Giovanni P. da Palestrina's Missa 'Benedicta Es'

The reputation of a composer of Palestrina's enormous output is necessarily based on a selection of his work. Since there have been no recordings, no offprints, no very accessible discussions of the Missa Benedicta es, it has been impossible for the work to become widely admired. It shows a side of Palestrina's writing which is not fully recognised: his indebtedness to Josquin. In addition, apart from its remarkable music, it has an important place in musical history.

For many years it was catalogued as the Missa Sine Titulo: it is so described in the fifth edition of Grove's dictionary (1954), though not in the sixth (1980). This anonymous label was attached to it for want of a more appropriate one by Fr. X. Haberl who supervised the first complete edition of Palestrina's music between 1862 and 1907. By the time Peter Wagner came to write his Geschichte der Messe (History of the Mass) in 1913 a number of scholars had remarked on the Franco-Flemish musical traits in the setting, and the names of Josquin, Mouton and Carpentras had been mentioned as possible influences; Wagner himself said that it reminded him (he put it no more strongly) of Josquin's famous motet Benedicta es. A connection with Josquin was always likely because the Mass was known to be an early work: on the 8th November 1562, a friend of Palestrina reported in a letter that it had been completed. Since then several writers - Jeppesen, Antonowytsch, Reese and Lowinsky - have analysed the close musical connections between the Josquin motet and Palestrina's mass, and shown how, in turn, Josquin based his motet on a paraphrase of the plainchant sequence Benedicta es. Palestrina's setting was duly renamed.

This discovery led to some others. In parodying Josquin's motet Palestrina was contributing to a whole series of compositions which had done the same thing. There are extant at least four mass-settings based on it, by Willaert, de la Hêle and de Monte as well as Palestrina; Guyot in 1568 published an edition in which he added to Josquin's six parts another six of his own in counterpoint; Claude Le Jeune based an instrumental five-part fantaisie on it; Mouton wrote a motet of the same title and so similar to Josquin's that Glareanus confused them in his Dodecachordon; Morales wrote a Mass which ostensibly is based on both the Mouton and the Josquin and thereby started a tradition in Spanish polyphony of basing parody masses on two motets. This Josquin motet was particularly highly regarded in Spain, and in 1578 Cabezon published two alternate intabulated versions of it.

Most significantly of all, however, it has been shown on stylistic grounds that this work was the immediate predecessor in Palestrina's output and inspiration for his Missa Papae Marcelli, which he was asked to write in a hurry while the music of Benedicta es was still uppermost in his mind. It has also been suggested that through the medium of his Missa Benedicta es "sogar die Missa Papae Marcelli in gewissen Sinne eine inspirierte Übernahme der Josquinischen Benedicta-Motette darstelle" ('even the Missa Papae Marcelli in a certain sense displays an inspired assimilation of the music of Josquin's motet Benedicta es'). The model for Missa Papae Marcelli has long been debated: few have been thoroughly convinced by the idea that the frequent use of an upward leap of the fourth suggests the secular melody L'homme armé. In putting forward Josquin's Benedicta es as the model, once-removed, there is much more concrete evidence. Several passages in the Missa Benedicta es are note for note the same as in the Missa Papae Marcelli: at 'Qui sedes' in the Gloria of the former we hear the opening two bars of the 'Christe' in the latter. The motif which Josquin used to set the words 'Te Deus Pater' (towards the end of the first part of his motet: see example 1 at the end of this note) occurs extensively in both the Palestrina masses and most regularly where the word 'Deus' is involved (at 'Deum de Deo' in the Credo of Missa Papae Marcelli and at 'Dominus Deus' in the Gloria of Missa Benedicta es). This phrase is taken directly from the opening of the third verse of the plainchant (see example 2 at the end of this note). Both settings have highly ornate 'Amens' to their Creeds, which are related and derive from the 'Amen' of the Josquin as may be clearly heard.

The plainchant Benedicta es is a sequence with six verses, which are musically paired. Josquin's motet similarly has three sections and the sopranos start the motet with the plainchant melody given in long notes. Palestrina starts his first Kyrie in exactly the same way - the chant in the soprano - but the two composers immediately show their different temperaments and styles in the countermelodies which they write to it. Josquin highlights his melodies by consistently breaking the six-part choir down into duets and trios, so that the span of his phrases is clearly delineated; while Palestrina creates a full six-part texture to which any single melody is only a contributor. In this respect Palestrina's later style is apparent; but in harmonic terms he is still under Josquin's influence in, for instance, regularly using the minor supertonic triad even when it is leading to the dominant chord. The underlying harmonies are, for Palestrina, unusually simple and modal. Unlike Missa Papae Marcelli and many later pieces, the musical interest is here thrown heavily onto the counterpoint.

If ever it was thought necessary to prove that Palestrina early in his life gained much from coming under the influence of the great Franco-Flemish composers, this resplendent parody mass shows how important they were to him and how he could turn their idiom to his own ends.

Peter Philips
1990



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