Wednesday, June 6, 2007

The TribalPundit Guide to Wine, Women, and Song: Classical Music: Palestrina & Allegri

Even I didn't think I was serious about this idea but this is the second post in what may become an ongoing series on wine, women, and song. Intelligent reader that you are, you probably figured that I'll be writing on alcohol, chicks, and music. Correctamundo, Raymond. In an earlier post I babbled on about Chateau Morrisette wines. In this post I'll be talking about the pre-Baroque composers Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina and Gregorio Allegri. Keep in mind that I'm just a layman and that my music background in music is French horn, so I may not notice little details or be aware of certain recordings, plus I'll likely be biased in favor of brass instruments.

So who were these Italian-sounding guys Palestrina and Allegri? Living in the sixteenth century, Palestrina was a choirmaster in Rome and was one of the earliest Italian composers of liturgical music. He is the composer whose works you'd most likely point to if you were asked to give a representative of the Roman School of Renaissance music. Allegri was of the next generation, although also a choirmaster in Rome. While most of his other works are not as famous, his setting for Psalm 51, called Miserere, is probably the most famous work of the style.

I first became aware of these composers through the album Sacred Brass by The Canadian Brass. This ensemble is the premier brass quintet in the world and modern brass quintets pretty much owe their popularity to these guys, active since 1970 (still with the original tuba and trombone players). The music in the album is by Palestrina, Allegri, and another composer of the era named Carlo Gesualdo. Gesualdo had a very interesting life story, but his music doesn't do it for me the same way as that of the other two. Included by Palestrina are his Missa Ascendo ad Patrem (a Mass, "I Join the Father") and Exultate Deo ("Exalt the Lord"). Ascendo ad Patrem is one of Palestrina's many settings for Mass, including the famous (for Renaissance music...) Missa Papae Marcelli, named for a Pope who reigned for three weeks in 1555. According to legend, it was this work (Missa Papae Marcelli) which convinced the Council of Trent to allow polyphony in church music, as there had been concerns over both unintelligible lyrics and profane use of the polyphonic Mass framework for "lascivious or impure" subjects. As for the Missa Ascendo ad Patrem, meant for Ascensiontide (the time before Pentecost), it was a "parody" derived from an earlier motet Palestrina had written thirty years earlier. Parody, in this case, is not a bad thing but is kind of like saying "variations and themes" in later musical eras. Thoughtful yet not dreary, it is very good for getting into a reverent mood (which, just maybe, was its purpose...). Exultate Deo is much shorter and is a joyful air. It's probably too distracting to hear while reading but would be an excellent background for watching a processional.

Miserere is the first word of Psalm 51 in Latin, meaning "have mercy [on me]." Palestrina, Gesualdo, and others composed settings for this Psalm, played on the Wednesday and Friday of Holy Week, but it was Allegri's version which became the most popular. In fact, it became so popular that it was only to be played at the Sistine Chapel and never transcribed for outside use, upon penalty of excommunication. That's right, excommunication. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, however, went and transcribed it anyway at the age of sixteen. According to the story, he went Wednesday and copied it from memory, then returned on Friday to fix a few spots he'd had trouble with. He was summoned to Rome for this, but instead of being excommunicated he was congratulated. The piece is meant for two choirs which answer each other, varying between Gregorian-style chanting and brilliant polyphony. The end of one such answer, culminating in a high sustained C followed by slow resolution is, well, soul-grabbing. The music is slower and other often subtle, but the aforementioned phrase is amazing.

To me, this is what contemplative religious music sounds like. It allows you to be at peace without emptiness, yet also takes the lead to draw your thoughts to the things on high. If you imagine the musical equivalent to a Gothic cathedral, this would be it. Until recently I wasn't aware that music this beautiful existed, although some of JS Bach comes close. It is for works such as this that elite musicians, such as The Canadian Brass and The Sixteen (a choir) were made, and we are very blessed to be able to hear recordings of them, although hearing them live in a church setting must be absolutely breathtaking.

How can you get ahold of this music? Well, you could easily go to Amazon or your local music store, but there are cheaper ways as well. As I typically rip my music from CDs onto my computer and play it from there, the Amazon Marketplace has some good deals, typically allowing you to get a used album for perhaps half the cost of a new one. Want cheaper? Services such as Napster and iTunes are only 99 cents per track, and Allegri's Miserere is almost always arranged that way, although most other Classical works tend to be by movement (some of which are less than a minute in length). Want free? If you go to eMusic and get a trial subscription you get 25 tracks free. They don't have the Canadian Brass version but they do have the one by The Sixteen, considered one of the very best out there.

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