November 2006

Palestrina Missa Papae Marcelli
Vaughan Williams Mass in G minor

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594) was one of the towering figures of late sixteenth century music.  The Missa Papae Marcelli has been described as the most renowned of Palestrina’s works, supreme amongst the composer’s 104 mass settings.  It was first published in 1567 but the date of its actual composition is unclear and has fascinated musicians and historians because of the legends surrounding the work.  Writing in 1828, the Abbé Baini suggested that it was composed for a gathering of a commission established to ascertain whether various mass settings were sufficiently comprehensible to a congregation, following the injunctions of the Council of Trent for the writing of ‘la musica intelligibile’: the whole plain of singing in musical modes shall be constituted not to give empty pleasure to the ear, but in such a way that the words may be clearly understood by all, and the hearts of the listeners be drawn to the desire of heavenly harmonies, in the contemplation of joys of the blessed.  Baini suggested that the mass was composed to persuade the Council of Trent that a draconian ban on polyphonic treatment of text in sacred music was unnecessary – there is a superb dramatization of this in Hans Pfitzner’s great opera of 1917, Palestrina.  The myth has since been demolished and the mass is now thought to date from about 1555, possibly in celebration of the enthronement of the short-reigned Pope Marcellus.  Whatever the legend, the mass is perfectly concordant with the Council’s directives, with a simplicity of manner and a translucent beauty of musical material that has given rise to superlatives from Palestrina’s time to ours. The Kyrie, Sanctus and Agnus Dei have a poised serenity whereas the Gloria and Credo, with their lengthy texts, demonstrate something more deeply majestic.  Its properties of textual clarity, spiritual joy, rhythmic vitality and a ‘simultaneously grand and humble expression of faith of great profundity’ make the mass a timeless, unsurpassed masterpiece.

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) was the most important English composer of his generation and a key figure in the 20th-century revival of English music.  He was born at Down Ampney in Gloucestershire, where his father was rector.  He studied at Cambridge and the RCM, where he was a pupil of Parry, Stanford and Wood. Realising that for him the creative way forward was through regenerative use of native resources, he became around the turn of the century keenly interested in English folk music, including carols and English Renaissance madrigals, important components of that tradition.  His outlook was human and social; he never forgot that music was for people; and he showed a reverential, almost religious feeling for genuinely popular traditions despite being a ‘cheerful agnostic’.  There is in his work a fundamental tension between traditional concepts of belief and morality and a spiritual anguish.  The Mass in G Minor dates from 1920-2, by which time the composer was a leading figure in British musical life. It was written partly in response to the English polyphonic revival at Westminster Cathedral, and partly to his experiences of the first world war, in which he served in a field ambulance unit, and is a deep reflection upon the spirit of man, free of violence, bitterness or anger.  The mass broke new ground, setting the standard for the re-creation of the a capella tradition, and was the first piece written in the English style since the sixteenth century.