"He's an interesting composer because of course he's so highly regarded in the Renaissance - the textbooks call him the 'Prince of Music' and the 'savior of church music' at that time," says Harry Christophers the founder and conductor of the vocal ensemble The Sixteen.
He's always held the great Renaissance master Giovanni Palestrina in high esteem but, like many, thought the composer was a bit too academic. The Sixteen has just released the third volume in a series of Palestrina recordings. Immersing himself in Palestrina's music has given Christophers a new perspective on the composer.
"Once you get inside the fact that it's beautifully constructed, it's the work of a master.You try to get inside the person and what he's trying to convey in his music—then actually he comes to live a little bit more, I feel. And that's been a revelation to me.
"The thing with Palestrina—people know him so well for one or two masses and a few motets and the Stabat Mater, but on this CD and on this series, I'm being introduced to music I've not come across before. It was the first time I'd come across the Regina Coeli mass and it's fabulous, particularly the Kyrie and the two Agnus Dei's, they are quite glorious music."
"The Regina Coeli is of course a mass for Easter and it's based, by and large, on plainsong," according to Christophers. "So much of the music of the Renaissance is based on the plainsong. But with Palestrina, he just gives you token signs of that plainsong. Palestrina just uses the odd little motif but constructs his own work."
No other composer impacted sacred music the way Palestrina did during the Counter Reformation in the 1530s. His careful craftsmanship and gift for writing polyphony, music with multiple melodic lines and textures, set a precedent for all composers. And, as Christophers explains, Palestrina was doing this during a very challenging period: "He definitely was living at a time when the whole culture in Rome—buildings, arts, music—was at a real high. This incredible artistic Enlightenment that was going on at the time was amazing. The fact that he had to cope with the Council of Trent and the strictures that that made on his music, made him work even harder. One of the great pieces, and one of the pieces we've included on this particular album, is the Stabat Mater. He complies with the Council of Trent, every word has a syllable, there are no extended melismas and yet it is a most beautiful piece."
"But when you're performing his music, because it is what we call homophonic, block chords, one note to a syllable, you have to really breathe the music as one,. You have to sing the words as if you're speaking them. That really does mean that an ensemble, a group of singers, need to be thinking as one."
"The Song of Songs" is a cycle of 24 songs by Palestrina based on ancient Hebrew love poetry which later were used in praise of the Virgin Mary. Each song is in five parts, very much like secular madrigals. "I'm putting three on each of the albums we're doing," Christophers explains. "And the one that I absolutely adore on this is, Thy Cheeks are Beautiful as Doves I mean, 'Thy neck like jewels'—we don't write poetry like this today. And it conjures up all sorts of wonderful images. I just find in this particular one, there's this wonderful word in Latin and this is a 'spikenard' a very sweet smelling herb, [giving] forth sweet perfume. And Palestrina at one point said that he felt rather embarrassed and rather naughty about writing this music. But actually, it's quite glorious."
For more than 30 years Harry Christophers and The Sixteen have been committed to creating and sharing glorious music. That tradition continues on their latest collection, a sublime exploration of sacred works composed for the Easter period by the "Prince of Music."