september 2011

Palestrina (1525 or 1526-1594): Men of that caliber do not return a second time. They are summations: they embrace a universe, they exhaust it and finish it off. They have spoken, and after them none dare reappear.

Pleasures of Music

Palestrina & Michelangelo

‘In both we find the same simplicity, the same humility in the use of materials, the same absence of concern with effect, the same disdain for what might appeal.’

By Charles Gounod

Despite all appearances, Camille Saint-Saens was perhaps correct when he said that Charles Gounod would be remembered principally for his religious music. Though currently known almost solely for his operas Romeo and Juliet, Mireille and the marvelous Faust, the composer also wrote a considerable number of religious works: masses oratorios, motets, sacred songs as well as numerous sundry compositions in Latin, French and even English.

In a letter to Charles Bordes the composer explained why he felt compelled to compose sacred music: "Palestrina and Bach are church fathers for us, it is important that we remain their sons." In fact, Gounod never ceased to write sacred music, from his early days at the Paris Conservatory until his last, dying days in 1893. Like Liszt, Gounod was a devout Catholic. Also like Liszt, he was constantly torn between the spirit and the flesh, between the sacred and the profane.

Gounod/Bach, ‘Ave Maria,’ 15-year-old Deanna Durbin and the Vienna Boys Choir in the 1938 film Mad About Music, directed by Norman Taurog.

Berlioz was quick to notice and praise Gounod's early composition "Agnus Dei,” predicting a brilliant future for the young student at the Paris Conservatory. Winner of the Grand Prix de Rome at the early age of 21, Gounod described his youth in one word: tenderness. During his stay in Rome he assisted at the religious services at the Sistine Chapel, his first introduction--not without difficulties--to the sacred music of the Italian Renaissance composer Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. Gounod wrote: "(Palestrina's music) is strict, ascetic, horizontal, and calm, like the boundary of the ocean"; he soon could not do without it. The composer's appetite for sacred music soon became insatiable. In Rome he wrote his first mass and an a cappela requiem that he orchestrated later.

Upon his retun to Paris, Gounod became the music director at the Paroisse des Missions Chapel "on the condition,” he emphasized, "that I could follow my ideas: Bach and Palestrina." He was on the verge of being ordained (he already signed his letters "Abbé Gounod"), but, like Liszt, he was able to realize the error of his ways in time. The five years that he spent at the Paroisse des Missions taught him the virtues of a contemplative life, of meditation and prayer. In fact, Gounod composed only sacred music until 1850.

On the morning of 15 October 1893, Gounod, although feeling fatigued, went to church with his faithful companion Henri Büsser. After lunch he sat down to put the finishing touches on the piano arrangement of the exquisite Benedictus. His wife found him with is head "held up by his pipe resting on the table," bent over the open score of the Requiem. Gounod never regained consciousness; he died three days later on the morning of 10 October with a crucifix in his hands.

Goundod's thoughts below on his muse Palestrina’s likeness to Michelangelo were published posthumously in his Les Mémoires d'un artiste (1896).


The music--severe, ascetic, horizontal, and calm, like the boundary of the ocean; monotonous by dint of serenity; anti-sensual and yet so intense in its contemplativeness that it sometimes attains to the ecstatic--made at first a strange, almost disagreeable impression upon me. Was it because of the very style of these works, which was entirely new to me? Was it the particular sonority of these special voices which my ear heard for the first time? Or was it the strong attack, strong to the point of roughness, emphatic like hammer strokes, which gives such high relief to the performance by stressing the entrances of each voice into the rich, close-spun web of the polyphony? I could not say. The fact remains that this impression, bizarre though it was, did not repel me. I went back for more, and then more, and in the end could not do without.

Palestrina’s Gloria, conducted by Jeremy Summerly of Oxford

There are works which must be seen or heard in the spot for which they were designed. The Sistine Chapel is one of these exceptional places--a unique monument. The colossal genius who decorated its ceiling and altar walls with his incomparable visions of Genesis and Judgment Day, the artist who painted the Prophets as if he were their equal, will never again find his peer, any more than will Homer and Phidias. Men of that caliber do not return a second time. They are summations: they embrace a universe, they exhaust it and finish it off. They have spoken, and after them none dare reappear. But Palestrina’s music seems like a smug translation of Michelangelo’s great poem, and I am inclined to think that the two masters throw light one upon the other for the common understanding. The beholder teaches the hearer and vice versa; and to such a degree that after a time one begins to wonder whether the Sistine Chapel, considered as paint and music, is not the product of one and the same inspiration. Music and painting interpenetrate in perfect and sublime unity, so that it seems the double utterance of a single thought, the double voice of a single hymn. What one hears is like the echo of what one sees.

In February 1994 Peter Phillips and the Tallis Scholars performed on the 400th anniversary of the death of Palestrina in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome, where Palestrina had trained as a choirboy and later worked as Maestro di Cappella. The selection performed here is Allegri: Miserere.

There are indeed so many analogies between Michelangelo’s work and that of Palestrina, such a family likeness, that it is hard not to infer an identical set of qualities--I almost said, of virtues--in these two extraordinary intellects. In both we find the same simplicity, the same humility in the use of materials, the same absence of concern with effect, the same disdain for what might appeal. One feels that the physical skill, the handling, is no longer of any moment, and that only the soul, with its gaze unshakably bent upon the higher spheres, is intent in imparting through forms at once submissive and wholly mastered the full sublimity of its contemplation. Even the general uniformity of shading that characterizes this music and these paintings contributes to the impression of a voluntary rejection of all shades. The art of these two men is as it were a sacrament, in which the tangible symbol is little more than a veil cast over the living reality of the divine. And that is why neither the one nor the other of those two great masters makes an immediate appeal. In all things we are caught first by the outer brilliancy of surface. Here, nothing of the kind: one must penetrate beyond the visible and the tangible.

The Tallis Scholars in a live performance of Palestrina’s Nunc Dimittis in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome, on the 400th anniversary of the death of Palestrina, February 1994.

On hearing a work by Palestrina, one feels something like the effect produced by reading one of Bossuet’s great pages. One finds nothing striking along the way; but by the end one has been carried to the heights. Faithful and docile servant of the thought, the world has neither arrested nor divorced the reader for its own sake, and thus you have scaled the peak without shock or error, led by a mysterious guide who has hidden his own traces and kept his secret.

It is this absence of visible devices, of worldly artifices, of vain sophistication, which makes the really great works altogether inimitable. In order to reach their level nothing less is required than the mind that conceived them and the blues that inspired them.


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