Meet the Composers: Palestrina

Meet Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. Known as the “Prince of Music” he is responsible for hundreds of works that are known as “absolute perfection.” I love his music so much that he is a supporting character in a novel I wrote (not yet published; I’ll let you all know when it is).

Perhaps this is because he avoided chromaticism in his music, or it’s simply because of the natural beauty in his voice leading. Whatever the case, there’s so much to dig into in his music.

Sicut Cervus is one of about 250 motets Palestrina composed. I encountered this piece in high school, and many of my music friends say the same; thus, it makes a good introduction into the work and style of Palestrina.

The text is based on the first verse of Psalm 42, “Sicut cervus desiderat ad fontes aquarum, ita desiderat anima mea ad te, Deus.” Or, “As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God.” Good ole KJV.

It’s curious that this version of the Latin uses the term “fountains of waters.” I know that some cultures view fountains as symbols of good fortune, so I’m curious if “fountain” is used in the original Hebrew, or if it was added in some translation. History buffs, please share if you know anything of this; I didn’t have enough time to dedicate to research this.

The way Palestrina sets this text is divine. It makes you want to just sit back and absorb the sound. Sicut Cervus uses imitative polyphony, which is kind of like a round. Think of when you sing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” with a large group of people. One subgroup starts, and when they get to “Merrily, merrily,” the next group starts at the beginning. The melody sounds good on top of itself and creates harmony internally. Imitative polyphony is also commonly used in the fugue.

The 16th century relied heavily on this style, but it is not the only style Palestrina used.

This imitative polyphony enhances the image of flowing water in Sicut Cervus. You can most easily see this in the last repetition of “ad fontes aquarum” particularly in the top two voices, as the moving parts of the melody trickle down from the soprano and into the alto, like water trickling from a fountain.

Sicut Cervus remains one of my favorite works of choral music of all time, and it will be for some time, no doubt. As we explore more of Palestrina’s works, we’ll dig more into technique and style, but for now, sit back and enjoy this recording.

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