Palestrina’s Song of Songs
When Palestrina published his settings of the Song of Songs in 1584, he was perfectly aware that this was no ordinary collection. In dedicating the volume to Pope Gregory XIII, Palestrina warned that in these works he had employed “a style of music a little more lively than [he] normally used in other sacred compositions,” adding that this different style was required by the nature of the texts, and offering the collection as an apology for his earlier involvement in secular music, which now made him “blush and grieve.” Although these motets set the most sensual and openly erotic sections of the Old Testament, we must believe that Palestrina was sincere in his apology, because it would have been dangerous for the composer to dedicate them to the Pope if there had been any doubts about their propriety. Moreover, the Song of Songs had a long history of being set to music: one of the most popular interpretations, and one proposed by Palestrina, was to see it as describing “the divine love of Christ and his spouse, the soul.” We should also remember that the sensuality of these texts is similar to the explicit sensuality of some of the sacred paintings and statues of the period: it will suffice to think of Bernini’s “Ecstasy of St. Theresa” to realize that Palestrina’s motets fit into the aesthetics of religious art in the Counter-Reformation period.
It was unusual, however, to set these texts as a unified cycle, and this is the only time in his career that Palestrina published such a collection, rather than gathering works composed separately over a period of time. Palestrina used exact quotes from the Old Testament, keeping the original order almost intact. It is also interesting that musically the collection can be divided into 4 unequal parts, exploring the different modal areas available to sixteenth-century composers, and that these four tonal areas coincide with the subdivisions of the text. This kind of detailed tonal and textual planning in a collection is extremely unusual, and it is one more proof of the exceptional nature of this volume. As an example of unifying techniques, one could listen to motets 15-18: the first two open with nearly identical phrases (Surge, propera amica mea, and Surge amica mea), which Palestrina sets with identical upward motions at “surge” (“rise”) graphically portraying the act of rising. Surgam et circuibo (no. 18) begins with a line similar to the opening of 15 and 16, and closes with a musical and textual passage found in the preceding motet (no.17), thus creating a large-scale structure. Much more could be said about the tonal planning of this collection: the important thing is that Palestrina lavished this amount of planning on a collection of pieces which, for the most part, do not have a set liturgical use. If not as part of the liturgy, where and when would these pieces be performed? Occasions for performances of non-liturgical pieces were not rare in late sixteenth-century Rome: from documentary evidence we know that motets were often performed for the Pope’s supper, or for his entertainment, more as chamber music than as liturgical sacred music. On these occasions the choice of music would have been unfettered by liturgical requirements, and a series of meditations on the love between Christ and the soul could have been perfectly appropriate fare. The present performance, with one voice to a part, is particularly suited to the possible function of these motets, and also to their character.
The musical style of these motets is often “more lively” than that of most of Palestrina’s other sacred compositions. To a modern ear, the stylistic differences might seem negligible, but this was certainly not so for sixteenth-century ears, more attuned to the nuances of this music. At any rate, the volume is full of striking, and strikingly sensuous, passages. Tota pulchra es, for example, begins simply, but within a couple of measures the soprano line unfolds in one of the most gorgeous passages of the collection, graphically illustrating the words “you are wholly beautiful, my love.” Vox dilecti mei opens with four of the five voices intoning together the word “vox” twice, the only occurrence of such an opening in the entire volume. In the preceding thirteen motets the opening is always imitative, and this magnifies our surprise at the first notes of this piece.
Palestrina also employs more word painting than in most of his sacred music, in order to depict musically the imagery of the text. At times, although writing in duple meter, he manages to give a triple, joyous feeling to the notes (for example at the words “exultabimus et laetabimur” (we shall rejoice) in Trahe me). In other cases – most strikingly in the descending opening line of Descendi in hortum, (“I went down to the orchard”) – the melodic lines etch the text in our memory. Another feature of these motets is their conciseness: Palestrina strives to divide the text so that the length of the individual motets is fairly constant and the narrative flow breaks at appropriate moments. The concise character of these works is part of a tendency of Palestrina in his later years and it contributes to the feeling of contrast, since the music moves quickly between sections, leading us through a series of changes (some subtle, some less so) that make us admire Palestrina’s compositional skills.
To reduce this collection to a test of compositional skills, however, would be to miss one of the most important elements: the sheer beauty of Palestrina’s music. In Vox dilecti mei, after the striking opening, Palestrina sets the woman’s praises of her lover (or, allegorically, the soul’s happiness for the coming of Christ) in a joyful, very lively passage, illustrating the words “he comes leaping over the mountains, bounding over the hills.” Short, quick phrases keep the texture ever changing, until the final line, which sets twice in simple homophony the words “and my beloved speaks to me.” The first occurrence of the phrase leaves out the soprano, so that the effect is one of a sudden quiet, preparing us to hear the words of the beloved in the following motet. In this way, Palestrina sets up the musical contrast between this ending and the imitative, madrigalistic opening of the following Surge, propera. It is obvious that Palestrina intended these motets to be performed as if they were a reading (although abridged) of the Song of Songs, and this is the way chosen to present them in this recording - we could not separate them any more than we would think of publishing individual unrelated chapters of a book.
All in all, it seems that Palestrina was not just writing normal Renaissance flowery politeness in saying in the dedication “I do not doubt that Your Holiness will be satisfied by my effort and my intent, if less by the actual work.” We do not know what Gregory thought about the music, but the effort and care expended by Palestrina in writing this collection surely made it truly suitable for a Pope. Giulio M. Ongaro