In ritual, the sound, strength of religion


Pope Marcellus II (r.1555).

About a month from now, the Miami concert choir Seraphic Fire will give a concert of the great Missa Papae Marcelli of Palestrina, and for those of us who love Renaissance polyphony, this will be a concert we will anticipate with great pleasure.

For me it’s almost impossible to listen to Palestrina’s music without feeling the deep reverence and spirituality at the core of his work. We don’t know all that much about him, but we do know the high esteem in which he was held by church authorities from the pope on down, and the reverence in which his colleagues held him, and there’s no real reason to question the idea that he was a man of true faith.

But the music is beautiful regardless of what the texts actually say, and despite who his original audience was. That’s good for people like me who have little faith, but it also raises some interesting questions about the link between religious faith and the music’s creators, performers and listeners.

For me, the most moving thing about a performance of a piece by Palestrina, aside from the primary thing — the sheer sonic beauty of those melodic lines and harmonies — is its timelessness, like a conversation with angelic spirits that has been going on for eternity. Leave the church, reject all of it, then come back 20 years later and incline your ear to the choir loft: That sound goes on, unbroken, unruffled, serene and secure.

I also think about the history of this kind of music, and the centuries of churchgoers and listeners it had reached. To know that congregations that have been dust for four centuries were listening to the same piece of music, and that it was just as alive for them as it is for me, is somehow more poignant when it comes to Palestrina.

Then again, it may be that I am reacting to the only part of the churchgoing life that really appeals to me, and that is its ritual. I’ve written elsewhere about the importance of ritual, and I still think the same thing today, that ritual is one of the most important parts of human society. (And of course I mean relatively harmless ritual such as intoning the ancient prayers, and not the ritual of something like Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, which does a sly job of building the repugnant ceremony at its heart as an honorable rock-ribbed tradition.)

But it’s ritual that ties us all together, that reminds us of the things we hold in common. If I go to a church during the Christmas holidays, I go because it’s Christmas, because generations of my ancestors have gone to church on Christmas, and because the other people there are in the middle of one of the most joyful times of the year, and you can feel it; all that goodwill is actually palpable.

If I cannot feel the spiritual ecstasy others feel in the nominal presence of the Lord, I feel something just as uplifting: That of ordinary people, happy to be gathered somewhere festive at the end of another long, hard year, happy to be with each other, happy to be singing the old songs, saying the old prayers, hearing the music of history.

That’s religion enough for me, and I’ll welcome it along with Palestrina when I hear that mass next month (here’s the Kyrie).

One thought on “In ritual, the sound, strength of religion”

  1. Are you familiar with the great opera “Palestrina” by the German composer Hans Pfitzner (1869-1949),
    which is performed with some frequency in Germany and whose 1917
    premiere in Munich was conducted by no less than Bruno Walter ?
    The late Rafael Kubelik made an acclaimed DG recording of the opera in Munich with Nicolai Gedda and Fischer-Dieskau ,not currently available,unfortunately,and I have a live recording from what used to be the East Berlin Opera conducted by Otmar Suitner on the Berlin Classics label.
    The story concerns Palestrina’s personal crisis of feeling burned burned out and unhappy with life, and the way he is persuaded to compose the Pope Marcellus mass by an influential Cardinal who is concerned about the fact that the Vatican wants to ban Church music other than Gregorian chant , and ends with the Pope congratulating him for the Mass and calling him”Prince of Music for all Time”. In between, there is the council of Trent where the Bishops and Cardinals are engaged in bitter infighting and intrigue.
    The opera isn’t very accurate historically, but is powerful masterpiece none the less.

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