PALESTRINA AND HIS SUCCESSORS.
ALLEGRI - MISERERE.
The Miserere of Allegri is perhaps the best known work of the entire repertory of 17th-century Roman church music. Though it is in essence only a simple falsobordone (harmonised chant) setting of Psalm 50 (Vulgate numbering) for two choirs, the remarkably high embellishments give it a unique character. The piece owes much of its fame to the fact that it was performed annually in the Cappella Sistina during Holy Week; its score was closely guarded, and to copy it was an offence punishable by excommunication. Only three authorised copies were made before 1770, the year in which Mozart wrote it out as the choir were singing it. The English historian Burney, who probably acquired a copy from a papal singer, was responsible for introducing the work in this country, where it is still regularly performed.
Textbooks have long implied that after Palestrina's death in 1595 Roman congregations had to content themselves with listening to music in a moribund style, while their Northern contemporaries were enjoying the Baroque splendours of Monteverdi and his school. The history of church music in Rome has been regarded as the history of the Papal Chapel - the Cappella Sistina - which excluded instruments and persisted in an archaic style quite untypical of Baroque Rome. This, combined with apocryphal stories about Palestrina saving church music at the Council of Trent, has given rise to me myth that he was so revered by his pupils that they could conceive of writing in no other style but that of their mentor. This is far from the truth: Abundio Antonelli's Cogitavi dies antiquos (1614) is a deliberately retrospective work, removed from the mainstream of Roman church music in the second decade of the century. The mention of 'dies antiquos' prompted Antonelli to employ the archaic device of a hexachord cantus firmus as a deliberate attempt to prove his skill in the old style before proceeding to more up-to-date idioms in his subsequent publications. In their adoption of lighter textures Roman composers - mainly maestri in the churches and basilicas - had different preoccupations from their Florentine contemporaries who were seeking to revive the Greek art of declamation. The Romans were essentially pragmatists, concerned with finding a musical style appropriate for the limited resources of their churches. Lodovico Viadana, a Dominican monk, was the first to introduce the motet for one to four voices there in the mid-1590s. Although he was prompted to devise this style on hearing performances of polyphonic motets with some voice parts missing, he introduced a medium which was later exploited to good musical effect. Three examples of the small-scale motet appear on this record. Two are duets and one a trio; the former are by Gregorio Allegri, composer of the famous Miserere - which begins this record - and Girolamo Frescobaldi, a musician better known for his keyboard works, and the latter by Agostino Agazzari, the first composer to publish few-voiced motets in Rome in 1606. Allegri’s Assumpta est Maria sets a Vespers antiphon for the feast of the Assumption, while Frescobaldi's O mors illa takes the form of a subjective meditation on the Passion of Christ. Gustate et videte is exceptional in Allegri's stile moderno output for using as many as six voices. Taken from his 1621 collection, the motet exemplifies a style called 'concertato alla romana'. This term denotes the division of a work into short sections with contrasting vocal scorings. In this example Allegri employs a refrain 'Gustate et videte’. A reflection on the Eucharist, it would have been suitable for performance during Mass and at extra-liturgical devotions. The lively three-part motet by Agazzari, Gaude virgo, is an example of a less common medium; two voices were preferred to three at least until the 1640s.
It was the addition of the basso continuo which made all this possible. But it was not only used as a means of scaling down the texture, but also to provide a firm basis for varying the texture, even in a piece for a large number of voices. In the traditional polychoral style an accompanying instrument was not necessary: the choirs each produce a four-part texture which is complete in itself, as in the motet Omnes gentes by Annibale Orgas, one of Agazzari's successors at the German College. With the emancipation of the duet and trio, composers began to experiment with the juxtaposition of disparate vocal groupings. The term ‘concertato’ was applied to such pieces to make it clear that, despite being written for, say, eight voices, the continuo was needed to hold the work together in the more sparse passages. The first use of the word in a Roman publication is found in Giovanni Francesco Anerio's setting of the Marian text Jubilemus in arca Domini Dei. Anerio had been a choirboy under Palestrina, yet he did not remain hidebound to the style of his youth: series of duets lead to lively polychoral writing and the work is more harmonic than contrapuntal in conception.
This textured style also became acceptable for introducing some variety into psalm-settings. With their long texts, psalms had always proved problematic, since liturgical requirements demanded that the entire text be set with doxology. Stefano Landi took full advantage of the new freedom in setting Psalm 125, In conventendo, though he was in the interesting position of being a member of the old-fashioned Cappella Sistina. The texture is constantly changing and the music completely in sympathy with the text in matters of word-painting.
It did not take long for composers to realise the potential of the concertato style for setting dialogue texts, with various voices representing different characters in the dialogue. Though Paolo Quagliati's Ego dormio is not strictly a dialogue but a Song of Songs setting expressing the sentiments of one character, the techniques he uses to deal with the subjective text are akin to those of the dialogue. It is but a small step from here to the oratorio which was to develop in Rome during the following decade.
To provide some background to the music of this generation, two works are included by Palestrina himself: an alternatim setting of the hymn Pange lingua for Corpus Christi and the motet Exsultate Deo.
© 1988. Graham Dixon.