Palestrina: Le messe dei Gonzaga.

Musiche della cappella di Santa Barbara in Mantova
Ed. Ottavio Beretta (Vol. IV: Messe di Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina)
LIM, 2016, pp. clviii + 470.
ISBN 9788870968163 €100

These 12 polyphonic alternatim  masses (alternating monodic with polyphonic choruses, the monodic plainchant by solo, organ, or unison chorus or soloists), commissioned by the court of Mantua between 1568 and 1579, are the only ones written for a liturgy different from Rome’s by Palestrina and his only masses composed between 1575 and 1581. They are of remarkable quality and well documented, yet ‘lost’ and unknown until 1950. For centuries the vocal parts were unidentified, hastily catalogued, ignored and forgotten, until 10 were authenticated by Knud Jeppesen and published in 1954. Analyzed by him and others, all 12 finally appear in Volume IV of what will be Ottavio Beretta’s modern 6-volume edition of all the masses from the archive of the Basilica Palatina di S. Barbara in Mantua ordered by Guglielmo Gonzaga (including several by the duke himself) and housed, since 1851, in the library of the Conservatory of Milan. Three volumes were published in 1997, 2000 and 2007 under the auspices of the American Institute of Musicology as part of the Corpus Mensurabilis Musicae  108/I, III and II. The LIM has agreed to complete the series. The present volume contains all of those by Palestrina, and it is hard to imagine a more thoroughly discussed, enlightening, helpful, beautiful, critical edition.

This is not my field, even though I do accompany a choir that sings alternatim  masses; unexpectedly I found the 158-page introduction fascinating, even if not easy. Non-Italian readers can access the tables with the masses’ modes, structural dimensions, vocal ranges, and a list of sections reduced to four voices (and to which four), on pages cxxii-iii, and consult the up to date Bibliography on cxxxix-clvii. The complete original Mantuan plainchants in mensural notation (Kyriale ad usum Ecclesie Sancte Barbare) for the 10 Ordinary masses are given with critical annotations xcvii-cxiv. Adding a translation to a volume already weighing 6 or 7 lbs. was not feasible, but a volume with ‘only’ 463 pages of music separate from another of clvii pages could have provided also in English translation the sections about Guglielmo, Palestrina and the compositional style of the masses!

Beretta opted to include the entire correspondence between Palestrina and Guglielmo in a 30-page appendix, after which he discusses what the instructions and intentions of Guglielmo were. Both respected the orders of the Council of Trent and thereby produced a type of mass that the Vatican also desired to have for occasions of the highest solemnity, where a second choir replaced the organ. Palestrina therefore asked Guglielmo for permission (willingly granted) to use the Mantuan plainchant repertory in Rome. In its variants and rewritings it respected the unity of mode in each piece, with the finalis and repercussion at the beginning and end of every verse, filled in wide skips with melismas and removed others, for a homogeneous result.

The story of these special Mantuan Masses is not recounted chronologically. The dates presented to the reader bounce from 1881 back to 1828, to 1851-1854, 1951, then 1933, 1954, and back to 1850, with citations or documents from 1963, 1900, 1947, 1950 in that order. It might have been better to start with Guglielmo Gonzaga’s correspondence with Palestrina! In the minds of musical philologists, however, the obstacle-ridden research history was necessarily uppermost, and to the extent that future researches will join this adventure, this, too, makes sense – and creates the suspense that kept me reading.

Guglielmo (1538-1587), a composer and musical theorist himself, as well as a collector of art and a patron of theatrical and literary arts, second son of Federico II, husband of Eleonora of Austria, was crowned Duke of Mantua and Montferrato in 1573 having governed from 1556. Italy was divided into kingdoms, papal states and dukedoms – the latter powerful enough to resist interference, even in rituals, from Rome. The Basilica Palatina di Santa Barbara was designed in part by Guglielmo, built by 1565 in the ducal palace, enlarged between 1568 and 1572, and planned for sumptuous religious ceremonies with elaborate sacred music. Its Antegnati organ was ordered by G. Cavazzoni; its plainchant and its liturgy were exclusive to Mantua.

Musicians in residence included Wert, Pallavicino, Gastoldi; works by Palestrina, Marenzio and others were commissioned; prints of music by them and others (among whom Gabrieli, di Lasso, da Victoria, Asola, Agazzari) as well as manuscripts were bought for the private use of the court. Guglielmo’s tastes were conservative, and older figures (G. Bruschi, G. Contino, A. Bonavicino) were active before the arrival of G. de Wert. The repertory of S. Barbara was approved by Gregory XIII, and it constituted a monument to the Reformation, perhaps the only complete one manifesting all the required characteristics (declamatory clarity, pure and unified modality, simple melodies not exceeding an octave, proper accentuation of words).

The masses by Palestrina were commissioned, composed for the Basilica, and delivered, and the part books were stored in its archive along with a mass by Guglielmo and many by other composers. Guglielmo died in 1587 after which no further works were ordered. Mantua planned to sell the contents of the archive to the Conservatory of Milan in 1850, but after the Mantuans received 500 lire  and sent them, Austrian authorities blocked the purchase and had them returned to Mantua, ordering to have this illegible music inventoried (‘…old note forms… impossibility of understanding the sense…’). In less than two weeks the parts, obviously not even opened, were deemed to be ‘of no interest, neither for age nor for merit’, not even for the history of sacred music, ‘imperfect works [incomplete?]’ and ‘unusable pages’ by ‘various authors’. The conservatory, however, realized the importance of the cache on the basis of this inventory! Instead of estimating its value, they disarmingly wrote that the Austrians ‘did well’ to block the sale, thereby keeping this ‘monument of music’ for themselves, recommending that it be conserved and made usable, and asking to be reimbursed for the previous purchase, which they were. So the Austrians ordered the entire archive to be deposited again in the Conservatory of Milan and to be sent at the expense of Mantua. It arrived in 1851, eventually becoming the Conservatory’s property, after a settlement for 600 lire  was paid; it was declared to be in excellent condition, legible even where smudged, and only needing to be rebound. It was then ignored for the next 100 years. The correspondence between Guglielmo and Palestrina was discovered in 1881, so this continued neglect is still a telling chapter in the history of musicology. The entire contents of the Conservatory library were evacuated during WWII and were still inaccessible in 1949; the archive of S. Barbara was finally accessed by Knud Jeppesen in 1950.

Nine of the masses were attributed to Palestrina, a 10th is now agreed to be by him, and a unique one à 4 for a male choir, previously thought to be lost, may be the very first mass sent to Guglielmo, in 1568, before the commission to set all of them. During the centuries in which they were lost there was no evidence of Palestrina’s use of alternatim, so the attributions in the inventories were in doubt. In 1947 Strunk surmised as much, but only one mass had found its way into Haberl’s edition of 94 Palestrina masses (Breitkopf & Härtel, 1907).

The correspondence is a valuable appendix. Palestrina did many other things for Guglielmo: he advised him on hiring musicians for his court, he corrected the duke’s compositions (rewriting them in score and diplomatically pointing out improvements), he wrote motets and other pieces. He almost got hired for a permanent position. Negotiations for a high salary were interrupted when Palestrina, who had taken religious orders, perhaps in the hope of returning to the Papal Chapel, suddenly married a wealthy widow in 1581. After Guglielmo’s death in 1587 Palestrina had no further contacts with his successor, Vincenzo Gonzaga.

The letters contain references to compositional style, which Beretta interprets. In 1568 Palestrina, already in demand and looking for prestigious opportunities, sent Guglielmo the first mass and offered to write another: ‘long or short or so that the words are heard’, i.e. a missa solemnis  for holidays or a missa brevis  for weekdays. He promised to send unwritten ‘falsobordoni antichi’ that were sung in the Papal Chapel, i.e. the improvisations sung on Gregorian chant. After putting a motet and a madrigal by Guglielmo into score, he wrote that listeners should enjoy the texts just as they do in ‘musica commune  [sic]’, i.e. canzonette  and laude. When beginning to compose after his illness, Palestrina started a Kyrie  and Gloria  ‘studying them on the lute’, i.e. working out the vertical harmonies, as if by realizing their basso continuo. Although another reference to ‘putting [compositions] on the lute’ strikes me as meaning, possibly, writing them down in some form of tablature. Guglielmo wanted the masses to be ‘fugate continovamente et sopra soggetto’ literally, continually fugued, i.e., different from those performed in Rome, in that even short motives were to be imitated autonomously and taken from the cantus firmus  of the Mantuan Kyriale.

It would be wonderful to hear these masses. What distinguishes these is said here to be their fantasy and severity, for which they can be considered Palestrina’s ‘arte della fuga’.

Barbara Sachs