Missa Brevis

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina: Missa Brevis (1570)

The Tallis Scholars sing Palestrina | Peter Phillips | Gimell 2005

I had a slight hurdle to overcome before I could get to grips with analysing the score for this music! The bass and alto clefs appeared to be centred around different notes – this in itself was not too much of a problem, but what confused me was that it’s not sung at standard concert pitch either (it’s about a tone lower). I think this reflects the fact that pitch levels weren’t standardised until the late nineteenth century, and the ‘concert A’ during the Renaissance period was generally lower than today. It’s interesting to note that the key signature displays the flat sign in both octaves, which is not standard practice anymore. There are also accidentals written above the score which are not always observed in the performance I listened to by the Tallis Scholars – sometimes they are omitted, and sometimes introduced earlier in the bar than directed.

The first movement of Palestrina’s mass is based entirely on the two phrases Kyrie eleison and Christe eleison. The alto introduces the first melody which is then imitated in turn by the bass, soprano and tenor. In the second half the order of voice entry is changed – starting with the bass and going upwards in pitch so the soprano enters last. It has a mostly polyphonic texture although the last phrase is homophonic, tying the parts together for the final word which seems to be a common feature throughout the mass. The imitation is written cleverly so that in places the parts are singing the same rhythm in thirds.

The remaining movements are similar in style – all written in the same mode/key, and all ending in either a perfect or plagal cadence. The parts generally move quite slowly and smoothly which gives the mass a very peaceful and serene feel.

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