6: The Renaissance, part 3 (Palestrina and Allegri, 1550-1640)

10 reasons why we will all return to Rome when this is finally over


If you would prefer a brief overview of the renaissance, it can be found here.


Last post I discussed the attempts of renaissance composers to grapple with the central challenge of composition: balancing the dictates of melody (hence time) with the need to combine voices harmoniously. You may recall the development of imitation: a melodic figure being sung by a part, then copied by another (and so on), all woven into beautiful coherence; each voice maintained independence whilst being meaningfully (and audibly) related to the others. This established a tendency to seek connectedness and eliminate arbitrariness in music, a legacy which would cast its shadow over all subsequent eras.

Today I will contextualise the Roman school of composers (the zenith of the era) in the religious antagonism which inflamed renaissance Europe, illustrating a perennial tension between conservatism and innovation in musical culture.


Like listening whilst you read? You can find today’s listening at the bottom of the page.


The reformation and counter-reformation

Martin Luther and the Impact of the Reformation on Architecture ...
Martin Luther (1483-1546): spearhead of the reformation

In the early 16th century, German scholar and priest Martin Luther led the reformation: a movement of many European christians from Catholicism to Protestantism. According to Luther, as long as the Bible was only written in Latin, it would make the common man dependent on a gatekeeping elite of priests for their salvation. Luther believed salvation was between the individual and God, and shouldn’t be contingent on priestly dictates. Henry VIII led the reformation in England, sacking the monasteries and establishing the Church of England.

Naturally, the Roman Catholic Church was not happy about this: it constituted a serious blow to their power in Europe and radically undermined the Catholic worldview. The two sides considered each other not merely misguided but actively heretical – they were not simply wrong, they were evil. The Catholic opposition to the reformation became known as the counter-reformation – Rome jabbing back after a round on the ropes.

Catholicism placed a greater emphasis on ritual, tradition and formality than Protestantism. It is no wonder that music, which ritualises words, reflected this movement. Catholic composers throughout Europe composed beautiful music to bolster the cause of the counter-reformation, as if to prove its aesthetic and spiritual superiority – the fight was on.

Mass in the Catholic Church - Wikipedia

It is easy for modern people to dismiss the argument for the use of Latin – why use a language that excludes the uninitiated? At the time, it was argued that the religious depth of the text warranted language that was elevated from the prosaic speech of everyday life. Composers of the counter-reformation matched the mystery of elevated language with a similarly mysterious expressive tone. The aesthetic goal was not accessibility, it was to envelop the listener in mystery and heritage.

All this aside, you don’t have to be a Christian to appreciate this music – you can simply be moved by its beauty, and so share in the aesthetic experience of countless others. Is this not the point of profound art – to connect the individual to a greater landscape of meaning? Take Michelangelo’s Pietà (below) – what sort of parent could look at it and fail to partake in Mary’s grief? In so doing, they are reminded that their maternal (or paternal) love is not a personal idiosyncrasy, but a condition of existence.

Pietà - Wikipedia
Pietà – Michelangelo (1498-9)

Naturally, composers of the counter-reformation composed conservatively – they were preserving tradition rather than transforming it. Despite this, their music wasn’t clichéd – they simply refined what was familiar. Many of their works are deeply evocative: take the motet O Magnum Mysterium (1572) by the Spanish Tomás Luis de Victoria (below), which strikes a perfect balance between technical brilliance and devotional feeling. The result is a piece so beautiful it transcends its cultural context entirely.

The rapturous finale on Alleluia is paradoxical (like the mysterium of the title): despite being affirmative (Alleluia), the mood is profoundly melancholic – why so? Perhaps it is a Christian existential assertion (which many atheists hold too): that there is cause to affirm life despite its tragic elements.


Classical Music: Top 50 Composers - Palestrina
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina

For many, the greatest composer of the renaissance was Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594), whose mastery of renaissance polyphonic writing is beyond contention. He enjoyed unprecedented fame for a composer, and since his death has been revered as a musical legend. Elite universities still teach the ‘Palestrina style’ to first-year undergraduates to ground them in his effortlessly smooth, blended style of writing. Below is a short example to give you a taste of why Palestrina was the earliest composer to be considered worthy of a place in the pantheon of great composers.

Who Painted the Sistine Chapel?
The Sistine Chapel

Palestrina may be considered the greatest composer of the era, but the most celebrated composition is undoubtedly the Miserere (C.1630) of fellow Roman Gregorio Allegri. Miserere was technically composed in the baroque era (1600-1750), but the conservatism of the counter-reformation saw composers persisting with renaissance style well into the next century.

The Vatican deemed the piece so beautiful that its performance was confined to the Sistine chapel and copying the score was forbidden. These restrictions were upheld until a young Austrian, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, listened to the piece once then transcribed the entire thing from memory. From there he smuggled the papers out and so it spread around Europe. Rather than punishing Mozart, Pope Clement XIV awarded him the Chivalric Order of the Golden spur for his genius. Hence the Vatican lifted its ban, and so it survives today as arguably the greatest piece of choral music. Look out for the two choirs set in opposition (polychoral writing) and the infamous high-C at 1:37.

Simply stunning stuff. I hope this post has evidenced the role of cultural tension as a catalyst for beautiful art and outlined a case for aesthetic conservatism. Tune in next time for the opposing argument: a celebration of the daring innovations of Claudio Monteverdi and the birth of the Baroque era.

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