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The Pious Mind of a Sacred Musician

450 years ago, on May 13, 1572, after a conclave lasted less than a day, a man, to whom we owe our calendar and the scrupulous implementation of the decrees of the Council of Trent (1545-1563), was unanimously elected to the Chair of Peter: Gregory XIII, whose original name was Ugo Boncompagni.

There’s so much that could be said about him; a few remarks will suffice. Born in Bologna, north-central Italy, on January 1, 1501; professor of law in his hometown, between 1531 and 1539; an intellectual, he became bishop of Vieste, southeastern Italy, in 1558 and was created cardinal by Pope Pius IV in 1565. During his fourteen years of pontificate he was active in European diplomacy; he strengthened the new religious orders (Barnabites, Theatines, Jesuits, Oratorians, Capuchins); he founded numerous cultural institutes in Rome, in particular the Collegium Romanum (College of Rome), the future Pontifical Gregorian University; he reformed the calendar; he published the Corpus Iuris Canonici (Corpus of Canon Law), with the correction of the Decree of Gratian, on which he had worked since the Bolognese years; he amended the Martyrologium romanum (Roman martyrology), completed by Cardinal Cesare Baronio in 1586.

His interest in music should not be overlooked. On October 21, 1577, Gregory XIII entrusted the revision of the Gregorian chant books to two musicians, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594) and Annibale Zoilo (1537-1592): the work of “purging, correcting and reforming” the Antiphonary, the Gradual and the Psalter, however, was unsuccessful. On August 1, 1578, with the bull De communi omnium ecclesiarum consenso, the Pope reorganized the Cappella Giulia, the choir of St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican: twelve adults (four altos, four tenors and four basses) and twelve boys, called cappellani scolari.[1]

Palestrina’s significant acquaintance with Gregory XIII brought Musicæ princeps — the “Prince of Music” according to the words inscribed on Palestrina’s coffin in the Vatican Basilica — to dedicate to the Pope the Fourth volume of Masses for 4 and 5 voices, published in 1582 in Venice by Angelo Gardano.

The collection of seven masses (4 for 4 voices, 3 for 5), reprinted in 1590 and in 1610, entered the repertoire of the Sistine Chapel Choir. The words with which Palestrina dedicates the book to Pope Boncompagni, printed at the beginning of the book itself, are truly a beautiful example of how a composer places himself at the service of sacred music:

To Gregory XIII, supreme pontiff. That the supreme goodness of God is the principle and cause of all goods, whatever their nature, the apostle suggests, and reason itself, introduced into our soul by the same goodness, does not allow anyone to doubt. And, if we do not bring back the goods that are in us, once accepted, also to divine goodness, not only with words and preaching, but (more than ever necessary) with actions, we ourselves, obviously, behave with the utmost ingratitude for those same goods to be used for the praise of God.

Since, however, I began to reflect on this, I have decided to devote entirely to divine praises all the progress that it was believed that I made in music, to the study of which I had dedicated myself with all my energy since childhood (to many, in fact, it seems that I have made a lot of progress, but I myself, on the other hand, understand with certainty that it is very little) […]

And since in this field it is known that the most illustrious and most pleasing praises to God are those that rise in the most holy sacrifice of the Mass, and since many works of this kind had been carefully composed by me, I have chosen these few songs to offer to Your Holiness, Gregory supreme pontiff, and to be published with your consent. And as I have experienced your extraordinary humanity in many other things, and every day I experience it, so I hope that I will be able to recognize it also in this work, to be evaluated not on the basis of my smallness, but on the basis intention and commitment. There is still nothing else that I can offer, if not the prayer to divine goodness, which will preserve Your Holiness to her Church and fill it with all joy and happiness. This I have done and will always do.[2]

At the beginning of 1584 Palestrina dedicated to Gregory XIII another sacred collection, the Mottettorum quinque vocibus liber quartus, 29 motets for 5 voices based on texts taken from the Song of Songs, printed in Rome by Alessandro Gardano and reprinted ten more times until to 1613. The letter of dedication, in which the composer apologizes for having composed in the past music on a love topic, madrigals, yielding to “improper” profane temptations, is also interesting:

To our most holy lord, Gregory XIII supreme pontiff. Exceedingly many songs of the poets are on no theme other than loves that are alien to the name and profession of Christian. These very songs, by men carried away by passion and corrupters of youth, the majority of musicians have chosen as material for their art and industry — [musicians] who, however much they have flourished form the renown of their genius, have as much offended among honest and serious men by the immorality of their material. I blush and grieve to have been among their number.

But since the past can never be changed, nor things already done rendered undone, I have changed my views. And therefore I have before this worked on those songs which had been written in praise of Our Lord Jesus Christ and his most holy mother the Virgin Mary. And at this time I have chosen the Songs of Salomon, which contain the divine love of Christ and his spouse, the soul. I have used a style somewhat more spirited than I am wont to use in other church compositions, for so I perceive the subject itself to require. I wanted, moreover, to offer this work, such as it is, to Your Holiness, who I do not doubt will be satisfied, surely by the intent and the effort, if less so by the thing itself. But if (would that it happen!) I give satisfaction with the thing itself, I will be encouraged to bring out others which I will hope may be pleasing to Your Holiness. May God preserve for us for as long as possible Gregory, the most vigilant shepherd and the most loving of his flock, and may he bestow every happiness on him.[3]


[1] G. Rostirolla, La bolla «De communi omnium» di Gregorio XIII, Olschki, Florence 1993, pp. 39-65.

[2] In L. Bianchi, Palestrina: nella vita, nelle opere, nel suo tempo, Fondazione Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, 1995, p. 187, our translation.

[3] J. A. Owens, Palestrina as Reader: Motets from the Song of Songs, in D. Pesce, Hearing the Motet: Essays on the Motet of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, Oxford University Press, 1998, p. 308.

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