Pope Marcellus Mass / Missa Papae Marcelli


In June I’ll perform the Pope Marcellus Mass/Missa Papae Marcelli by Palestrina with my ensemble New York Polyphony. Although I am a musician who performs a lot of Early Music, I admit that I was late in the game in getting on the Early Music enthusiast bandwagon. (Many reasons for that - I’ll save that for another time.) 

Because of this until-recent lack of enthusiasm for Early Music, I think I blocked the unit about Palestrina in my college music history course. In the spirit of turning over new leaves, I had to ask: what’s the story behind the Pope Marcellus Mass?

It turns out that there’s a good deal of mythology about this Mass in musicology circles. Some have gone so far as to mark the Missa Papae Marcelli as an important turning point in Western Music and its relationship to the Church. My attempt with this post is to break down this myth of the mass vis-a-vis its historical context.

What we know:

Palestrina wrote this mass most likely in 1562 to honor the late Pope Marcellus II, who reigned for 3 weeks during 1555. Marcellus II was succeeded by Paul IV, who did not share the same support for the arts as his predecessors Marcellus II (as if he really mattered) and Julius III. Although Palestrina enjoyed patronage from Julius III, he was excluded from St. Peter’s by Paul IV, a counter-reformationist and key figure in the Roman Inquisition. Paul IV was succeeded by Pius IV, who was the leader in the final meetings of the Council of Trent in 1562, likely the same year as the Pope Marcellus Mass. By this time, Palestrina had regained some favor in Rome. 

This is where it gets interesting from a musicology angle. The Council of Trent posed a problem for polyphonic music. As K.G. Fellerer stated over half a century ago, the Council of Trent recommended “that music must serve to uplift the faithful, that its words must be intelligible, and that secular expression must be avoided” (K. G. Fellerer and Moses Hadas, “Church Music and the Council of Trent,” The Musical Quarterly. Vol. 39, No. 4 (Oct., 1953), pp. 576-594, p. 576.). What musicologists don’t agree on is how much this recommendation was put into practice. It seems that the Council was discouraging polyphony in favor of more homophonic structures that allowed for clearer interpretation of text. However, in broad strokes, polyphony continued to develop, with ever-more ornate structures, particularly in Venice with Willaert and his musical heirs including Gabrielli and Monteverdi. In Rome, with Palestrina leading the charge, it appears that musical development remained a bit more conservative, though certainly polyphonic.

What we might guess:

According to some, Palestrina curtailed his style to some degree in the composition of the Missa Papae Marcelli. Unlike much of his music, this mass is more homophonic and verges toward what we would recognize now as functional harmony, with less emphasis on the intervalic relationships between lines of counterpoint. You see this particularly in the Gloria and Credo movements, where textual declamations are performed in homophony by three or more voices throughout the entire piece. What makes this declamation interesting is how Palestrina varies it by switching the vocal pairings and adding passing tones of interest for each part. This homophonic display is the reason that we might believe Palestrina wrote this piece directly in response to the new rules of the Council of Trent. 

I can almost imagine Palestrina hearing of the Council’s recommendations about polyphonic style and saying to himself, “I can still write polyphony, but I can be even more brilliant.” If I were to make a modern comparison, I would compare him to Shostakovich at the time of his Fifth Symphony. Shostakovich’s Fifth was written following the severe reactionist censorship of the Communist government after the production of his opera Lady MacBeth of Mtensk. As the lead up to the Fifth Symphony, Shostakovich wrote that his work was “a Soviet artist’s creative response to justified criticism.” Despite this overt bowing to the Soviet overlords, the work contains subversive musical language and succeeds at being artistically compelling while politically acceptable.

We can’t say that Palestrina had the same relationship with the church that Shostakovich had with the Soviet authorities, but it does seem that Palestrina might have needed to walk a similar line in order to produce the Missa Papae Marcelli.

All that being said, this myth doesn’t hold too much water, particularly when you look at the Kyrie movement. There’s nothing homophonic about the Kyrie; it’s Palestrina at his typical finest, writing beautiful extended lines of polyphony. The Sanctus and Agnus Dei also follow in this style. Artistic concerns aside, it’s not even clear that Palestrina wrote the mass in 1562. According to Peter Gutmann, there is evidence that Palestrina wrote it in 1555 during Pope Marcellus’ actual reign.

So then, how has this myth about the Missa Papae Marcelli endured for such a long time? Gutmann tells us that the myth possibly dates back to 1607 with a treatise by Agostini Agazzari, who asserted:

"… music would have come very near to being banished from the Holy Church by a sovereign pontiff had not Giovanni Palestrina found the remedy, finding that the fault and error lay, not with music, but with the composers, and composing in confirmation of this the mass entitled Missa Papae Marcelli.”

Strong words indeed, but they seem to have little historical backing. What seems to have happened is an historical myth compounding upon this assertion by Agazzari, so much so that composers throughout the generations (including Mendelssohn, Wagner, Verdi and Debussy) looked to Palestrina as a great savior of Western Music. Was Palestrina influential? Undoubtedly. But to cast him in the role of demagogue doesn’t serve him or his music. After all, by the end of his life he became a successful fur trader - hardly what one would expect from the valiant rescuer of an art form.

What does all this mean for us as we perform this piece? Although it’s likely that the Missa Papae Marcelli was not written in reaction to the Council of Trent, I think it’s fun to imagine Palestrina as a subversive artist and this piece as a political tool. It makes the piece a little more risky and immediate. If that helps our performance, then the myth serves a valuable purpose. Nonetheless, it’s good to know that not all myths are true.