Palestrina’s choral works uncovered: review of a workshop

The works of the sixteenth-century Italian composer Giovanni Palestrina are often regarded as marking the high point of Renaissance polyphony. His output was prolific: he composed more than 105 masses and 250 motets.

There’s a burgeoning interest in singing music from the Renaissance, as was evidenced by the full workshop on 10 February at St Thomas’ Church in Bedhampton.

Tom Neal, music director of the Portsmouth Festival Choir, provided many insights into singing techniques particular to this repertoire, including phrasing, dynamics, tempo, expression and pronunciation.

He’s writing a book about Palestrina, and was able to relay some interesting facts about Palestrina and the times he lived in.

As the official composer for the Roman curia, Palestrina was encouraged to write new works for the Papal liturgy and sell them abroad. In addition, his motets were often sung in the Vatican to accompany Papal dinners and state occasions, and he worked for several years as the ‘maestro di concerti’ (master of concerts) for Cardinal Ippolito II d’Este at his lavish villa at Tivoli.

During Palestrina’s lifetime, his music was sung in many different ways around Europe: with or without instruments (‘a cappella’); by solo or ensemble voices; by choirs comprising only male adults, and some with boy trebles; sung directly as written on the page, or with improvised ornaments and embellishments.

Today, we are used to hearing recordings and concerts of wall-to-wall polyphony, but this was definitely not how sixteenth-century ears experienced the music. Properly placed in the liturgy, polyphony was heard only at intervals, separated by Gregorian chant, organ voluntaries, and the spoken words of the service.

Tom showed a huge facsimile so-called ‘choirbook’. Unlike today’s scores written for individual voices, the standard way to read and perform polyphony was to stand around a single lectern, on which was situated one such book. This book contained all the singers’ parts, separated across the four corners of a single opening. Singers did not hold their own copies of the music.

In the sixteenth century English bass voices were in great demand because they reached lower notes than in Italy and elsewhere. One wonders what factors were at play: could a different diet in England compared to Italy have played a part in this?

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