Steve C Smith and Peter Phillips
Despite its title Palestrina's famous Missa Brevis is one of the most substantial and sonorous of all his mass-settings to be written in four parts. The reason for its title (meaning 'short mass') is a mystery, though the use of it may be connected with the lack of any obvious model for the setting. Palestrina, early in his career, liked to use other composers' motets or plainsong chant to rework in 'parody' fashion, an old and respectable technique. Many people have looked for such a model in this case but without success. Plainsong was the most likely starting-point, but if so the melodies are not consistently applied. The mass was first published in 1570 and was a success from the start, being reprinted several times before 1620. There have been countless modern editions.
The most likely explanation for this general descriptive title 'Brevis' is that no other came readily to hand. In other cases of a 'free' setting Sine Nomine was common; but some of these, like the one which has recently been proved to be based on Josquin's motet Benedicta es, are bigger pieces in terms of the number of voices employed, and perhaps a distinction between the titles Sine Nomine and Brevis is implied. Not that anyone ever proposed the title Missa Longa. The idea that the word 'Brevis' comes from the fact that every movement starts with a breve in the original notation is discounted since literally hundreds of works start with that note and it is hard to imagine anyone fixing on this detail as being worthy of comment.
The music has a strong character, confidently written, with the motif of the falling minor third, usually followed by upward movement by step, appearing very regularly. This happens not only at the beginning of most movements, but frequently during them, for instance in the remarkable sequence in all the parts to the word 'Amen' in the Credo. This interval alone goes some way to explain the unusually subtle cohesion which the Missa Brevis displays on close acquaintance, where a casual glance might judge it to be disparate. The music is for SATB, increasing to SSATB for the beautiful second Agnus Dei. The phrase at the beginning of the first Agnus - an ascending scale - is inverted at the beginning of the second, which rounds off the music in the most satisfying way.
The model for Nasce la gioja mia has never been in doubt, though it remains a slight curiosity, for Palestrina rarely used secular music as a starting-point for his masses. Of the 104 masses by him so far catalogued (there may be others in manuscript), 53 are of the parody type. Of these, nine are founded on secular polyphonic works - madrigals in the case of eight of them, and a chanson. Their composers were Domenico Ferrabosco (twice), Cipriano de Rore (twice), Palestrina himself (three times) and Lupi or Cadeac for the chanson. Primavera in some ways was a strange choice. His contemporary reputation was for writing light Napolitane for three voices to texts in Neapolitan dialect and Palestrina never showed much interest in that kind of music.
Then there is the question of where Palestrina found this unusual example of a Primavera madrigal. Since it was not in print until 1565, by which time it is generally reckoned that Palestrina had given up this kind of composition, he must have sought it out in manuscript, which would make it one of the latest, if not the latest 'parody' mass in his output. In fact the madrigal is not in print in modern edition: it had to be prepared especially for this recording from part-books in Kassel.
Primavera was born between 1540 and 1545. He spent most of his life working in Naples, though for about ten years after 1565 he worked in Milan. He probably died in Naples around 1585. His Napolitane are full of popular melodies and famously contain chains of consecutive fifths in the part-writing. He dedicated his Seventh Book of Madrigals to Carlo Gesualdo, though his music shows no influence from that wayward genius. Palestrina did well to find this work, for it is a fine example of the larger-voiced madrigal - stately in effect and full of sonorous writing, which Palestrina knew very well how to make the most of. Indeed, Primavera's music here consists largely of well-spaced chords in compact phrases, and the whole piece is cast in ABB form, the repeat coming at 'O sol'.
The main differences between the mass-setting and its model are the length of Palestrina's phrases and an increased brilliance in the overall sound caused by raising the tessitura of the two tenor parts. With little imitation in the original to show him the way, Palestrina nonetheless managed to extend the ingredients of this material into one of the longest and most magnificent of all his settings. For instance the opening of the madrigal uses a figure of three notes which is continued for four bars before a new phrase starts. Palestrina immediately led off in the first Kyrie with eleven bars of this, returning to its basic outline at the beginning of every subsequent movement. Another motif which features regularly in the mass is the powerful leap up a fourth at 'E la mia vita' in the first soprano part, imitated in the madrigal immediately by the second tenor. This was parodied for the first time by Palestrina at the beginning of the second Kyrie, and most memorably at the beginning of the second Agnus Dei. However, in general Palestrina did not try to preserve strict imitative schemes in this mass, no doubt partly encouraged by the nature of his model, but partly also because his mature style, despite what the text-books tell us, often ignored this procedure. Both works are scored for SSATTB.
© 1986 Peter Phillips