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More on Palestrina

January 16, 2012

In a Saturday blog post of January 7, 2012, we made mention of our performance of a sacred motet by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (c.1525 -1594), in our unique arrangement for solo voice and lute. Whether due to the received idea that instruments were not used in the 16th century liturgical context, or perhaps because of a misguided negative association among church musicians with the very modern idea of the Guitar Mass, some have expressed interest in the basis for our approach.

To those who may be reading without the prior background information, we stated as though it were common knowledge that there is 1) evidence of the use of the lute and other instruments in the liturgical context during the 16th century, 2) evidence that Palestrina scored a basso continuo part for the organ to accompany one of his motets, and 3) evidence that demonstrates Palestrina’s use of the lute in his compositional process.

Briefly, we cite Patrizio Barbieri, “On a continuo organ part attributed to Palestrina,” Early Music, Vol. XXII, No. 4, November 1994, pp. 587 – 605.  Barbieri points out that instruments were used in liturgical context as early as 1585, and all-vocal performance was only mandated in the Sistine Chapel, which was the official Papal chapel (p. 587).  As an additional example, Barbieri (p. 597) cites performance instructions for Alessandro Striggio’s 40-voice motet, ‘Ecce beatam lucem‘ (1587) indicating

Bass part taken from the lowest parts of the 40, to be played in the middle of the circle with a trombone, to support the harmony that is to be played by organ, lute and harpsichords or viols.

In the same article, Barbieri prints Palestrina’s own basso continuo part for his motet, ‘Dum complerentur dies Pentecostes,’ which was allegedly performed for Pentecost in the private chapel of Pope Sixtus V, 1585 (p. 589).  This clearly illustrates a pre-17th century use of accompanying instruments with vocal polyphony in the liturgical context.

As for Palestrina’s use of the lute in composing, we cite the following text excerpted from a letter surviving today in the archives of Mantua, addressed to Guglielmo Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua and written by Don Annibale Capello:

Rome, 18 October 1578

Having passed recently through a serious illness and being thus unable to command either his wits or his eyesight in the furtherance of his great desire to serve Your Highness in whatever way he can, M. Giovanni da Palestrina has begun to set the Kyrie and Gloria of the first mass on the lute, and when he let me hear them, I found them in truth full of great sweetness and elegance…And as soon as his infirmity permits he will work out what he has done on the lute with all possible care.

More information may be found in Jessie Ann Owens, Composers at Work: The Craft of Musical Composition 1450-1600 (Oxford University Press, 1997). 

We invite questions and/or more discussion on this most interesting topic.

[And if you follow the link to the youtube performance of Palestrina’s motet, this was specially chosen because of what rests in the background just a few feet away from the flag.]

  1. Tom H. permalink

    One of the Gabrielis supposedly composed the Coronation Mass for 1595, which was heavily instrumental, and I’ve heard various third-hand truisms about the use of brass in the Venetian liturgy, but don’t have any sources to hand – it was always implied, though, that it’d started before the 1595 coronation.

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