The Style of Palestrina and the Dissonance

The Style of Palestrina and the Dissonance

by Knud Jeppesen

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This classic study remains one of the foremost works on the music of Palestrina. Features a rigorous and valuable analysis of the composer's handling of rhythm, line, harmony, and dissonance.See more details below


This classic study remains one of the foremost works on the music of Palestrina. Features a rigorous and valuable analysis of the composer's handling of rhythm, line, harmony, and dissonance.

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Dover Publications
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Dover Books on Music Series
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5.30(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.70(d)

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The Style of Palestrina and the Dissonance

By Knud Jeppesen

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 1970 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-17162-3


Foundations of Style

Temporal Conditions

The musician Giovanni Pierluigi, who was born about 1525, at Palestrina in the Papal States, belongs by virtue of his artistic gifts and his noble serenity of spirit among the most profoundly influential composers of all times. His place is among those geniuses foreordained to fulfil the plan of musical historical necessity, or—more exactly expressed—he appears within the circle of those deeply inspired individuals whose mission it is to crown and bring to the highest flowering some past great epoch of art.

His life-work brought the vocal polyphonic ideals to full development,—the ecclesiastical art which had been cultivated during centuries in France, England and the Netherlands, to its final culmination. This is all that we know with certainty about him, and this may very well be regarded as his real life.

About his civil existence, at any rate, there is but little to recount. Judging from his art he seems to have been of an earnest, quiet disposition, and to have been characterized by a certain gentle manliness combined with aristocratic reserve, and a pronounced natural aptitude for the harmonious. The few (most probably inferior) portraits that have been preserved show a finely formed head, a dignified and somewhat anchoretic expression of countenance—the whole bearing bespeaking the intellectual aristocrat. His handwriting is firm, steady, and of extraordinary beauty.

The leading characteristic of his art is his great natural genius for harmony, which is paired with an almost antique sense of the art of limitation. Ferruccio Busoni's comment upon Mozart "er hat den Instinkt des Tieres, sich seine Aufgabe—bis zur möglichsten Grenze, aber nicht darüber hinaus—seinen Kräften entsprechend zu stellen", is valid in even higher degree in the case of Palestrina,—to whom Mozart, through congeniality of spirit, is nearly related. Proske expresses about the same in other words when he writes in the dry, yet so neat and precise manner peculiar to him: "Dass Palestrina sein leben-langes, nach Weite und Tiefe unermessliches Kunstschaffen dem reinen Kirchenstil gewidmet, begründet die wahre Grösse seines Charakters".

As remarked before, repose and harmony are the distinctive features of his art. The little we know of his outer life offers no contradiction to this conception. He was brought up under prosperous circumstances, taken at an early age under the protection of popes and powerful clerical dignitaries, famous already as a young man, and the occupant of high offices in the principal churches of Rome. He therefore probably knew but few wordly troubles, notwithstanding contrary assertions by Baini and other early biographers.

He was a true Roman, bound by a thousand ties to the "Eternal City", from which he rarely absented himself except to visit his native home in the Sabine mountains some 20 miles away. Casimiri was the first to find Palestrina's name among the choir-boys in the account-books of the church of S. Maria Maggiore, Rome, October 1537. Evidently he served his apprenticeship in Rome. The question of the identity of his teacher cannot be settled with certainty, though in all probability it was not Claude Goudimel, as was formerly generally supposed.

Every effort to persuade Palestrina to accept positions abroad, (e. g. the negotiations which took place in 1567 between him and the Imperial Austrian Court, and also those with Guglielmo, Duke of Mantua, in 1583 failed at the last moment, it seems, owing to Palestrina's secret disinclination to leave Rome. And so this peaceable, modest Italian, who was not without commercial insight and who gradually accumulated some wealth, lived on in Rome as a musician in the service of the church until his death, the 2nd of February, 1594.

If we inquire what is the place of the musician Palestrina in the History of Civilization and how we are to understand his art in its relationship to period, whether it must be considered as Mediæval, Renaissance or Baroque, it is not easy to find an answer. His civil life itself leaves no room for doubt. It was lived in the Italy of the Council of Trent, under the auspices of the early Baroque era. An examination of his works gives a different result.

It is necessary to remember here that music has its own technical history independent of temporal conditions. No matter how truly a musician may feel himself a child of his own time, how perfectly in accord with its leading thoughts and ideas as they find expression in poetry, science or the plastic arts, nor how closely in touch with the spiritual mood of contemporary life, yet it is of no avail if, at the crucial moment when he himself must speak, he does not master the adequate means of expression. Though he may try his best, what he wishes to say he does not express, and there is a wide gulf between the actual and the desired utterance. Drastic examples of this are only too frequent. Amongst others we may cite Francesco Landino (d. 1397), who to a text with all kinds of cheap madrigal appurtenances, such as "tormento", "crudeltà", etc., sets music which, so to say, has not the quality of a single responsive quiver. This remark may be extended to comprise most of the 16th century madrigal production; for in spite of ardent efforts to express the text, the relationship between the latter and the music seems very lax. Where this music attempts to express the meaning of the words, it has the effect of something inorganic, of something supplied from without.

Consequently music should be classified, not according to what it attempts to portray, but according to what it seems to express. From this point of view, European music may properly be classified under two large, general divisions: older and newer music. The dividing line may approximately be drawn at the year 1600.

An expression in words, making perfectly clear wherein the difference between these divisions lay, is probably not to be found. However Ambros' early classification as objective and subjective music gives something of the essential in this connection, notwithstanding all the recent attacks on it.

During the entire process of musical development there may be observed an uninterrupted struggle for a steadily increasing refinement of the means of expression. But it is a matter of course that, in order to express individuality, it is necessary to have a more highly differentiated and a more thoroughly mastered material than if the question concerned the expression merely of common elements. It was not till towards the end of the 16th century, however, that musicians finally were in possession of a material of this order simultaneously with an incomparable mastery of artistic means, which had been acquired in the strict Palestrinian school of style. It was then, and not till then, possible to say "I" in music.

Like Ambros and others, it is tempting to consider this musical emancipation of the individual as the Renaissance which, delayed by technical causes, finally asserts itself in music. The adoption of this interpretation, though, is hindered by the fact that the early 17th century had quite a tendency towards over-excited and uncontrolled emotions, while such tendencies were foreign to Renaissance expression, with its sense of the value of the harmonious inherited from antique art, (the immature unrest of the early Renaissance period excepted). The art of a Monteverdi plainly shows that its motto is "Movement at all costs"! And it is as grotesquely emphasized as possible. Palestrina music on the other hand is so unimpassioned, so little effervescent, that a comparison either with the Renaissance, (even though the latter, at any rate during the height of the period, shared the tactical mastery and clearness of the former), or with the Baroque, gives but meagre results. For those who desire to employ exclusively the classifications of the History of Civilization there remains but one explanation, namely, that the Renaissance and Baroque periods in music fell simultaneously, because the stage of the necessary mastery of subjective, passionate means of musical expression was not attained before the spirit of the time had already passed over into the Baroque. The inevitable deduction would be that music had passed unaffected through the Renaissance period, which negative result only seems to accentuate the impossibility of a division which at the same time recognizes both the specially musical and the historical aspects. The wisest course doubtless would be for musical historians to abandon these rather futile efforts in favour of a classification based upon the inherent claims of the art itself.

It is assuredly incontestable that, in Palestrina's cultural surroundings, phenomena and tendencies may be clearly traced which form apparent parallels to corresponding tendencies in his music. The epoch of the Post-Tridentine reforms, with its orderliness and distaste for the fantastic prolixity of the Middle Ages, is reflected in his music, just as the typical architecture of an Andrea Palladio seems to express a corresponding adequate intellectual form.

However, it may admit of some question whether such an event as the purification and ripening of vocal polyphony, which had already begun before Palestrina's time, may not have been purely a musical process which, once set in motion, had to run its course more independently of temporal relations. On the other hand, it is hardly improbable that the sympathetic contemporary surroundings, as well as the spiritual disposition of the man Palestrina himself, (which seems to have been propitiously adapted to such a task), led rapidly to an extraordinarily early climax of the style, but doubtless to its early decay also.

Probably it is with art as with fruit,—favourable atmospheric conditions may accelerate the growth, the sun may shine and rain fall in due season and quantity, as needed. Yet if the tree's own laws of life and development are not in function, the fruit will neither be large nor sweet.

It is therefore a question worthy of consideration, whether in musical art the line which leads from one musical work to another is not far more determinative and fateful than any other which may be drawn.


It may be confidently declared that the emotional element, which is so prominently in the foreground in musical art, is the cause of the usual disposition to lay too much stress, in explaining musical works and the conditions under which they were composed, on the matter of sentiment.

There exists, however, a certain primitive intellectual basis upon which certain requirements rest in their turn, the fulfilment of which naturally cannot fully assure the aesthetic value of a musical work, yet whose omission is followed by negative results. This fact is very distinctly illustrated in the case of rhythm.

When for instance a succession of sound impressions is produced by a delicate acoustic instrument specially constructed for this purpose,—produced at accurately equal intervals of time, and of exactly equal strength and quality of sound,—a certain systematic plan will be felt, in spite of the fact that the single impressions cannot be objectively distinguished the one from the other. After a short time it involuntarily seems to the listener that every second or third of the series is of greater strength and intensity than the rest. This phenomenon, which has long been a familiar one, and which has been scientifically treated by such authors as Dietze, Bolton and Stumpf among others, is generally designated as "subjective" rhythmic accent in contradistinction to the "objective" form, which is a real accent, and not merely of psychic nature. It must, however, be noted that this systematic succession of homogeneous acoustic impressions, which follow each other at regular intervals of time, requires that these intervals should not surpass a certain length, about the duration of which opinions are still divided. For if the interim between the impressions is too great, it is impossible to set them properly into mutual relationship. The sensation will only register single impressions.

Also a too rapid recurrence of these consecutive impressions makes it difficult to classify them rhythmically, and with increasing rapidity it finally becomes impossible to distinguish them from each other. Dietze indicates (Untersuchungen über den Umfang des Bewusstseins bei regelmässig auf einander folg. Schalleindrücken. Ph. St. II, p. 383) that the most favourable conditions for the execution of subjective rhythmic experiments are present when the interim between the single sound impressions is 0.3-0.18 sec. (that is, from 3 to 5 impressions in a second). This indication seems to agree with the experience gained through ordinary musical observation.

The cause of subjective rhythmic perception, which, since it is not based upon exterior matters, must be of a psychological nature, is generally attributed by psychological experts to regular alternations between states of keen and diminished attention. This problem being of a complicated and abstruse nature, an experimental psychological treatment of the whole matter is difficult, (though it promises better results than have been obtained otherwise up to the present); it would therefore be more prudent to employ a collective conception, such as "activity", as Koffka does—leaving room for further possibilities—instead of the more definitively psychological term, "attention". The word activity is used here in the sense of "the feeling of activity", of which attention, so far as it concerns our domain, forms a large component part.

An important question arises here, whether the phenomenon of the subjective perception of rhythm—which all of our generation obey involuntarily—is something insolubly connected with human nature—something which is dependent neither upon culture nor history, but is valid in all eras.

Apparently exotic races of our day have music which does not reckon with alternating accents like ours. The material at hand up to the present is, however, too insignificant and obscure, and our knowledge of primitive psychology is still too limited to permit reliable conclusions.

With regard to the older European music, and also to the Flemish-Italian vocal polyphony, there is a strong divergence of opinions among investigators. Some maintain that the 16th century treated the accent just as the 19th century does. The leader of this party up to the time of his death was Hugo Riemann, whose conviction was that the older music, taken in its entirety, had much more in common with the newer than we generally are inclined to suppose. Later on Arnold Schering has expressed similar ideas concerning the rhythm of the cinquecento in his interesting study, "Takt und Sinngliederung in der Musik des 16. Jahrhunderts."

Some other investigators advance views that are diametrically opposed to the above, claiming that during the 15th and 16th centuries the so-called "freischwebend" (free-pending) accent was mainly used. This opinion has gained ground in recent years, especially through the works and essays of Adler, Vogel, Schünemann, Kinkeldey, and Orel.

This hypothesis is partially based upon the following facts: firstly, the mensural vocal music of this epoch did not employ bar lines; secondly, its theorists make no mention of accentuated or unaccentuated beats; and finally, when the "measure", (considered as such), is followed, false emphasis of the text occurs very often in individual voices, which makes the bar seem an unwarranted restriction. In fact there is much to be said in favour of such a conception. For instance in the Gloria of the 4-part mass, "Sine nomine" by Palestrina (P. XI, 42, 2, + 1 sqq.) the following passage occurs:



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