About this Recording
8.573096-97 - PALESTRINA, G.P. da: Cantica Salomonis (Canticum Canticorum) (Palestrina Ensemble Munich, V. Schubert)
English  German 

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525/6–1594)
Cantica Salomonis (Canticum canticorum – Song of Songs)


Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina occupies an unrivalled position in the history of music and in particular in Catholic church music. His style of counterpoint, taken as a model for imitation by later generations, epitomized the aesthetic aims of the Counter-Reformation, the perfection of the stile antico, and has had an even wider influence as an essential element in the traditional teaching of compositional technique.

Palestrina, his name taken from his presumed place of birth in 1525 or 1526, spent the greater part of his life in the nearby city of Rome. His early training was as a chorister at the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore (St Mary Major), where he had a chance to learn something of the current Franco-Flemish musical tradition at first hand. By 1544 he was serving as organist in Palestrina but in 1551 he returned to Rome, through the agency of Pope Julius III, previously Bishop of Palestrina. Here he was appointed director of music at the Cappella Giulia at St Peter’s, established by Pope Julius II. His first book of Masses was published in 1554, with a dedication to the Pope, and the following year he joined the Cappella Sistina, but the death of the Pope and three weeks later of his successor Pope Marcellus was followed by the enforcement of the rule of celibacy for members of the Sistine Chapel under the rule of Pope Paul IV, and Palestrina’s dismissal, with other married members of the chapel. He now became maestro di cappella of San Giovanni in Laterano (St John Lateran), retaining his position until his resignation in 1560. A period of employment at Santa Maria Maggiore followed, with the opportunity to undertake further work in the service of Cardinal Ippolito II d’Este and to enhance still more his reputation as a composer. From 1571 until his death in 1594 he was again at the Cappella Giulia, remaining there for the rest of his life, in spite of attempts by other patrons to induce him to enter their service.

As a married layman Palestrina had family obligations beyond those of his immediate employment, and over the years he fulfilled commissions for other organizations, notably for the various confraternities in Rome. During his period of service at Santa Maria Maggiore he also taught at the Seminario Romano, established for the training of priests after the Council of Trent, enrolling his sons Rodolfo and Angelo there. In these years he continued to be closely involved with the reforms of the Council of Trent, as his reputation spread abroad. His fame is reflected in the invitations he received from other possible employers, including the Emperor Maximilian II in Vienna and Duke Guglielmo Gonzaga in Mantua, patrons who were in the end unwilling to meet the terms he expected. The first years of his second period of service with the Cappella Giulia brought domestic tragedy. His eldest son Rodolfo died in 1572, his brother Silla in 1573, his son Angelo in 1575 and his wife Lucrezia in 1580, followed by the death of three grandchildren. Palestrina contemplated ordination to the priesthood and went so far as to take minor orders, before choosing, instead, to take a new wife. In 1581 he married the widow of a furrier, Virginia Dormoli. The marriage brought financial stability, with an income that also helped the publication of his compositions. At the time of his death in 1594 he was contemplating a return to his native town, where a vacancy had arisen as organist at Sant’Agapito.

The Council of Trent, assembled in 1545 to bring about a reformation of ecclesiastical and liturgical practice, reflected common humanist aims in its insistence on the clarity of words in liturgical music. In popular legend Palestrina has been credited with saving polyphony, against its opponents in the Council who favoured plainchant, by his composition of the Missa Papae Marcelli, a demonstration, it has been claimed, of verbal intelligibility in a polyphonic composition. Palestrina’s knowledge of and interest in the traditional plainchant of the Church is exemplified in the task he undertook for Pope Gregory XIII, with the composer Annibale Zoilo, in 1577 of revising the chant of the Graduale Romanum and the Antiphonale, work that he left unfinished at his death. At the same time he was closely involved with other musical reforms implicit in the decrees of the Council, seeking a general clarity of texture and an apparent avoidance of a secular cantus firmus in polyphonic settings of liturgical texts. Polyphonic structures in music of the period, it should be added, were often built on an existing melody, taken in sections and treated imitatively by voice after voice. While this so-called cantus firmus was often derived from plainchant, it could equally well be drawn from secular compositions of one sort or another. While the Council of Trent may have limited musical excesses, it certainly did not put an end to the use of secular sources of material.

Palestrina’s setting of The Song of Songs, otherwise known as The Song of Solomon, was written in 1583 and published in Rome in 1584 by Alessandro Gardano, and again in Venice by the latter’s brother three years later. This fourth book of motets, for five voices, contains 29 motets, and was dedicated to Pope Gregory XIII. In his prefatory dedication Palestrina regrets the attention he once paid to secular love-songs and now turns to words expressing the love of Christ for his spiritual Betrothed in music more joyful than his usual settings of sacred texts. The present recording includes plainchant antiphons, as appropriate, related to the motets in text and mode. The Song of Songs, which has its own part in the domestic celebrations of the Jewish Passover, is in Catholic liturgical usage the source of a number of antiphons for feasts of the Blessed Virgin and for those dedicated to other Holy Women. The biblical text was assembled by Palestrina and the occasion of the composition can only be a matter of conjecture, although no doubt inspired by the Oratorian movement of St Philip Neri and possibly connected with the Congregazione dei Signori Musici di Roma, with which Palestrina was concerned and which received papal approval in 1585 from the new Pope Sixtus V. The recording ends with a motet of 1593, Afferentur Regi, and another setting of Quam pulchri sunt gressus tui for five voices, published in the First Book of Motets in 1569 and dedicated to Cardinal Ippolito d’Este.

Keith Anderson

Close the window