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Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina & Bach

Palestrina's Mass [was: Bach's Use of Trombones]

Continue of discussion from: Trombone in Bach's Vocal Works [General Topics]

Douglas Cowling wrote (April 30, 2010):
[To Aryeh Oron] This is fascinating material, and it's great to have it all in one place. I reiterate my opinion that BCML is the principal online reference site for the study of Bach.

It is interesting to see Bach following the traditions of colla parte doubling in two categories: 1) "Antique" music such as Palestrina's "Missa Sine Nomine", and, 2) Funeral music in BWV 118.

The real surprise is that when Bach arrived in Leipzig in 1723 - 25, he introduced trombones into pre-Leipzig cantatas (e.g. "Christ Lag" (BWV 4)) which didn't have the brass when they were first composed.


There are a couple of possibilities:

1) Did the body of civic brass players have a statutory expectation that they would play in the cantata? Did it take a couple of years for Bach to iron out the union contract so that he could use trombones solely for aesthetic reasons? The score of the Palestrina mass suggests that perhaps the brass played when the mass setting on non-festal occasions was drawn from the 16th and 17th century repertoires. What do we know about the town waits? I wish we knew more about the mass settings: there was one every Sunday!

2) Although I have never been a proponent of the Exhausted Choir Hypothesis, there may have been occasions in the first couple of years when he thought the choir was not "up" to his music and he used colla parte trombones in an age-old tradition of assisting and amplifying the choir. He may have been experimenting with the acoustical profiles of his performance spaces in the churches. Against this suggestion, is the astonishing lineup of new music which he offered for his first Christmas in Leipzig.

Curious and curiouser ...

Douglas Cowling wrote (April 30, 2010):
Julian Mincham wrote:
< I suspect a lot of things changed in the matter of taste during Bach's first years at Leipzig. The use of trombones was, I would think, largely an aesthetic choice--the difference they make to the sound of a motet/fantasia like that of BWV 2 is phenomenal. They also give an entirely different colouring to the concluding chorales. >
Has anyone recorded Bach's copy/version of the Palestrina Mass?

Aryeh Oron wrote (May 4, 2010):
Douglas Cowling asked:
"Has anyone recorded Bach's copy/version of the Palestrina Mass?"
All known recordings of Missa sine nomine a 6 by Palestrina are listed at the page:
Of these only the recording by Concerto Palatino from June 1992 is described as Bach's version.

Douglas Cowling wrote (May 4, 2010):
[To Aryeh Oron]
Sadly, this CD became unavailable before I had a chance to hear it (off to the library!)

A review outlines the purpose of the recording:

"This recording is an attempt to reproduce the sounds of the Leipzig Stadtpfeifer at the time of J.S.Bach."

Missa sine nomine a 6 - Palestrina
(arranged by J.S.Bach for voices, 2 cornetti, 4 trombones & continuo)
2 Sonatas - Johann Christoph Pezel (1664-1716)
6 Quatricinia for a Cornett and 3 trombones - Gottfried Reiche (1667-1734)
Motetto a 5 voci "Tristis est anima mea" - Johann Kuhnau (1660-1722)

Unfortunately, many still refer to the Stadtpfiefer of Leipzig as "town pipers" which demeans this ensemble of musicians who served Bach. From the above list, we can see that their 18th century repertoire was significant.

Indifference to the 16th and 17th century motet repertoire that Bach performed every week gives a distorted view of the musical context in which Bach presented his own works.

For instance, we know that Gabrieli's 8 voice motet "Jubilate Dei" was part of Bach's repertoire. Here's a brief expert from Gardiner's recording:

This is festal music on a scale and sonority to rival anything in Bach's cantatas.

Equally impressive is the non-concerted music sung during Lent in place of the cantata. Here's a brief excerpt from Lassus' poignant "Tristis Anima Mea" (Track 16) which was in Bach's motet collection:

The point I'm always belabouring is that Bach presented his works not as we generally hear them, isolated in lonely grandeur in a concert, but rather in a richly textured musical context of organ works, chant, chorales, masses and motets.

Ed Myskowski wrote (May 4, 2010):
Douglas Cowling wrote:
< The point I'm always belabouring is that Bach presented his works not as we generally hear them, isolated in lonely grandeur in a concert, but rather in a richly textured musical context of organ works, chant, chorales, masses and motets. >
Grasping this context also helps in understanding and appreciating Bachs efforts toward originality and uniqueness. This strikes me as esthetic effort, over and above exposition of theologic content, in the case of texted works.

Aryeh Oron wrote (May 5, 2010):
Palestrina's Mass - Provenance

Thomas Braatz contributed a provenance and description of the work under discussion.
Note: no performance of this work has been documented during Bach's lifetime.

Douglas Cowling wrote (May 5, 2010):
[To Aryeh Oron] This is intriguing documentation and provides some clues about Bach's treatment of "early music".

Although the six-voice work SSATTB scoring of the mass is similar to some of Palestrina's most famous motets (e.g. "Tu Es Petrus" and "Assumpta Est Maria") it has little of those works' proto-Baroque features such as a growing emphasis on a bass foundation and block chords. Rather it has the dense contrapuntal texture of Palestrina's more Flemish style. Interestingly, the opening of the Kyrie has the plainsong repeated successively in sustained notes over an active bass line: the theme is even related to the psalm tone of the "Confiteor" of the B Minor Mass (BWV 232).

Doubling with cornetti and trombones was common in Palestrina's day. Only at the Sistine Chapel were instruments and the organ prohibited.

Sidebar: The eleven century ban was recently broken when an organ was installed in the Sistine Chapel in 2002 - scandolo! Some interesting photos of the organ and the tiny choir loggia where Palestrina's greatest works
were sung: Blessing of the new organ in the Sistine Chapel - Vatican City, 14 December 2002 (Vatican News)

Palestrina would have heard his works with brass doubling at other Roman churches such as the Collegio Germanico. Bach alters the balance of the work by heavily weighting the bass line with trombone, violone, harpsichord and organ. That would really turn it into an 18th century work.

Bach had all five movements copied but only prepared instrumental parts for the Kyrie and Gloria. That might suggest that he used only those movements in Leipzig, just as his own masses only contain Kyrie and Gloria. Both Catholic and Lutherans had "compilation" masses which mixed and matched settings of the Ordinary. If the arrangement dates from 1742, it could be part of Bach's late interest in cyCatholic masses, the fruit of which was the Mass in B Minor (BWV 232).


Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina: Short Biography | Missa sine nomine a 6 | Missa Ecce sacerdos | Palestrina & Bach - Discussions

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