Missa Papae Marcelli
In the Middle Ages, western church music was dominated by Gregorian chant, or plainchant. Everyone sang the same notes, there was one vocal line. This began to change in the middle of the 1100s when the composers Leonin and Perotin introduced a second vocal line and more. Music with multiple vocal lines is known as polyphony.
Fast forward to the Renaissance. Polyphony had become very complex. In fact it had become so complex that it was a matter of some concern to church officials. The problem was that the vocal lines interwove so much, it was difficult to understand the words. There were murmurings of abandoning polyphony altogether and going back to plainchant.
In the midst of all this, Pope Marcellus died after serving only three weeks as pontiff. Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594), musical director of the Julian Chapel of St. Peter’s Basilica and other chapels in Rome, a master of polyphony and the hero of today’s haiku, wrote a mass in the pope’s honor. It combined the beauty of polyphony with word clarity.
Whether or not Palestrina actually “saved” polyphony is a matter of academic debate. What is beyond debate is the beauty of the composition.