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“Orlando de Lassus died in Munich on 14 June 1594, the selfsame day his employer decided to dismiss him for economic reasons. He never saw the letter.”
— New Grove

Palestrina and the Perfecting of the Medieval Ideal of Music as Rational • (Part 1 of 3)
published 28 March 2017 by Guest Author

BELOW IS THE FIRST 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 establishes the Medieval Ideal of music as being placed upon the rational musical scale, and the work of Palestrina as flowing from and developing out of that ideal.

The Rational Musical Scale

295 Guido d'Arezzo UIDO D’AREZZO, also known as GUIDO THE MONK, is the man who not only innovated music by introducing the solmization syllables used to this day for the reading and understanding of music, but also—by inventing the musical staff—transformed the art of music from an aural/memory based tradition to a literary one. As Dr. Thomas Forrest Kelly acknowledged in his book on Medieval musical notation “Capturing Music”:

With a single stroke Guido achieved one of the simplest but most radical technological breakthroughs in the history of writing music: he made it possible to sing a song you have never heard before!

He also summarized and clarified for the medieval man the ideal of the musical scale as rational, as put forth in his foundational work on choir pedagogy “Micrologus” in the 11th century. The Micrologos also goes into great detail on what is known as the “liberal art” of music. Guido demonstrates how to construct the musical scale on the mono-chord. The musical scale is based on the pure ratios of 1:1 (unison), 1:2 (octave), 2:3 (perfect fifth), 3:4 (perfect fourth) and 8:9 (major second). Micrologos is not only a foundational work on music theory but also on composing simple organum. It is, along with the works of Boethius, a seminal work on western musical theory. It was dedicated to Theodaldus, the bishop of Arezzo, and was written in regard to the education of choir boys for singing in the liturgy.

The medieval ideal of music was that of the pure ratio. The word rational is derived from ratio. The ability of man to abstract concepts from his memory by means of the agent intellect and to recognize a one to one (ratio) relationship with reality is the very definition of rational being.

296 Ut Queant Laxis MANUSCRIPT The solmization syllables of Guido were: ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la and were taken from the divine office hymn “Ut queant Laxis.” A hymn to St. John the Baptist as sung on his feast day; the 24th of June. The six notes of his scale have come to be known as the hexachord. His system of rational music was actualized in seven overlapping hexachords. The first note of his system was the Greek letter gamma. ( Γ ) The Guidonian solmization of this note was the syllable “ut.” Thus the term GAMUT was used to describe not only his scale, but also has come to mean any hierarchical scale, stepwise construction or completion in a discipline or body of knowledge.

Thus the music of the Gamut was rational, that is, built on pure ratio and recognized as harmonic parts of the whole. These parts had due proportion or beauty. The mind could abstract the universals of proportionality, beauty and hierarchical order and recognize them in the rational musical scale as defined in the Gamut of Guido. Thus it was considered rational or “true” music because it was part of Guido’s Gamut.

The western understanding of rational proportionality is the foundational principle upon which the entire western musical tradition originated. The development of the medieval rudimentary polyphony of Guido to that of the Renaissance ideal of Palestrina were not contrary in essence. They were one in perfecting the understanding of the nature of music as rational. Palestrina was the culmination of the tradition that began in the medieval ideal of a rational musical scale. This scale or framework was the structure upon which the liturgical chant and polyphony of the Catholic Church was built. As Knud Jeppeson summarized in his work The Style of Palestrina and the Dissonance:

[The works of Palestrina] “might appropriately be called a vast summary of the musical development of the preceding centuries. In them are united all the various currents,–some that spring from sources in a deeply-buried past, traceable through the more primitive phases of polyphony back to the Gregorian age.”

The musical staff, invented by Guido, and the rational scale are the material causes upon which the various forms of polyphony developed. Using these material causes composers through the Middle Ages and early Renaissance perfected the polyphonic form. The culmination of this high art was particularly manifest in the works of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. In his work “Music in the History of the Western Church” Edward Dickinson states:

The contrapuntal chorus music of the Middle Age reached its maturity in the middle of the sixteenth century. For five hundred years this art had been growing, constantly putting forth new tendrils, which interlaced in luxuriant and ever- extending forms until they overspread all Western Christendom. It was now given to one man, Giovanni Pierluigi, called Palestrina from the place of his birth, to put the finishing touches upon this wonder of medieval genius, and to impart to it all of which its peculiar nature was capable in respect to technical completeness, tonal purity and majesty, and elevated devotional expression.

Palestrina was more than a flawless artist, more than an Andrea del Sarto; he was so representative of that inner spirit which has uttered itself in the most sincere works of Catholic art that the very heart of the institution to which he devoted his life may be said to find a voice in his music.

One of the ways in which the style of Palestrina was perfected was that it lived completely in the rational bounds of the Gamut. His beautifully tempered chromaticism was the harmonious servant of the rational proportional scale of Guido. In a musical display of the virtue of temperance, never is there found in his music a disordered chromatic novelty, either in melodic line or harmonic structure. Again Jepperson states:

The use he makes of chromatic alterations does not substantially exceed what was valid in plainsong.

It always served the rationality of the proportioned scale. Jepperson:

[While] “madrigal writers were employing chromatic notes in their eagerness to lend new life and brilliancy to music, Palestrina alone stood firm and steady in the midst of all these currents. He knew his own mind and was but little concerned for chromatic alterations.”

In his music we have a reflection of a virtuous soul who composed for the glory of God and the pious edification of his neighbor. Its appeal is to the intellect and soul of man.

In part two, Mr. Mullen will explore how the 'Renaissance Polyphonic Style,’ as perfected in the works of Palestrina, mirrors the Rational mind and reflects the music of Heaven.

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