Tuesday, April 28, 2015

450 years ago: Palestrina's Pope Marcellus Mass performed at the papal chapel

Pope Marcellus Mass (Missa Papae Marcelli)

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (composer)

Composed: 1562

First Performed: April 28, 1565 at the papal chapel

Peak: --

Sales (in millions): --

Genre: classical > choral music


  1. Kyrie
  2. Gloria
  3. Credo
  4. Sanctus
  5. Benedictus
  6. Agnus Dei 1
  7. Agnus Dei 2

Average Duration: 20:09


3.939 out of 5.00 (average of 6 ratings)

Awards: (Click on award to learn more).

About the Work:

The Pope Marcellus Mass, “arguably Palestrina’s best-known work,” NB “is primarily a six-voice mass, but voice combinations are varied throughout the piece.” WK “Recent scholarship suggests the most likely date of composition is 1562, when it was copied into a manuscript at the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome.” WK It has been recorded often in the latter part of the 20th century “and is often used as a model for the study of stile antico Renaissance polyphony in university courses on music.” WK

“An oft-repeated legend [said] Catholic authorities, overwhelmed by the spiritual beauty and dignity of this piece, reversed a proposed ban on the use of music during religious services.” NB While Palestrina did intentionally seek “to compose in a simplified, easily understood style to please church officials” WK “a total ban on church music was never seriously considered” NB and there is no evidence “Palestrina's mass was the deciding factor in changing their minds.” WK

“In 1555, Pope Marcellus II (after whom the mass is named) addressed the Papal choir, urging musicians to strive for simplicity, clarity, and intelligibility in their compositions.” NB “Palestrina heard and heeded Marcellus’ recommendations,” NB saying in 1567 that this mass and other masses he’d written were done in “a ‘new style’ to please ‘the most serious and religious-minded persons in high places.’” NB “Palestrina eliminated from his sacred music practically all references to popular song, using instead motivic material extracted from plainchant melodies, and developing a style of vocal writing which owed much to the melodic structure of plainsong. The result was music of great unity, clarity, and beauty.” NB

“The piece is singularly austere and dignified, darkly colored through an emphasis on low voices. The contrapuntal motion is slow and exquisitely controlled, the proportions architecturally conceived. The movements with longer texts (Gloria, Credo) are written homophonically, that is, moving all the voices together in stately chords. This novel technique, which effectively emphasized the words while providing a welcome contrast to the more contrapuntally active polyphonic movements, proved so effective that it became a standard feature of all his later masses. Despite its restrained style, the mass is not without remarkable highlights. Beautifully controlled dissonant clashes lend the Kyrie a touching poignancy, while the Christe and Sanctus foreshadow the suave melodic writing characteristic of later works. The lush, cascading ‘Amen’ at the end of the Credo remains one of the most beautiful passages of sixteenth century polyphony.” NB

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Last updated 4/17/2022.

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