Steve C Smith and Peter Phillips
Among Palestrina's 22 six-part settings of the Mass, the Missa Assumpta est Maria and the Missa Papae Marcelli (1) have long been the most celebrated. In both cases the power of the writing is largely attributable to bright sonorities: both have two tenor parts and Assumpta est Maria also has two soprano parts. No Renaissance composer, and few later ones, have been as proficient as Palestrina at writing positive, outward-going, major-key music, and in this context Assumpta est Maria represents one of the most important works of the period. By contrast, Sicut lilium presents a quite different side of his thought, subdued, contemplative, sometimes sensuous as the words of the motet require. Although Palestrina is much less well-known in this mood, he wrote a large number of pieces which are akin to Sicut lilium, of which the Missa Nigra sum (2) is perhaps the most accessible, though many of his madrigals provide excellent examples of the same thing. It was our deliberate intention to pair two works in such contrasting styles from this great master.
It is interesting to follow the historical process by which a work such as the Missa Assumpta est Maria becomes so much more famous than any other comparable work of the period. It is not essentially that it is a better piece of music than all the other contenders. The Missa Assumpta est Maria is not better than Palestrina's fine six-part Mass Benedicta es caelorum (3), but it is better known because at some early stage it caught the eye of an editor who, by publishing an inexpensive edition of it, established a demand which the quality of the music was able to sustain. The Missa Sicut lilium, as it happens, has never been published outside the two complete editions of Palestrina's output and so, like the bulk of this composer's music, it is available in print but probably has never been performed. The whole system of reputation in pre-Baroque music rests largely on historical accident and is open to review at any time. It also seems to help a piece if there is an attractive story to go with it, for the Missa Papae Marcelli has undoubtedly benefited from this. There have been fourteen different editions of Papae Marcelli since the middle of the 19th century and eight of Assumpta est Maria (of which the first was prepared by Carl Proske in 1835). Palestrina's earliest success in modern times was the eight-part Stabat Mater which first appeared in Paris in 1810 and has so far received thirteen editions, including one by Richard Wagner. On the other hand, The Tallis Scholars had to rely on their own editions for recordings of the Masses Sicut lilium, Nigra sum, Benedicta es and Nasce la gioja mia (4).
In general, public preference has been for Palestrina's later works, of which the Missa Assumpta est Maria is one. The greater precision of thought which characterised Palestrina's writing after the Council of Trent has found favour throughout the Christian world. Indeed such pieces as the Missa Assumpta est Maria have regularly been performed in recent years in Protestant services where the kind of syllabic setting shown, for example, at the beginning of the Gloria, is in line with one of the founding principles of all the reformed religions. The more relaxed, more abstract style of such early settings as the Missa Sicut lilium has not often been heard in church services since the first half of the 16th century, but it has increasingly attracted a following among concert-goers who pay to hear the music as music, rather than as an adjunct to worship. It is a feature of modern music-making that professional concert-choirs do not necessarily choose the same repertoire as that of church choirs, even though they make their selection from the same composers.
Neither the motet nor the Mass Assumpta est Maria was published in Palestrina's lifetime, which supports the idea that they were late works, since all those settings most likely to sell had appeared in print before the composer's old age. The musical style of them both supports this too: there is noticeably little thorough imitation between all six parts, but there is a great deal of block-chord writing. In the motet the semi-independence of the part-writing is apparent from the beginning, and by the words 'benedicunt Dominum' all counterpoint is briefly suspended. These features inevitably transfer themselves to the parody Mass, most obviously in the Gloria and Credo, but also in the shorter movements where greater elaboration was customary. The first Kyrie, for example, begins with imitation between all the parts but very quickly has settled into alternating harmonically-controlled phrases which rely for their effect on being rescored. It is the inventiveness of these different sub-divisions of the main choir, constantly grouping and regrouping, and the elastic way in which the text is set, which gives this music its irrepressible character.
By contrast the motet Sicut lilium was published in Palestrina's First Book of Motets in 1569. The Mass based on it did not appear until the Fifth Book of 1590 - which was about half-way through his Mass publications - but there is every reason to think it a quite early work. The musical style is noticeably lucid, and although it is not as protracted as some of his very first settings, like Benedicta es caelorum, in which he was still clearly learning his trade, there is some exhaustive working of the basic musical material. In the motet the opening point is treated to two complete expositions in leisurely style, and the remaining music is scarcely less elaborately laid out. Similarly in the first Kyrie of the Mass Palestrina states the point twice, while cleverly abbreviating the entries, and all the other movements except the Gloria start with imitation of some kind, even the Credo. The Gloria is the most forward-looking movement in stylistic terms with a succession of homophonic statements at 'Laudamus te. Benedicimus te.', though their musical derivation from the motet is unmistakably preserved.
This Fifth Book of Palestrina's Masses was dedicated to Duke William V of Bavaria, whose cantor was Orlandus Lassus. Presumably Lassus took part in performances of the pieces contained in it, though his sacred compositions scarcely reflect the elegiac mood of Sicut lilium and in general he seems to have learnt little of importance from Palestrina. Palestrina's motet Sicut lilium is not the same setting as that which appeared as part of his cycle of 29 motets on texts from the Song of Songs in 1583/4.
© 1989 Peter Phillips
(1) Recorded on CDGIM 339
(2) Recorded on CDGIM 003
(3) Recorded on CDGIM 001
(4) Recorded on CDGIM 008