Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina

Missa Papae Marcelli, for 6 voices

    Description by Natalie Boisvert

    Arguably Palestrina's best-known work, this mass owes its formidable reputation to an oft-repeated legend, according to which Catholic authorities, overwhelmed by the spiritual beauty and dignity of this piece, reversed a proposed ban on the use of music during religious services. Without the Missa Papae Marcelli, the legend continues, sacred music would have ceased to exist after the sixteenth century. The true story is somewhat less dramatic. While a total ban on church music was never seriously considered, Catholic authorities were indeed concerned with the growing secularization and excessive complexity of liturgical music. 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. Marcellus' recommendations became official policy with the pronouncements of the Council of Trent concerning music, in 1562 and 1563. There is no doubt that Palestrina heard and heeded Marcellus' recommendations. In fact, a Commision of Cardinals, which worked in 1564 and 1565 to enforce the Council's decisions regarding music, knew Palestrina's music. It is quite significant that one of the Commission's members was the powerful Cardinal Carlo Borromeo, archbishop of Milan, who had an exceptional understanding of Palestrina's work. The composer himself states explicitly, in the preface to the Second Book of Masses (published in 1567, which contains the Missa Papae Marcelli) that these masses are written in a "new style" to please "the most serious and religious-minded persons in high places." This "new" style, inaugurated with and most self-consciously evident in the Missa Papae Marcelli, originates, essentially, from the very source of Catholic music, plainchant. 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, based on the Church's time-honored monophonic repertoire. Nowhere in Palestrina's enormous output are Marcellus' musical ideals more obviously realized. 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.


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

    Appears On

    Year Title Label Catalog #
    2016 Deutsche Grammophon 4796131
    2016 Archiv Produktion B002476102
    2016 BIS BIS 2203
    2015 Gimell CDGIM 213
    2013 Gimell GIMBD 641
    2013 Archiv Produktion 002894791045AB55
    2013 Alto MCSCD 1225
    2012 Rondeau ROP 6043
    2012 Coro COR 16099
    2011 Brilliant Classics 94266
    2011 Globe GLO 5240
    2011 EMI Classics / Warner Classics 5099908878922
    2010 Arcana 358
    2009 Multimedia San Paolo / Zebralution
    2009 Alto 1061
    2009 Christophorus 77313
    2009 Coro 16073
    2008 EMI Classics / Warner Classics 5099921765
    2007 Gimell 41
    2005 Gimell 401
    2005 Christophorus 77275
    2005 Gimell 204
    2003 Coro 16014
    2002 Gimell 994
    1999 Nosag Records 006
    1999 Naxos 553238
    1999 Philips 462862-2
    1999 Delos 3210
    1998 Carlton Classics 6600702
    1996 Collins Records 50092
    1996 Naxos 504009
    1995 Danica 8163
    1994 Naxos 550573
    1993 Gimell 400
    1988 Hyperion 66266
    1986 Archiv Produktion 415517
    Collins Records 70212
    Gimell 339
    Angel Records 67251
    EMI Music Distribution 69858
    Gimell 454890
    EMI Music Distribution 65339
    Polskie Nagrania 086
    MCA Classics 25191
    Brilliant 971155
    Supraphon 112137