A Comparison Of Palestrina And Rameau
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The Musician Giovanni Pierluigi, who was born in 1525 (died 1594), at Palestrina (hence
“Da Palestrina”) in the Papal States, belongs among the most influential composers of all times.
His life work brought the vocal polyphonic style to full development. The leading characteristic
of his art is his natural genius for pure harmonic style, comparable to even Mozart in that effect.
Jean-Philippe Rameau was born in Dijon, France in 1683 and died in 1764. He was one
of the greatest figures in French musical history, a theorist of European stature and Frances
leading 18th century composer. He made important contributions to the cantata, the motet,
keyboard music, and many of his dramatic compositions stand alongside those of Lully and
Gluck as the pinnacles of pre-revolutionary French opera.
The pieces chosen to compare and contrast are the Pope Marcellus Mass by Palestrina,
and the opera, Castor and Pollux by Rameau, more importantly, the pure vocal style of
Palestrina, and the sophisticated harmonic palette of Rameau.
Palestrinas Missa Papae Marcelli, or Pope Marcellus Mass, is his best known work.
Even during his lifetime, prominent members of the music scene linked this work with the
discussions concerning church music at the Council of Trent. It is an undisputed fact that this
Mass, printed in the second collection of Palestrinas Masses in 1567, was composed in light of
the desire to reform church music at that time. Its clarity of words and expressiveness, its
stylistic unity of themes and construction, with melodies related to Gregorian chant, demonstrate
a manner of working different from that of the old Flemish composers. Contrapuntal technique
and harmony, formal structure and tonal qualities are all balanced in this Mass, giving clear
musical expression to the liturgical text. The Missa Papae Marcelli demonstrates the extensive
form of the Papal Mass. The demands which Pope Marcellus II made on church music and its
liturgical expression are fulfilled in this work of Palestrina.
Rameaus Castor and Pollux is generally regarded as his crowning achievement. The
operas subject matter – the brotherly love of twins Castor and Pollux, one mortal, one immortal
– was unusual in French opera of the period, which normally concerned itself with romantic love.
This piece has its own singular eloquence, lyricism, heroic, and is enlivened everywhere by
dance rhythms, and sophisticated harmonic structure. It has also been praised for its originality
of libretto, its straightforward theme (fraternal love), beauty of music, and novelty.
Palestrina was said to have the most organized technique of the age of pure vocal
polyphony. He believed that the tendency to over-elaborate and over-ornament lead to
unnecessary complexity in the music. The repetition of words and syllables, the use of
interpolated themes with their original texts must give way to a purer style. The style of this
piece is described as curvilinear movement or, “a series of carefully proportioned curves in
which ascending movement is balanced by descending movement and melodic leaps are very
small, and smoothed over and balanced by notes stepwise.”(2) Harmony did not signify any
interest according to Palestrina, as chords had not yet reached a stage where they had their own
life. All that was required in the Mass was the clarity of sonority. There is no canon, no inverted
fugue or complicated measures in this work. The harmony is pure, and therefore the Pope
Marcellus Mass is described as the simplest of his works. The music is diatonic, and the use of
chromatic alteration does not exceed what was valid in plainsong. The piece is based on a
modified version of the Ecclesiastical Modal System, and conforms to the maxims laid down by
Pope Marcellus II, including simplicity, clarity, and intelligibility of words. The entire Mass is
written within two octaves and a fifth, and the absence of a mechanical rhythm, or a strong or
weak beat permits a pure unbroken flow of sound and a sense of a calm, sweet, ordered progress.
In comparison, Rameau believed that harmony, not melody, was the focal point for a
good piece of music. In the opera Castor and Pollux, he modulates in ways that were so swift
and expressive, that many thought his music seemed centuries ahead of its time. Also, his use of
percussion and independent woodwinds ( for example, a flute part would not just double the
violins) makes parts of his opera extremely evocative. However, this brought down harsh
criticism on Rameau. Half of the Paris Intelligentsia attacked him as a radical composer of
grotesque, unmelodic, discordant music that was made even more offensive by its noisy
instrumentation. Critics would say that compared

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