Missa Papae Marcelli by Palestrina

The choir performed the Missa Papae Marcelli Mass during its visit to Italy, including in the Cathedral of Palestrina near Rome, where Giovanni Pierliugi da Palestrina was organist from 1544 to 1551.

This glorious piece is Palestrina’s most famous and most beautiful Mass, and was sung at the Papal Coronation Masses for many centuries (the last being at the coronation of Paul VI in 1963).

Peter, our MD, chose it because it’s the pinnacle of his settings of the mass, utilising a six-voice choir in vocal combinations which were almost unknown before this pioneering work. He succeeds in achieving tone colours usually reserved for instrumental groups and, in doing so, points the way to Gabrieli and Monteverdi.

Palestrina – the man (c. 1525 – 1594)

Palestrina was one of the finest and most groundbreaking composers of the Renaissance period.  He was born in Palestrina, near Rome (hence his name) and wrote some heavenly music during his long lifetime.

He was a hugely influential musician whose works had a sizeable impact on the late Renaissance period of classical music.

The young Palestrina apparently used to sing on the streets of Rome, where he sold produce from his parents’ farm.  One day, so legend has it, the choirmaster of Santa Maria Maggiore heard him – and immediately offered to teach him music.

In the mid-16th century, Palestrina was appointed a member of the Papal Chapel, as a reward for his many compositions for the Catholic Church.  This was a controversial move: the Pope at the time turned a blind eye to the fact that Palestrina was not in Holy Orders, and waived the rule that he must take a rather taxing entrance exam.

That, coupled with the fact that many existing members of the Papal Choir thought Palestrina’s voice wasn’t nearly as good as theirs, led to quite a storm of protest. A subsequent Pope adopted a more stringent approach and Palestrina was asked to leave the choir permanently, with only a small pension.

The range of Palestrina’s musical output was staggering: as well as masses, he composed secular madrigals, hymns, and a set of rather wonderful motets.