In a long and productive life serving the Catholic Church, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina produced well over 100 settings of the mass Ordinary. They were fully published in six books during his lifetime, and a further six posthumous editions. His truly immense output of Catholic worship music includes highly polished examples of every type of mass composition known to his time. Sixteenth and seventeenth century musicians especially remembered Palestrina for his more than 50 contributions to the so-called "parody" mass genre; theorist Pietro Cerone in 1613 issued a set of "rules" for mass composition based on Palestrina's practice. Fewer of Palestrina's chant-based masses survive, with only six examples of "free" masses -- those not composed with any known, preexistent model. Yet it is in the masses thus unfettered by preconceived melodies in which Palestrina's own musical fantasy may shine brightest. The four-voiced Missa Brevis from his Third Book of Masses (1570) provides an excellent example.
Palestrina's Missa Brevis is often compared to the Missa Papae Marcelli, his most famous free mass. In both pieces, the composer executed an elegantly coherent musical plan despite the absence of preexistent structure (both pieces also share music, strengthening the comparison). The five movements of the Missa Brevis are linked by a common mode -- the rich sounds of F mode with B flat -- and by repeated motives and musical gestures. The Kyrie begins with a sevenfold opening imitation, contrasts a new melody for the Christe, and then closes with a motive similar to the first; the bassus voice caps the movement with an extended, downward melodic sequence. In the Gloria movement, Palestrina introduces textural constrasts, carefully balancing chordal and imitative textures. The lengthy text passes quickly with much syllabic writing and "telescoping"; the only repetition comes at the end, once again with a bass sequence. The Credo features balanced alternations between duo, trio, and full four-voiced textures, with a striking chordal homophony at the heart: Et incarnatus est. Yet again a bass sequence marks the end. It is in the Sanctus that Palestrina quotes the same chant melody (from the Gregorian Mass XV) as in the Missa Papae Marcelli; the movement's opening also resembles the melismatic Sanctus of that mass. He rounds out the mass cycle with two Agnus Dei settings; the second canonically expands the vocal texture by adding a second superius voice. To finish on an aspirant note, the very last concluding sequence arrives in this canonic upper pair.