One of my goals with this blog is to promote the incredibly rich store of Catholic art, including sacred music, that we have inherited from our forerunners in the Faith. Regarding sacred music, a few years back when I was teaching in a (more or less) Catholic school I was talking to one of the music teachers about the music of polyphonic composers, and specifically the compositions of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. The music teacher, who was not Catholic, said “That’s the most beautiful music I’ve ever heard. It’s a shame they had to do away with it. I mean, I understand why they had to do it, but what a shame . . .” I was thinking no, no they didn’t have to do away with it at all. There are few experiences this side of listening to the choirs of the angels themselves closer to heaven than hearing a trained choir singing sacred polyphony in church. Just imagine if more of us could experience that more often.
Polyphony itself (from Greek poly, “many”, and phonos, “sound”), refers to a musical development of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance. Traditional Gregorian Chant had always contained one melodic line: harmony was unknown. Early in the second millennium of the Church composers started writing music containing different melodic lines in the same piece, hence polyphony. While music has grown in technique and complexity since then, even the greatest composers of past 500 years haven’t been able to surpass the sheer musical loveliness of the works of polyphonic composers such as Victoria, Tallis, Byrd, and Palestrina.
Many commentators consider Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594) to be the greatest composer of polyphony. No less a musical authority than Felix Mendelssohn classed him as one of the four all-time great composers of music, period, with Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. The clip below features Palestrina’s Exultate Deo, “Rejoice in God”, a song of praise appropriate to the Easter Season. The piece is performed by the Ascension Voices Chorus, and the image is a detail of the Singing Angels from Jan van Eyck’s “Ghent Altarpiece.”
I’ve included the words in Latin and in English under the clip.
Exsultate Deo adjutori nostro;
jubilate Deo Jacob.
Sumite psalmum, et date tympanum,
psalterium jucundum cum cithara.
Buccinate in neomenia tuba,
in insigni die solemnitatis vestræ.
Exult in God our helper, Rejoice in the God of Jacob. Take up the psalm, and bring out the tympanum,
The pleasing psalter with the cithara. Blow the trumpet at the new moon, On the day appointed for our solemnity.