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Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina’s career as a composer was marked by the religious politics of 16th-century Europe. Following the deaths of two sympathetic popes in the course of 1555, Paul IV ejected him from the choir of the Sistine Chapel for being married; Palestrina had only been employed there for seven months. The effect of the Counter-Reformation on his compositional style and the history of European sacred music was more far reaching than a severance notice, however. In the course of the 18-year deliberations of the Council of Trent, a periodical gathering that considered the Catholic Church’s response to Protestantism, a sub- committee addressed the subject of music at mass. In 1561 a report was issued that outlined guidance for the composition of sacred music: profane material was to be excluded and the text should be understandable. There is debate regarding whether this report reflected trends already present in the music of composers contemporary to the council, such as Morales, or whether it pointed to the consolidation of a technique that placed intelligibility of the text above other aspects of musical style.

Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli has been held to be his response to the edicts of the Council of Trent – an effort to prove that liturgical text could be served by polyphony – though scholarship has revealed that even this was probably written prior to 1561. However, in his dedication to Pope Gregory XIII of a 1584 volume of motets on texts from the Song of Songs, Palestrina wrote that he was once one of the ‘corrupters of youth’ because he set poems ‘alien to the Christian profession’. He was clearly ashamed that he had written music contrary to contemporary dogma in the past.

Volumes four and five of The Sixteen’s cycle of Palestrina recordings include six settings of the Song of Songs from that publication of 1584, the masses O magnum mysterium and Iam Christus astra ascenderat, and several other motets. The balance of voices, sensitivity to the text, ebb and flow of phrases, and uniformity of sound, all suggest that these discs will be listened to decades from now. Christophers and The Sixteen achieve a sinuous, sensuous choral texture that ranges from the austere propriety of the masses to the devotional passion of Ecce, tu pulcher es. The sequence of motets at the beginning of the fifth volume, including the alternating plainchant and polyphony of Veni creator Spiritus, is particularly beautiful. These discs are a pleasure to listen to and are highly recommended for anyone with an interest in sacred choral music.

Nicholas Bown Read the full review on Agora Classica


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