Must watch and hear. Palestrina.

Tip of the biretta to NLM for this on Gloria TV.  It is a BBC show on Palestrina.  Fantastic views of Rome.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Mark of the Vine says:

    The first show, on sacred music in the Gothic age is equally interesting. The 3rd part is already out on It’s about Tallis, Byrd, and the Tudors.

  2. moconnor says:

    The program on Byrd and Tallis is the best of the bunch.

  3. ikseret says:

    Fr. Z, please, inform your readers of this poll (which itself uses weasel words). Certain websites are directing their readers there as is clear from the comments.

  4. AnAmericanMother says:

    THIS is worth watching all the way through. Palestrina, Josquin, the Sixteen, and MacMillan too. Excellent and perceptive commentary by good musicians, including demonstrations by Christophers and the Sixteen which take the music apart in a beautifully clear way. Also, love the choir director with the loud tie and the motorcycle. . . his young amateur choir sings beautifully.
    Unfortunately the Sistine Screamers murder “Sicut cervus” in passing. The exposed nature of Palestrina’s line hangs their insufficiencies out to dry all too plainly.

  5. amenamen says:

    This BBC episode was very well done, informative, and surprisingly respectful toward the Church. It shows a genuine understanding of the Church, and reverence for its tradition of liturgical music.

    Seeing the joy of those young Italian and English singers made me smile at the stale cliché, that we have to use certain types of music, in order to appeal to “the young people.” Against all the evidence, this cliché is still heard these days.

    Granted, not every parish choir could handle Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcellae, but many could. How did this, and so much of our musical repertory, simply disappear?

  6. amenamen says:

    typo correction- Missa Papae Marcelli

  7. amenamen says:

    I wonder if the former Bishop of Toowoomba has any leftover neckties that he could send to the Italian choir director seen in this video at 14:20.

  8. jdskyles says:

    This begs a question. We see how the Council of Trent responded to the use of vulgar secular music by Orlando di Lassus and others by banning the use of secular tunes. How does that plan apply today?? It would solve much of our problems with bad music in liturgy. I am beside myself when, at the end of mass, the closing hymn is to the tune of “The Star of the County Down”, a womanizing Irish drinking song.

  9. AnAmericanMother says:

    You needn’t get into the big Masses to sing Palestrina.

    He composed plenty of short motets that almost any choir could sing. Two in this film – “Sicut cervus” and “Alma redemptoris mater” – are staples in our parish choir repertoire. If you can count and pay attention (and not scream), they should be well within average ability.

    It’s a matter of lack of desire and lack of application (and laziness), not lack of skill. The Haugen/Haas “stuff” ( self censored here) is difficult to sing correctly, but since it is mostly mush anyway (and is covered up by lots of instrumental noise) it doesn’t really matter when people get off the beat or melody. In Palestrina, it matters, intensely.

    Lazy pastors plus lazy choir directors equals lazy singers who just sleepwalk through mediocre music.

    It ought to be highly embarrassing to Catholics that the best choir in this film is an English group out of Canterbury and Magdalen College.

  10. ghlad says:

    Nothing emphasizes the sacrificial nature of the mass and our thanksgiving to God more than a 7-minute long, multi-refrain, high-hat-driven rendition of the Gloria, complete with a beached whale giving us the oremus to let us know when it’s proper to sing the refrain for the Nth time flanking her mega-solos.

    Alas, hearing Palestrina’s music drove me to that uncharitable critique of my own Church.

    As a Catholic in my 20s, it is utterly baffling that something like the old music could be swept away for such. horrible. garbage.

  11. RichR says:

    One of my schola’s favorite polyphonic composers is Victoria. Palestrina may not be possible for a beginner choir.

    Kevin Allen, a contemporary composer who is reviving sacred polyphony, has 12 very easy-to-learn, but oh-so-beautiful-sounding motets in his book, Motecta Trium Vocum

  12. When I attended a Catholic college, as a music major, it was a Lutheran choral director who had us sing many works of Palestrina…for which I am most grateful.
    This music must be what heaven sounds like…may this “maestro” be given every grace and blessing;
    we would have been singing the crap from Haugen-Haas if it wasn’t for him. That’s his ticket into heaven, as far as I’m concerned. That man LOVED the tradition; if it was not for him, I would have absolutely despaired.
    That, and my excellent philosophy from priests who were eccentric and nasty; God has a sense of humour!!

  13. Singing Mum says:

    Speaking as a sacred musician, let me add a crucial element behind the reason why Anglican/Episcopal choirs sing this repertoire and most Catholic choirs don’t. It’s because the Protestants, in general, pay musicians justly. They value the music and the upsurge in the collection that a fine music program brings. Most Catholic pastors and parish councils don’t value sacred music in the same way.
    So, in the present state of affairs, the average Catholic will encounter great Catholic music at university recitals and mainline Protestant services but rarely, if ever, in their parishes.

    If people want to hear great music like this in it’s intended setting, they need to invest in trained musicians to serve as choir directors and section leaders. This means bishops, pastors, financial advisors on parish councils, and parishioners need to put sacred music, as an integral part of the Holy Mass, as a high priority.

    Music like this can be heard in the Holy Mass, but it won’t happen by wishing. It takes the work of trained musicians and dedicated volunteers.

  14. AnAmericanMother says:

    I don’t think selected Palestrina is any harder than Victoria. It seems to me that he wrote some material for his parish back home . . . simpler motets like “Sicut cervus” . . . that anybody ought to be able to sing.
    The same interplay is going on – Victoria can be a little deceptive because he doesn’t always start out that way, but once you get into it you have to read your line.
    Now, on the other hand, Josquin and Ockeghem aren’t for everybody. That is counter-intuitive music for people used to singing 16th century material. Our choir struggled mightily with “Tu pauperum refugium”. We nailed it down eventually, but it was tough.

  15. AnAmericanMother says:

    Singing Mum,
    I understand where you’re coming from.
    It is quite true that our parish values musicians highly and we have an excellent music director (who composes, sings beautifully, and plays the organ like an angel) and paid staff section leaders. And as a result our music is quite good.
    BUT – there is something else going on in the Catholic church.
    Back when I was an Episcopalian, we had a similarly excellent music director and staff section leaders. What we had that our Catholic parish does NOT have is plenty of eager volunteers with plenty of talent. The choir had around 30 members and was audition only, even long-time members had to re-audition every year. We had college-age music majors, opera society members, early music aficionados, and amateurs like me who went to cathedral choir school as kids and had years of solid experience in parish, cathedral and college choirs. It was a gung ho group that worked hard and got good results. We sang music that was an order of magnitude more difficult than our Catholic choir can handle.
    I do not see that sort of serious amateur participation in the Catholic Church. Many singers can’t read music all that well and strangely don’t seem to care to learn. Many of them lack choral music training, having spent their singing years in musical theater or the folk/pop “choirs”. And far too many seem to think of choir as just another social group rather than a labor of love for the glory of God. If they would just try, they could improve – but many don’t.
    Maybe it’s the result of 40 years in the wilderness without a general lack of decent music and organized choirs, so that we’ve lost two generations of training for singers.

  16. AnAmericanMother says:

    . . . that’s with, not without. The edit monster gets another one.

  17. Prof. Basto says:


  18. CatherineC says:

    I objected to the consistent reference to the Catholic Church’s power. I am not sure I heard any mention of the Church seeking the greater glory of God and the sanctification of souls. Just a thought.

  19. AnAmericanMother says:


    Given that it’s Auntie Beeb, and considering what they COULD have said, I think we got off lightly.

    The commentators (particularly the 92-year-old musician) referenced the glory of God frequently. Plus, of course, the music (and the glorious architecture and art) speaks for itself.

  20. MJ says:

    Fr Z, thanks so much for posting this! Our parish choir frequently sings works by Vittoria, Palestrina, etc, although I wish we could sing even more polyphonic works than we do now!

  21. irishgirl says:

    I was thinking the same thing! I didn’t like it that the ‘presenter’ made a lot of potshots at the Church.
    But the music-and the settings-was completely glorious!
    I have a CD of the Missae Papa Marcelli (sung by a Catholic choir in Minnesota-you’ll appreciate that, Father Z), as well as a tape of Palestrina’s Marian Masses and motets, done by Harry Christophers and The Sixteen [I got that on one of my trips in England, either in Canterbury or in Cambridge]. Nice to place faces with the music!
    What a beautiful church in London! Never thought there was an ‘Italian church’ in England!
    Compared with the glories of Rome, the church in Scotland was ugly!

  22. jaykay says:

    This is a beautiful series and I’m very grateful to be able to access it here, as I can’t get BBC 4. I’m ad idem with An American Mother’s opinion, as I’ve found the same about the generality of Catholic church choirs here in Ireland. I’m in one that’s, by and large, not bad but I’ve seen many others through experience in choral festivals, competitions etc. and attending Mass in different parts of the country through travel, and the general standard is not impressive.

    Yet it doesn’t take much to produce good quality. Our choir director, recognising that most don’t read music, teaches through tonic sol-fa and insists on proper pronunciation, phrasing etc. Thus the choir undertakes Byrd, Victoria, Palestrina (motets, admittedly, not Masses – yet) and while it can be hard work for some they do appreciate it. As do the congregation. The Palestrina O Bone Jesu was very favourably commented on this Easter, as was the traditional music in general, with lots of chant. People readily get the connection between sacrality and “fitting” music – and they don’t feel at all put-out because they can’t join in.

  23. AnAmericanMother says:

    Glad I’m not alone in feeling this way.
    There’s an easy solution if anybody ever says they’re put-out because they can’t join in.
    Invite ’em to join the choir! They’ll either “put up” or “shut up” as we say in the South. Our choir director has been known to pass out sheet music to the unwary in the choir loft . . . . :-D

  24. AnAmericanMother says:

    Link to the 3rd part of the series, on Tallis and Byrd, on Gloria TV:

    Pretty amazing stuff. Mr. Byrd more than once skipped out the back door as the sheriff’s men were coming in the front . . . we’ve got it easy, folks.

  25. AnAmericanMother says:

    Speaking of choir . . .
    We had a positively brutal (but positively exhilarating) choir practice last night. We rehearsed Sunday’s music (what a coincidence): Palestrina “Nos autem gloriari” and Victoria “O quam gloriosum”. Then we hit the new music – all cold sight-reading: Palestrina “Dies sanctificatus”, Stanford “Justorum animae”, Amner “Lift up your heads, o ye gates”, Hassler “Quia vidisti me Thoma”, Byrd “Sing joyfully”, and Palestrina “Super flumina Babilonis”.
    It’s the same kind of enjoyment you get out of running a 5K, or riding a combined training test (and yes, it is physical exertion. All that deep breathing.) Exhausted but happy.

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