Romantic imagination in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina as the epitome of reserved spirituality, founder of a musical ars perfecta. As with many historical myths, this view is only partly true. Biographers have no doubt that Palestrina could be a ruthless businessman, and the holy orders he took may have been an act of depression more than one of faith. Yet the fact remains that he contributed mightily to the worship music of the Catholic Church, publishing almost 30 books of masses, motets, and other liturgical compositions in his lifetime. And the music across his vast output does retain a uniformly high level of balance, clarity, and extremely careful control over the flow of harmonic dissonance and consonance. Even in a relatively brief work such as his motet for four "equal" voices, Adoramus te, Christe, Palestrina's utter musical control is evident.
Palestrina published Adoramus te, Christe in his Second Book of Motets in 1581; though that volume does not survive, it was immediately reprinted in 1584. He thus probably composed the piece in the 1570s, during a period of both great professional success -- simultaneous postings at St. Peter's Basilica and the pope's Cappella Giulia -- and personal grief, with several family members dying of the plague. The text of this motet is an intimate devotional work, used within Italian Catholicism both in the deeply emotional Holy Week service of the Adoration of the Cross, and in para-liturgical settings as a confraternal Lauda. Palestrina set it with all due respect and intimacy. The first passage of music, which addresses Christ directly and abjectly, seems even more restrained than Palestrina's normal practice: in three short and nearly chordal phrases, each voice moves but a few notes and all three phrases reach the same somber plagal cadence. The worshipers are thanking Christ for redeeming the world through the Cross, however, and the composer expands the musical texture at this more hopeful text. All voices now sing a brief imitative motive and somewhat more extended melodies; a series of similar plagal cadences are this time bookended between two more conclusive "perfect" cadences. Palestrina even manages to manipulate the proportions of the short piece to be roughly equal between the two passages, with a truncated repeat of the second section to close on solid ground.