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Music In The Age of Discovery

Sacred Vocal Polyphony

Peter Kun Frary


The Roman Catholic Mass is a polyphonic choral work based on the Ordinary or Proper of the Mass and the most important sacred form of the Renaissance. It has the same text, movement sequence and function as the Gregorian Mass but cast within a polyphonic setting.

Basilica of the Holy Blood | Bruges, Belgium

The Mass ceremony commemorates the Last Supper (Eucharist), i.e., the last supper of Jesus and his disciples before Jesus was crucified. There are five movements in the Mass ordinary:

  • Kyrie: Kyrie eleison (Lord have mercy)
  • Gloria: Gloria in excelsis Deo (Glory to God in the highest)
  • Credo: Credo in unum Deum (I believe in one God)
  • Santus: Holy, Holy, Holy
  • Agnus Dei (Lamb of God)

Within each movement of the Mass is a pre-existing melody usually taken from Gregorian chant. This pre-existing melody is called the cantus firmus. Composers create each movement of the Mass by composing counterpoint around the cantus firmus. The cantus firmus was considered to be an essential link to the ancient traditions of the Church.

Giovanni Palestrina

Palestrina (1525-94) was the leading composer of the Roman school and among the finest composers of his era. Tied to the church since childhood, he served as choirboy, organist and choir director in his hometown of Palestrina. At age 26 he became choir director at St. Peter’s in Rome.

Palestrina mainly wrote sacred music: 102 masses, 450 motets and many hymns. He was offered lucrative secular positions, including one from the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, but remained in Rome composing, teaching at the Jesuit seminary and directing music at the major churches. His music aptly reflects the Renaissance ideals of clarity, balance and expressiveness.

Interior of Saint Peter's Basilica (c. 1754) | Giovanni Paolo Panini (1691–1765) | The Metropolitan Museum of Art | Palestrina was choir director at St. Peter's

Pope Marcellus Mass

Palestrina's best known work, the Pope Marcellus Mass, was written during 1562 and 1563 and dedicated to Pope Marcellus II. It's scored for six voices in a rich polyphonic texture filled with imitation (echoing of melodic motives). Mass was sung by men and/or boys because women were not allowed to sing in public services during the Renaissance. Soprano and alto parts were performed by prepubescent boys or countertenors (men specializing in falsetto singing).

The first movement, Kyrie, is divided into three sections:

  1. Kyrie eleison (Lord have mercy on us)
  2. Christe eleison (Christ have mercy on us)
  3. Kyrie eleison (Lord have mercy on us)

How did worshippers understand the lyrics with six layers of beautiful counterpoint? The answer is they already knew the words: lyrics were simple, few and parishioners grew up hearing them every Sunday. Plus, Mass lyrics have remained the same for well over a thousand years.

Palestrina, Pope Marcellus Mass: Kyrie | Opening phrases from the soprano part.

The first phrase of the above in modern notation. Note the smoothly flowing style of stepwise motion and small skips.

Please enjoy this performance of Kyrie from Palestrina's Pope Marcellus Mass:

Pope Marcellus Mass: Kyrie | Giovanni Palestrina

St. Peter's Basilica | Vatican City


cantus firmus, Palestrina, countertenor

©Copyright 2018 by Peter Kun Frary | All Rights Reserved