Though Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina was known both in his own time and in ours as a preeminent composer of sacred music, he was not unaware of other trends. He certainly knew, and participated in, the growing sixteenth century tradition of the Roman madrigal. Roman composers such as Palestrina and his slightly older colleague Giovanni Animuccia composed more musically sedate madrigals than their Florentine or Ferrarese contemporaries, yet the Romans still maintained the same ideal of reflecting subtle nuances of the text in their musical settings. In Palestrina's case, the same subtle ideal could often inform his sacred music as well. A sacred liturgical text such as "Exsultate Deo," the jubilant passage from the first three verses of Psalm 80, may contain equally evocative images and actions, and Palestrina, despite his reputation for reserve and musical balance in all things, would respond. In fact, when he composed a five-voiced motet on that very text (published in his Fifth Book of Motets of 1584), he gave the Psalmist's images an almost uncharacteristically lively musical garb.
Throughout his motet Exsultate Deo, Palestrina infuses his straightforward musical structure with subtle yet clear motivic evocation of the text. Right at the outset, he breaks one of the apparent "rules" of his own melodic style and follows an upward leap (on the word "Exult!") with further upward motion. Though the motive is less than characteristic, the musical phrase structure follows an expected pattern of imitation in all voices leading to a strong harmonic cadence on the tonic. The second Point of Imitation contrasts the surging first motive to a fanfare-like intonation of "rejoice." Each half-verse of the Psalm, similarly, receives an imitative motive leading to a cadence, and each motive somehow takes inspiration from the half-verse's text. The percussion instruments mentioned in verse 2a may have suggested this phrase's more syncopated motive, and the psaltery evoked in verse 2b sounds in more arched melismatic writing. The third verse opens with a call to "blow the trumpet in Zion," and Palestrina responds with a triadic motive, a brassy medial sequence of chords, and further "musical" melismatic passagework in all voices. The final verse claims that all the music is to signify the solemnity of the day. In this case, Palestrina witholds his musical gesture, at first spinning out a series of choppy imitative motives, and finally reaching a strong homophonic conclusion as all voices sing the solemnity.