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Palestrina For All: Unwrapping, Singing, Celebrating
by Jonathan Boswell
170 pp. Published August 2018
ISBN 9781721968954 Self-published
It’s somewhat surprising that historian Jonathan Boswell’s recent (2018) survey of the music of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594) stands almost alone in the current(ly available) bibliography of such an important musical figure: there really is no other more recent study than Robert Stewart’s ‘An Introduction to Sixteenth Century Counterpoint and Palestrina's Musical Style’ (ISBN: 9781880157077), which was published in 1994.
Even were this dearth of literature on arguably the greatest and most influential musical figure before Bach, ‘Palestrina For All: Unwrapping, Singing, Celebrating’ should be bought and read carefully by anyone either new to (Renaissance) choral polyphony, or to ‘early’ music in general. Indeed, this book provides significant material - which is assembled and presented in an interesting and imaginative way - for those wanting to understand why music has developed as it has. This audience probably also includes many who already feel at home and familiar with Palestrina.
Boswell’s is an accessible and comprehensive study. Its 150+ substantive pages contain both narrative and analysis. The 15-page second chapter is a brief but telling biography. While the other nine chapters carefully and thoughtfully situate Palestrina’s phenomenal musical output in his times, relate them to the texts he used and link them to contemporary musical practice and developments. These leave you with a thorough understanding of the quality and scale of the mostly liturgical work for which the relatively long-lived composer these days perhaps receives less credit than is due to him. Boswell, though, writes not as an advocate. But as a musicologist who feels strongly enough about the richness and worth of his subject to explain and illustrate not only when Palestrina’s music originated but also how and why - and hence why it is still to be performed and listened to… perhaps with fresh ears.
‘Palestrina For All’s first short chapter (‘Prince of Music?’) does an excellent job of introducing the reader as listener to the scope, context and importance of Palestrina. Boswell suggests listening to one of the many high-resolution recordings of the composer’s music - such as of the Missa Papae Marcelli. But immerse yourself in it. Without preconceptions. Respond to the totality of the sound… its counterpoint; its intricacies, which contrast with its complexities. Embrace the music’s apparent avoidance of what to many will be familiar tonal patterns… recognisable keys, resolution.
For those new to and/or puzzled by - perhaps even lost in - Palestrina’s idiom, indeed the nature of much Renaissance choral polyphony, this is an honest and helpful way for Boswell to start. The rest of the book (also) constitutes an effective guide to, examination of, and even set of answers to such perplexity. Even if you know what to expect, Boswell’s plain, open style may well make you see greater depths, new angles. He explains how Palestrina was able to study both the masses of his (Franco-Flemish) predecessors and of his conformist contemporaries who preferred ‘chord-after-chord’ . For Palestrina to have written such linear and straightforward music would have made him weep, Boswell conjectures.
Chapter 2 looks at Palestrina’s life in the context of late C16th Rome (Palestrina, the village from which the composer takes his name, is no more than 35 kilometres from Rome). Here, and in Chapter 3, Boswell again advises close listening - this time to the Canticum Canticorum - as a work that typifies the concerns, trends and practices of a hybrid (musical) culture focused on the sacred and the ‘earthly’. To do so is to understand how - and eventually why - Palestrina’s music is so rich, so full of impact… and why so enduring.
Boswell next (Chapter 4) explains the exterior logic of (some of) Palestrina’s compositions: the Church Year (Nativity, Easter etc) and those themes which they sponsor… joy, sorrow, suffering and persistence. It is against these almost ageless traditions and praxes that Boswell now suggests we should set Palestrina’s motives for writing. His music reflects, draws on and embodies the mystery of the spirit, and the importance of worship, engagement, and active participation in the confessional life and the ‘calendar’ which helps to hold it together.
At a time of transience and instability for the Catholic church the styles and structures employed by Palestrina lend both stability and balance as well - like the tree which is stronger in the wind by flexing - as fluidity.
In Chapter 5 Boswell advances a personal view in the face of what some may have accepted as contentious. He considers that the relationships between (vocal) parts, different melodic lines, complimentary and consonant sonorities are deliberately and consciously symbolic of the Church’s advocacy of social cohesion and compassionate communities… ‘ideal’ communities, even. When Palestrina’s music is considered as the apotheosis of the Prima Pratica, this is a credible thesis. The sparser and in some ways verbally more accessible music of composers like Monteverdi (who was actually born a generation before Palestrina died) contrasts with Palestrina’s textures and sonic palettes. Palestrina would have had to work differently to have accorded completely with the Reformation and Counter Reformation’s insistence on textual transparency and lucidity.
One of the strengths of ‘Palestrina For All’ is the ways in which Boswell illustrates these analyses closely and openly with (invitations to listen to) specific works of the composer. Indeed, Chapters Six, Seven, Nine and Ten take us through the various movements of the Masses, of which Palestrina composed over 100 in his 50 mature years. As you will have come to expect by now, these too are compelling chapters thanks to Boswell’s explanatory approach, his style, respect for detail, his ability to step back in order to describe and present the wider view, his apposite choices of examples and delicate evaluations.
Chapter 8 is equally enticing. It looks at the composer’s reception, particularly in the C19th (Beethoven ranked Palestrina very highly indeed) and the revival of his music with reassessments down to the present. Especially useful is Boswell’s survey here of current performance practice, approaches which differ between countries and musical traditions, and some controversies which only serve to deepen our understanding of Palestrina’s greatness.
‘Palestrina For All: Unwrapping, Singing, Celebrating’, then, is not the usual ‘introduction’, abbreviated biography or race through (key works in) the composer’s œvre. It consists of a convincing and productive amalgam of ‘raw’ facts and background. Boswell is particularly strong on the religious bedrock in the second half of the sixteenth century in Rome… Popes, power, plagues, protocols, piety and even population growth; on the challenges which many who are not specialist listeners in the area may experience even as they take in what the city’s (religious) priorities were.
Boswell skilfully illustrates - always through available musical examples - how and why Palestrina responded as he did to this world, these conventions, and the challenges thereto. We cannot help but come away from a careful reading of this book without a greater understanding and appreciation of Palestrina’s achievement. Boswell really does ‘unwrap’ the singing (the vast majority of the composer’s output was - of course - vocal and choral); and then celebrates how we are (or should be) drawn back time and again to what this music really is - rather than feeling, perhaps, an obligation to listen because of its place in musical history.
Self-published to a very high standard, ‘Palestrina For All’ contains several monochrome images, numerous clearly-reproduced musical examples, texts in Latin with English translations, quotes, footnotes, a brief and up-to-date bibliography and a list of (Palestrina’s) works referred to in the text.
If you’re new to the glories of the pinnacle of Renaissance polyphony which Palestrina represents; have already come to love the richness, inventiveness and profundity of his music and want to know more; or indeed if you want what is now the best introductory volume - clearly laid out with appositely-paragraphed arguments, well-informed and illustrated text and a comprehensive survey of Palestrina’s life and works - Jonathan Boswell’s excellent contribution will suit the general reader and inquiring specialist very well indeed.