Whatever Happened to Palestrina?

A German opera called Palestrina, composed by Hans Pfitzner during the First World War, portrayed the 16th-century composer as the savior of Catholic Church music. Set during the Council of Trent, the opera had the council fathers on the verge of banning polyphonic music (many voices singing various melodies at variance) from the Mass. Then they heard a Mass by Palestrina and changed their minds. The story, though reported by various authors, is false. But the myth does, in a way, reflect Palestrina’s enormous importance in the history of sacred music, especially for Catholics.

Although he wrote some secular madrigals, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594) did the vast majority of his work under the auspices of the Church. Born in the tiny town of Palestrina outside Rome, he wrote sacred music that was praised for clarity and balance. He served as maestro di cappella in the pope’s chapel and at two of Rome’s most famous churches, St. John Lateran and Santa Maria Maggiore. Palestrina also sang in the choir of the Sistine Chapel. At the request of the Vatican, he rewrote the main plainchant books of the Church, bringing the chants into harmony with the Council of Trent’s guidelines. His own compositions include more than 100 Masses, 250 motets, and 200 other liturgical works, including hymns, psalms, and Magnificats. Though all the great European composers before the modern age worked at one time or another for the Catholic Church, it is arguable that Palestrina’s music, more than any other composer’s, captures the sense of mystery and adoration characteristic of Catholic worship.

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While he belongs to the Church in a special way, Palestrina might also have been a seminal influence on at least one modern secular composer. Richard Wagner conducted a performance of a Palestrina Stabat Mater at a Palm Sunday concert in Dresden in 1848. At the time, Wagner was working on his opera Lohengrin. Some scholars discern the influence of Palestrina in the ethereal, translucent character of the prelude and choruses of that opera. I’ve always thought Palestrina’s gift to Wagner was teaching him how to use silence. Wagner’s operas before Lohengrin open with noisy overtures. The prelude to Lohengrin, however, demands that the audience compose itself in silence before the music begins.

Perhaps it was from the aesthetics of plainchant that Palestrina learned the importance of an atmosphere of silence for prayer, whether sung or spoken. St. Paul gave a theological reason for moments of silence: When we do not know how to pray, Paul said, “the Spirit itself intercedes with inexpressible groanings.” Much contemporary music is characterized by a restless energy. Palestrina’s music, with its cultivation of reflection and quiet, may have something to teach us.


An Experiment with Liturgical Music

When I taught a course at Seton Hall University titled “The Reformation,” which covered 16th-century attempts—Catholic as well as Protestant—at church reform, I used to play recordings of musical compositions that illustrated the theological ideas my students were studying. At one point in the course, I liked to play three recordings to illustrate three different styles of the era’s liturgical music: Lutheran, Calvinist, and Catholic. I generally chose Luther’s famous hymn, A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, the battle hymn of the Protestant Reformation; the Old Hundredth, another Protestant hymn, a setting of Psalm 100 by the Calvinist composer Louis Bourgeois; and Palestrina’s motet Tu Es Petrus.

Each represented a different theological stance toward worship. A Mighty Fortress showed Luther’s theology of the laity as a “priestly people.” Luther insisted the congregation must not sit passively during worship but should mirror its priesthood by active hymn singing, facilitated by music with regular meters, simple melodies, memorable tunes, and organ accompaniment.

Bourgeois’s Old Hundredth exemplified Calvin’s more ascetic approach to church reform. For, while this hymn involved congregational singing of a simple and memorable tune like A Mighty Fortress, there was no instrumental accompaniment. Calvin feared that instrumental accompaniment might call attention to itself and thus lead to distraction. Bourgeois made a reputation as a great organist in Paris, but when he came to Calvin’s Geneva, he found he had to put aside his organ playing and write instead for congregational singing without accompaniment. He was limited to metric versification of psalms, because Calvin was concerned that the use of any nonbiblical texts might induce flights of religious or poetic fancy not in strict accord with the Scriptures. The result was a collection called the Geneva Psalter.

It is not easy to capture precisely the sound of Calvin’s Geneva. The only version I could find of this Calvinist hymn was the Anglican composer Ralph Vaughan Williams’s grandiose setting with trumpets, drums, and full organ, arranged for Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1952. Even in the Vaughan Williams version, the third verse is sung a capella, at least initially, and then with only a sole trumpet descant (that is, a single trumpeter playing a counter melody in the background). When we reached that third verse, I always announced loudly: “Here is the voice of Calvin’s Geneva.”

Palestrina’s Tu Es Petrus was always the final selection. The text is taken from the part of Matthew’s gospel in which Jesus bestows on St. Peter awesome authority over his flock: “Thou art Peter.” For Catholics, this passage represents the origin of papal authority. In class, I used this sample of Palestrina’s music to show an approach to the spirituality of public worship that was unlike that of Luther and Calvin. Palestrina’s music is too difficult for congregational singing. It requires a choir of professional singers. Originally, the voices were those of castrated males, but nowadays an all-male chorus with boy sopranos suffices. The effect is an ethereal, otherworldly sound; boy sopranos produce what some call a “white” tone, a chaste or even sexless sound, that is, with none of the sensuous warmth of a mature female voice. In addition, instead of expressing a wide range of emotion, Palestrina relies on subtly developed rhythms to give a serene and uniform sense of quiet meditation to complement the tone of mystery. The result is the perfect music for quiet adoration of a mystery, especially appropriate for the Eucharist or, in the case of Tu Es Petrus, for the creation of an atmosphere of quiet reverence at the pope’s entrance.

I was continually amazed that even the most conservative of the Catholic seminarians in the course inevitably preferred both Luther’s Mighty Fortress and the Calvinist Old Hundredth to Palestrina’s Tu Es Petrus. They even liked the  Vaughan Williams gaudy setting of Bourgeois’s Geneva psalmody better than Palestrina’s Tu Es Petrus! The seminarians’ reaction, though regrettable, is understandable. Modern music, from the romantic composers of the 19th century to the popular music of our day, engages us with its emphatic rhythms and emotional expression. Palestrina’s music, in its ability to create an atmosphere of mystery and adoration, represents a quality that is all too rare in contemporary worship.

Catholic churches have moved so far in the direction of congregational singing that one almost never hears a piece of music designed simply for meditation. This is ironic, since even Luther, while placing great emphasis on congregational singing, left room for a trained choir to perform more difficult music—otherwise, we’d never have Johann Sebastian Bach’s chorales! But, in contemporary Catholic churches, even when there is a moment for pondering the mystery of the Eucharist, the music doesn’t lend itself to quiet adoration. This is where Palestrina’s compositions might help bring to today’s liturgy the reverence and sense of wonder that are often sorely lacking.


Why We Need Palestrina

Do I hear a chorus of voices raised in protest? Naysayers will be quick to point out that Palestrina’s liturgical music is set to Latin texts; they will note that contemporary liturgical needs are better served by use of the vernacular. Others will ask, Why do we need more “performance” music when Catholics haven’t yet mastered the art of congregational singing? And last, some will assert that Palestrina is for snobs. Didn’t his music, with its combinations of voices, lose some of the democratic simplicity of the older monophonic Gregorian chant?

But Palestrina need not always be sung in Latin. Indeed, his music translates particularly well into English. Many years ago, I attended a Sunday Mass in the Benedictine Abbey Church at St. Meinrad, Indiana. At the offertory, I was astounded when the monastic schola, a specially trained choir group selected from the monastic community, sang a Palestrina motet not only with musical sureness and stylistic integrity but in English. The translation only made more apparent one of the key stylistic features of Palestrina’s music: the clarity with which the literary text is presented. Palestrina has the uncanny ability to allow the text to speak clearly amid the multiplicity of voices and vocal lines he uses. I knew this was true with Latin texts, but that Sunday at St. Meinrad’s, I realized that the use of an English translation only added a dramatic immediacy to this characteristic clarity.

While Catholics may not do as well as our Protestant brethren at congregational singing, it is congregational singing that dominates Catholic liturgy. Why not dip into our own musical heritage? A discreet and judicious use of Palestrina might bring to today’s other-directed, gregarious Mass a quiet and prayerful interlude. I’d suggest starting with a Palestrina motet at the offertory. Special occasions, such as Easter or ordinations, might be a good time to introduce a complete Palestrina Mass.

As for the elitist nature of Palestrina’s music, I must concede that Palestrina is more difficult than, say, On Eagle’s Wings or Gift of Finest Wheat. It is clear that Palestrina isn’t going to replace the St. Louis Jesuits anytime soon. Few are the Catholic choirs that can render a truly worthy performance of Palestrina. Even so, Catholics can enjoy his music on recordings. I highly recommend the Westminster Cathedral Choir of the Catholic cathedral in London, on the Hyperion label. Theirs is a noble effort to keep the music of Palestrina alive in a liturgical setting as well as in concerts. For this, we must thank Herbert Cardinal Vaughan, who built the cathedral in the late 19th century and who had the foresight to endow a choir school that would dedicate itself to the performance of Catholic classics, including Palestrina.

My favorite Westminster Cathedral Choir recording is a 1991 release featuring the Missa Aeterna Christi Munera (CDA66490). It includes four selections from Palestrina’s setting of the Song of Songs. I’m sure that lusty old Luther would have loved the erotic element in the lyrics, along with the strong hint of secular madrigal style. Calvin, no doubt, would have been perplexed. But I feel certain that Palestrina’s friend, St. Philip Neri, for whose oratory in Rome some of these pieces were originally written, was delighted with what Palestrina had achieved.

If, after listening to these recordings, you develop a taste for Palestrina and someday you become a cardinal archbishop (like Herbert Vaughan), or win the lottery, or perhaps see your tech stocks rebound, maybe you will decide to endow a cathedral choir in the United States for the preservation and performance of Palestrina.

But even if fate does not favor you with such power or wealth, in listening to these recordings of Palestrina, you will have acquainted yourself with one of the greatest of Catholic composers, one whose music is not only a thing of beauty but representative of a wholly Catholic vision, perhaps prophetically challenging our time.


This article originally appeared in the June 2001 issue of Crisis Magazine.


  • Rev. Lawrence B. Porter

    Lawrence B. Porter, a priest of the Archdiocese of Newark, is currently Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Systematic Theology in the Seminary/School of Theology of Seton Hall University. He has degrees in English Literature (B.A., Providence College; M.A. Brown University) as well as in theology (Pontifical degrees–bachelors, license and lectorate–from the Dominican House of Studies, Washington, DC, and an M.A. and Ph.D. from the Oberlin School of Divinity at Vanderbilt University). His essays have appeared in theological quarterlies such as Theological Studies, The Thomist, Gregorianum, Communio, The Jurist, and the journals such as The Bible Today, American Benedictine Review, Homiletic and Pastoral Review, and the magazines Crisis, The Priest, and New Oxford Review. Father Porter has been long involved in ecumenical dialogue, having served for many years on the Ecumenical Commission as well as the Theological Commission of the Archdiocese of Newark.

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