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“The problem of the new Missal resides in its departure from the continuous history which was going on before and after Pius V, and that it creates definitely a new book (although with old material). Its appearance is accompanied by a type of prohibition of what was traditional, being such a type of prohibition alien to the ecclesiastical history of law and of liturgy. From my personal knowledge of the conciliar debates and from the repeated reading of the speeches of the Fathers of the Council, I can say with certainty, that this was not intended by them.”
— Cardinal Ratzinger, Letter to Wolfgang Waldstein (14 December 1976)

Palestrina and the Perfecting of the Medieval Ideal of Music as Rational • (Part 2 of 3)
published 17 April 2017 by Guest Author

BELOW IS THE SECOND PART of a guest series by Joseph J. Mullen, founder and director of The Palestrina Choir School, dedicated to the training of choristers to sing for the Traditional Roman Liturgy. Beautifully sung tone and musical literacy are its foundational principles. These principles are actualized by a synthesis of ancient and modern pedagogic approaches in light of the Liberal Arts and Thomistic Meta-physics.

Part One can be read here. Part Two considers how the Polyphonic Choral Style—as perfected by Palestrina—mirrors the rational mind and reflects the music of heaven.

A Mirroring of the Rational Mind

T SEEMS TO ME that one of the most profound attributes of the Catholic polyphonic style, developed through medieval simple harmony and perfected by Palestrina, is that of imitation. Gioseffo Zarlino, a Renaissance composer and well known theorist of the day, in his book “L’istitutioni harmoniche” describes imitation:

In this type of melody what is consequently sung can be repeated by another.

According to Zarlino “Fugue, imitation and consequence” are the three specific types of imitative devices that a composer could employ. A detailed explanation of the characteristics of each of these devices does not serve our purpose at this time. Suffice it to say that the imitative style takes the form of musical dialogue.

In Dialogue we have the root of philosophy. The great Brazilian Catholic thinker Professor Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira properly understood it thus:

“Dialogue” is used in Socrates and Plato to designate the form of intellectual elaboration that two or more speakers, proceeding by questions and answers, use to distinguish things according to their genus.

In the works of Plato we see Socrates engaging in dialogue to get to the essence of things. Let us see if we can discover, by means of dialogue, the essence of this music. Its nature is not only rational and dialectical, but we can also see it as a participation in the music of heaven. Take, for example, some of the texts and Gregorian melodies from the Ordinary of the Catholic mass. For brevity’s sake we will consider the Kyrie, Gloria, and Sanctus:


The Kyrie consists of three acclamations—Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, and Kyrie eleison—each of which is sung three times, so that the entire melody consists of nine distinct phrases. This ancient ninefold plea for mercy’s number is evocative of the nine choirs of angels, whose harmonious echoes fill the heavens. We know from scripture that the angels do indeed plea for mercy:

And the angel of the Lord answered, and said: O lord of hosts, how long wilt thou not have mercy on Jerusalem, and on the cities of Juda, with which thou hast been angry? (Zech 1:12)

By its very nature, construction and execution the Kyrie is a call and response in dialectical form. The most ancient of the Kyrie melodies suggest, by their simplicity, a congregational participation and dialogue with the priest. It was perhaps developed from the ancient litanies sung on certain feasts and Rogation days.


Gloria in excelsis Deo is the second item of the Ordinary. It is the Hymnus Angelicus, also called the greater doxology. Along with the “Te Deum” it is a chant written like the “Psalmi idotici” that is, non biblical texts in the style of the psalms. The psalms from antiquity until the present day are sung in choir, alternating one side with the other. Again, this is a dialectical unfolding of the psalm and antiphon.

The text, “Glory to God in the highest and peace to men of good will,” (Luke 2:14) is taken from the hymn the vast multitude of angels sang on the night of Christ’s birth. Scripture speaks elsewhere (Prov 25:2) of the glory of God:

It is the glory of God to conceal the word, and the glory of kings to search out the speech.

The concealed “Word,” the Son of God, born lowly and hidden in the stable at Bethlehem enters the world, incarnate to live and converse with men. To “search out this word,” that is: to ponder, dialogue, meditate and contemplate upon Him is the “glory of kings.” Not just the three kings who sought out the hidden word, but every Catholic in the state of sanctifying grace who seeks Him out somehow participates in the kingly nature of Christ.

Again, ideally, when sung in Gregorian chant choral style alternating the phrases from one side of the choir stall to the other, it is evocative of a reciprocal dialectic unfolding which gives a greater understanding and elucidation of the sacred text.


The Sanctus is preceded in the preface of the Mass with a plea to unite our song with that of the angels in heaven. These are the six-winged seraph spoken of in the book of Isaiah. It is in the angelic “trisagion” that we have special insight into the dialectical and polyphonic nature of the music of heaven.

In sacred scripture we find:

And they cried one to another, and said: “Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God of hosts, all the earth is full of his glory.” (Isaiah 6:2)

And they rested not day and night, saying: “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, who was, and who is, and who is to come.” (Rev 4:8)

From these texts at least two things can be deduced about the nature of the heavenly Sanctus:

1.  It takes dialectic form: “They cried one to another.”

2.  It is unceasing: “They rested not day and night.”

Upon further reflection one may ask, what is the nature of this eternal repetition? Does it forever remain the same in essence as well as accidents? Or are the accidental attributes forever changing to eternally elaborate the holiness of God? Are they repeated one after the other, each awaiting their turn or are they layered in harmonic construction one upon the other? Is it like the snowflake, always beautiful, proportional yet never being replicated? One only needs to ponder the almost infinite variety that is found in the vast creation of our visible world, to perhaps realize that an ever progressive eternal flowering of beauty is congruent with the nature of Almighty God. I suspect, though we have a small glimpse from sacred scripture into the nature of this trifold Sanctus, its real essence has not “entered into the heart of man.” (1 Cor. 2:9, Isa. 64:9)

In the polyphonic choral art of the Renaissance we can see a mirroring of the heavenly style as found in sacred scripture. The style serves and develops the texts of the liturgy. These texts are elucidated and intensified through a dialectical syllogism of musical phraseology. So it is not only a manifestation of the classical ideal of thesis, antithesis and synthesis but much more. Each new idea, as taken by a different species of the human voice, is united to the texts in dialectical development that intensify or magnify the words of praise and pleas for mercy offered unto Almighty God.

This compositional polyphonic style is reminiscent of the classical dialogue of the Socratic method as found in the works of Plato. Yet this dialectical classical ideal, although having a perfection in Socrates, does not find its origin in Greek Philosophy. It is from our creation and built into the human psyche.

Was it not Almighty God Himself in dialogue with Himself who said as follows?

Let us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness?” (Gen 1:26)

Who was Almighty God speaking to if not Himself? Is not the image and likeness of God manifested in the immaterial powers of the soul? As St. Thomas affirms:

Since man is said to be the image of God by reason of his intellectual nature, he is most perfectly like God according to that in which he can best imitate God in his intellectual nature.

Also he states:

The image of God, in its principal signification, namely the intellectual nature, is found both in man and in woman.

Of all mankind, from the highest intellect to the most simple soul, we all participate in this intellectual nature of God to “self reflect.” Our ability to inner dialogue is a light that we have in order to see ourselves as we are.

In reflection and self-consciousness it [the intellect] turns back on itself in such a manner that there is perfect identity between the knowing subject and the object known.

This light every man has received from God: “This was the true light which, coming into the world, enlightens every man.” (John 1:9) This inner dialogue is manifest simply in what every Catholic should know as the “examination of conscience.” What is the subject of the examination if not yourself? Who is doing the examination? Not only does the intellect have the ability to examine itself but it can also examine its own examination as to quality, motive and sincerity. Then it can even examine this examination, which results in a greater striving toward a more perfect knowledge of self in seeking to conform to the image and likeness of Almighty God within the soul. “Be you therefore perfect, as also your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matt 5:48) This example of examination of conscience can be applied to any conceptual phantasm abstracted from the memory by the agent intellect. Whereby one’s awareness can become extraneous to one’s very own thoughts, look back at them and exercise judgment upon them. So in one sense this inner dialogue of self reflecting is a kind of zooming in, if you will. An inner inquiry or magnifying glass whereby knowledge can come to a greater perfection within the soul.

In part three, Mr. Mullen will discuss the perfect example of the Blessed Virgin Mary as a 'self reflecting’ soul and a summary conclusion of how the 'Medieval Ideal of Music as Rational’ was perfected in the Works of Palestrina.

We hope you enjoyed this guest article by Joseph J. Mullen.