Summons to the Sacred: On Palestrina’s “Kyrie”

Editor's note: Welcome to the first post in a new series of monthly reflections on important works of music. Every fourth Monday of the month we'll bring you a new post just like this one. Thanks to Lindsey Brigham for spearheading this project.

New sounds rang through the old cathedrals: Lutheran chorales and Reformed Psalm-singing proclaimed the Protestants’ conviction that congregations should participate in worship as fully as possible. Yet simultaneously, composers faithful to Rome labored to craft gloriously intricate music through which they hoped to offer praise worthy of a God of infinite majesty. Of these latter, none was more famous, nor perhaps more masterful, than Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina.

“Palestrina” isn’t his last name, but a place name; the great composer is remembered by the city in which he was born around 1525. However, he spent most of his life employed as chorister, organist, composer, and music director in Rome, helping to shape the Catholic response to the Protestant Reformation. That theological conflict was necessarily a musical one as well, for Christian theology has always been sounded out in song.

Describing the quality of a piece of music in words is a wonderful entrance to musical listening because it presses us to listen closely, make associations, and clarify perceptions.

Following the directions of the Council of Trent (often called the Catholic Counter-Reformation, but also a clear culmination of reform efforts within Catholicism), Catholic composers began to purify church music of influences from popular folk tunes and to prioritize clear presentation of liturgical texts. However, they continued to write for trained musicians rather than common churchgoers, preserving their emphasis on God’s (and the church’s) transcendent separateness. No one fulfilled these goals as fully or prolifically as Palestrina, who composed 104 masses, 70 hymns, and over 385 works in other genres of liturgical music, before his death in 1594.

Imagine yourself as an Italian wandering Rome in the 1560s. Your land is in turmoil; your leaders continually falter in their efforts to purify and strengthen their rule; your very creed seems crumbling, as the church no longer looks one, holy, catholic, or apostolic. So you come in the morning to St. John Lateran, the cathedral church in Rome where Palestrina directed music from 1555-1560. Perhaps you cynically contrast the church’s flawless ornamentation to its actual condition. But then, it comes, as tangible as a beam of light piercing the windows: Kyrie eleison, Christi eleison, Kyrie eleison—Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy—the opening words of the mass, shared by faithful and cynic alike.

Here they are, in the setting of Palestrina’s famous Missa Papae Marcelli (the Kyrie runs to 4:45.):

What words capture that sound? Ethereal; yearning, yet at rest; heavenly, in the most sweetly solemn sense? Describing the quality of a piece of music in words is a wonderful entrance to musical listening because it presses us to listen closely, make associations, and clarify perceptions.

However, music is its own language, and the more that we can engage it through its own terms, the more depths we will begin to hear in it. Let’s listen more closely to just two facets of Palestrina’s musical language: his polyphony and his careful harmony.

To begin, how does the texture of this piece sound different from today’s church music that you know well? Do the words “blending” or “interweaving” come to mind? Those would be good approximations of the musical term polyphony. Here’s how that works.

Most praise choruses are monophonic (think “one-sound”), meaning that everyone sings the melody together. Most older hymns are homophonic (think “same-sound”), meaning that, if a group of people sing all the parts written in the hymnal, some will be singing the melody while the rest fill in by singing notes of the chords that match the melody. But Palestrina’s Kyrie, like most Renaissance works, is polyphonic (think “many-sounds”), meaning that each person sings an independent but harmonizing melody. You can see this easily if you compare musical scores:

Monophonic (Chris Tomlin, “How Great is Our God”)

Homophonic (Robert Robinson, “Come Thou Fount”)

Polyphonic (Palestrina, Missa Papae Marcelli)

All three textures are beautiful, each helping us to “understand with our ears” a different conception of what unity could mean. For what could the various musical textures (monophonic, homophonic, polyphonic) provide good analogies? Which textures match life in the church? The family? The community?

But consider the unique beauty that polyphony plays in this Kyrie. What does the sound of six distinct, individual voices—singing their own songs out of their own lives, sorrows, hopes—singing in slow, drawn-out lines that express the yearning built into this prayer—yet singing the same words and sublimely interweaving their melodies—what does that do for your understanding of what happens and what God hears when His church prays?

We still need this summons to the sacred, this echo of unearthly beauty, calling forth earth’s unending prayer: Lord, have mercy.

Now consider just one more facet of this musical language: the use of harmony. Do you notice that there are no harsh or jarring sounds throughout the Kyrie? Palestrina perfected Renaissance counterpoint and became the model of its use for later composers, all the way to the present day. Put simply, counterpoint is a structured way of writing each line of music so that the different voices never clash with each other, but instead, they harmonize on every strong beat of the music. Only on non-emphasized beats may they occasionally feature dissonance, or clashing; and it must be resolved into harmony again on the next strong beat. Palestrina, however, uses almost no dissonance at all—the most famous hallmark of his style.

Dissonance is to music what conflict is to literary plot. Until you hear it, it is exceedingly difficult to imagine how music can hold the listener’s interest without involving strong dissonance to startle, grip, and drive towards resolution, just as a plot needs conflict to carry it forward. Indeed, later composers would eschew the rules of counterpoint, preferring to make dissonance a driving force of their music.

Doesn’t it seem true that art needs conflict? Can we understand beauty without reference to ugliness? Goodness without reference to evil?

But somehow, Palestrina captivates with his pure, sweet harmonies alone. What does this do for your understanding of redemption, of heaven, in which conflict dissolves but the “music” becomes ever-more enthralling?

These are the kinds of questions for which the musical language gives us words, the kind of aural understanding it communicates.

But, these questions aside, Palestrina’s Kyrie offers us something more valuable still. No less than he, we hear of tensions and dissensions, wars and rumors of wars. We still need this summons to the sacred, this echo of unearthly beauty, calling forth earth’s unending prayer: Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.


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