This CD brings together settings of the Latin Mass by two Renaissance composers. They were exact contemporaries, and both were famous in their own lifetime, although posterity has treated them quite differently. Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-94) is still a familiar name to modern singers, while Jacobus de Kerle (1531-91) has been all but forgotten. These two men were both dedicated to composing music for the Catholic Church in an era when its musical foundations (and the foundations of its very existence) were in peril. This was a time of sweeping reforms, debated for twenty arduous years during the Council of Trent. The goal was to strip off the excesses and corruptions of past centuries, returning to an atmosphere of simplicity, austerity, and holiness. Needless to say, this had vast implications for what was sung and played in church. Kerle and Palestrina were two composers who found themselves at the center of the fray.
Palestrina began his career as a small-town Italian choirmaster who quickly made a name for himself with his music and was called to Rome in his mid-twenties. Just a few years later, he was appointed a member of the Sistine Chapel, the highest honor available to a church musician in sixteenth-century Italy. A note from the Chapel chronicler tells us that this happened “by order of the Pope, without an examination and without consulting the other singers.” It was a good gamble. Palestrina provided the Chapel with music for the rest of his life, guiding it through the difficult years of reform and revision. One somewhat ironic result of the reforms was that he himself was thrown out of the Sistine choir because of his status as a married layman. Church musicians were (at least in the ideal world of the Council of Trent) supposed to be clergy, and there was little interest in supporting the famously needy extended families of professional singers. If Palestrina felt any resentment at this, it certainly did not show in his later years. He stayed in Rome and kept his honorary title of “Composer of the Pope’s Chapel” until his death in 1594. He enjoyed a long career as a fluent and prolific composer who seems never to have suffered from writer’s block: more than 100 of his masses survive, and he once wrote to a patron that he could, if necessary, compose one every ten days.
Kerle was a much more international figure. He was born in the Netherlands and spent his life touring the chapels and courts of Europe, from Orvieto (where his duties included playing the carillon in the local church) to Prague (where he retired in considerable luxury in the service of the Holy Roman Emperor.) Among his surviving works is a unique collection of music for the Council of Trent. These Preces speciales, “special prayers,” were sung during the actual sessions of the council. They speak urgently of the need for peace, unity, and an end to heresy and discord. There is no truth to the old story that the over-zealous reformers of Trent very nearly banned polyphony altogether, but some of them came to the council decidedly skeptical about it, and Kerle’s music must have made a good impression on them. Palestrina has sometimes been praised by enthusiastic (if misinformed) historians as the “savior of church music” in the sixteenth century. If anyone single-handedly saved church music in this generation, it would most likely have been Kerle, who provided the soundtrack for the whole debate.
Kerle’s Missa Regina Caeli was published in 1562 alongside his book of Preces speciales. It is a concise and elegant mass for men’s voices, with two tenor parts and two bass parts. The starting point for Kerle was the melody of the chanted Regina Caeli, a joyful prayer to the Virgin Mary traditionally sung during the Easter season. Its sonorous F major theme works its way through every movement of the mass. Adapting a piece of Gregorian chant, as Kerle does here, was a popular way to compose a Renaissance mass. Many composers of his generation also turned to more worldly methods. The Council of Trent declared (in the same year 1562) that there was to be “nothing lascivious or impure mixed in” with sung masses. This was a more or less open denunciation of the most popular sixteenth-century technique of all: borrowing a secular tune and writing a mass around it. Kerle never did this. (There are vanishingly few Renaissance composers who never did this. William Byrd was another one.) With his choice of a traditional Gregorian melody and a low, rich vocal scoring, Kerle set the tone for his mass. It certainly contradicts the popular idea that the strictest “Tridentine” music was by nature austere and glum. Kerle even allowed himself the luxury of an extra baritone voice in the Agnus Dei, concluding with a delicious dissonance at the very end. Any of his Italian contemporaries would have been proud of this work, although it also carries the occasional echo of an older, more mysterious world, the fifteenth-century northern tradition that produced Josquin and Ockeghem and the great art of the early Flemish painters.
Palestrina’s Missa Brevis is far more popular among church choirs in our own day. Some of that doubtless has to do with the straightforward four-part arrangement for mixed chorus; much of it has to do with Palestrina’s reputation as the quintessential composer of Renaissance sacred music. Listening to this mass, it is easy to understand why his music became the gold standard for its age. The impression is one of effortless beauty. Not a single note is out of place. The title Missa Brevis means “short mass,” although there is nothing particularly brevis about it by late-sixteenth-century standards. It turns out to be a quite leisurely musical setting, especially once Palestrina has dispatched with the long-winded texts of the Gloria and Credo. Unlike Kerle’s Missa Regina Caeli, it is not based on any sort of pre-existing material — or, if it is, Palestrina hid it so well that no one has ever discovered it. He certainly seems to be following the rules of the Council of Trent, whose new Missal (handbook for celebrating mass) was first printed in 1570, the same year he published the Missa Brevis in his Third Book of Masses. There is nothing extraneous at all in this mass, much less anything “lascivious or impure.” It comes as a surprise to discover that Palestrina’s Third Book also includes — among other things — masses openly based on songs such as “Io mi son giovinetta,” a flirtatious love song, and “L’homme armé,” a song of military prowess. Here we catch a glimpse of the more worldly side of Palestrina, the composer who chose a wealthy and comfortable family life over the prestige of a Sistine Chapel post, who once made a public apology to Pope Gregory XIII for having written secular madrigals and went happily back to publishing them only months after Gregory’s death.
Palestrina’s setting of the Good Friday poem Stabat Mater was one of the last things he ever composed. It was written for the Sistine Chapel choir, and (like Allegri’s famous Miserere) it was kept as the chapel’s private property, not even published until well after the composer had died. It has been sung there every year since the 1590s. Palestrina may have been famous for his counterpoint, but there is almost no counterpoint here, just a richly varied declamation of the text by two contrasting choirs. The beauty of his Stabat Mater was recognized by the nineteenth-century musicians who flocked to Rome to experience the traditional Holy Week observances at the Sistine Chapel. It is to them that we owe the modern revival of this piece. The first commercial edition was made by Richard Wagner, who took the opportunity to add a thick layer of Romantic contrasts in scoring, expression, and dynamics. (He made the bold decision to finish with the two choirs singing as softly as possible.) It was also a favorite of Franz Liszt. “Palestrina’s Stabat Mater,” Liszt wrote in 1878, “captivates and elevates the human soul. His lofty Song of Sorrows is often praised, commented upon, transcribed, printed — and only very rarely given a worthy performance.”
Notes by Dr. Kerry McCarthy