of this period, “Because musicians could not turn to ancient models for inspiration in the same way as poets, theologians, architects and artists, musicians in Renaissance Rome initially enjoyed an exceptional freedom to embrace foreign styles.” Palestrina was one of the composers able to take advantage of this situation, learning and experimenting and perfecting his compositional styles, which have come to be viewed over the course of history as illustrative of renaissance ideals.

Palestrina, formerly Praeneste, is a town in the Sabine Hills near Rome, and it has given its name to one of the most emblematic composers of the 16th century, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, who was born there probably in 1525 or 1526. Except for the period 1544-51, when he was organist at the cathedral of his native town, Palestrina’s career developed entirely within the city of Rome, where he was trained: he appears in the records of Santa Maria Maggiore as a chorister in 1537. In 1551, at the summons of Pope Julius III (who had previously been Bishop of Palestrina), the composer became magister cantorum of the Cappella Giulia at St Peter’s. He later became a singer at the Sistine Chapel, but was dismissed by Paul IV on account of his unacceptable married status. After some time spent working at other Roman churches, Palestrina returned to the Julian Chapel in 1571 as chapel master. He died in 1594.

Palestrina is considered today one of the grand masters of the polyphonic style, but he was also held in the greatest esteem in his own lifetime: in 1592 a multi-composer anthology of vesperal psalms was dedicated to him and edited by Giammateo Asola with a fulsome dedication. His total output comprises 104 certainly attributed Masses, over 375 motets, 68 offertories, at least 65 hymns, 35 Magnificats, four (possibly five) sets of Lamentations, and over 140 madrigals, secular and spiritual. Palestrina was an acute businessman, and he dedicated his publications to discerning and powerful men, including patrons of the arts such as Guglielmo Gonzaga, foreign princes and potentates (there are two books of Masses inscribed to Philip II of Spain), and, increasingly often in his later years, popes.

The Missa Papae Marcelli, performed here interspersed with plainchant propers for Easter Day, is, beyond any doubt, the best-known of Palestrina’s works. While his first publication was in the Missarum liber secundus of 1567, the actual date of its composition has been the object of much discussion, originating with the writings of the Abbé Baini (1828). During his archival research in Rome, Baini noted that Cardinal Carlo Borromeo had called for the writing of ‘la musica intelligibile’ (in other words, music that allowed the texts of the Mass and Offices to be heard as clearly as possible, in accordance with the injunctions of the Council of Trent in 1562), and had established a commission to examine a number of Mass settings to see whether they met these criteria. The commission met on April 28, 1565, and Baini thought that the Missa Papae Marcelli was written specifically for this occasion, suggesting, in agreement with the composer Agostino Agazzari’s writings of 1607, that it singlehandedly saved ecclesiastical polyphony from being banned in the wake of the changes brought about by the Counter-Reformation. This story continued to be believed until 1892, when Franz Xaver Haberl, after attentive research into the relevant documentary material and of the sources for the work itself, noted that the Mass could have been composed as early as 1555, very likely for the election of Pope Marcellus II.

The Mass does indeed accord fully with the directives of the Council of Trent, its elegant simplicity ensuring complete intelligibility of the Mass text, and, indeed, the sheer beauty of the music as well as its fame has ensured that it has always remained in the repertoire. The characteristics which have made this Mass so renowned are its consistently memorable fusion of simplicity and clarity in the service of the liturgy, and its great refinement of melody, harmony and rhythm. The Kyrie, Sanctus and Agnus Dei have a poise and a serene sense of control typical of Palestrina in general, but here brought, perhaps, to their highest point. In the Gloria and Credo something else is achieved: without ever losing a feeling of forward propulsion, of the dynamic springing from the static, Palestrina ensures that every word of the text is clearly projected and heard. The contrasting and alternating of groups of voices articulating sections of the text simultaneously in these movements ensures verbal audibility, contrapuntal flow, and the retention of the dramatic effects of truly homophonic writing.

These techniques may also be found in Palestrina’s sparkling six-part setting of Tu es Petrus, published in the Second Book of Motets in 1572 (there is also a seven-part setting, published in the First Book of Motets from 1569), a joyous and confident celebration of faith in the Church founded on the Apostles, with which the second half of tonight’s concert begins. It makes great use of antiphonal effects, employing constant contrast between different combinations of voices. The work that opens the concert, on the other hand, Sicut cervus, is a poised, flowing four-part work whose arching lines reflect the psalm text’s description of the soul’s yearning for God. 

Program notes by Ivan Moody