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A Comparison Of Palestrina And Rameau Essay Sample

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A Comparison Of Palestrina And Rameau Essay Sample

The Musician Giovanni Pierluigi, who was born in 1525 (died 1594), at Palestrina (hence “Da Palestrina”) in the Papal States, belongs among the most influential composers of all times. His life work brought the vocal polyphonic style to full development. The leading characteristic of his art is his natural genius for pure harmonic style, comparable to even Mozart in that effect. Jean-Philippe Rameau was born in Dijon, France in 1683 and died in 1764. He was one of the greatest figures in French musical history, a theorist of European stature and France’s leading 18th century composer.

He made important contributions to the cantata, the motet, keyboard music, and many of his dramatic compositions stand alongside those of Lully and Gluck as the pinnacles of pre-revolutionary French opera. The pieces chosen to compare and contrast are the Pope Marcellus Mass by Palestrina, and the opera, Castor and Pollux by Rameau, more importantly, the pure vocal style of Palestrina, and the sophisticated harmonic palette of Rameau. Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli, or Pope Marcellus Mass, is his best known work. Even during his lifetime, prominent members of the music scene linked this work with the

discussions concerning church music at the Council of Trent. It is an undisputed fact that this Mass, printed in the second collection of Palestrina’s Masses in 1567, was composed in light of the desire to reform church music at that time. Its clarity of words and expressiveness, its stylistic unity of themes and construction, with melodies related to Gregorian chant, demonstrate a manner of working different from that of the old Flemish composers. Contrapuntal technique and harmony, formal structure and tonal qualities are all balanced in this Mass, giving clear musical expression to the liturgical text.

The Missa Papae Marcelli demonstrates the extensive form of the Papal Mass. The demands which Pope Marcellus II made on church music and its liturgical expression are fulfilled in this work of Palestrina. Rameau’s Castor and Pollux is generally regarded as his crowning achievement. The opera’s subject matter – the brotherly love of twins Castor and Pollux, one mortal, one immortal – was unusual in French opera of the period, which normally concerned itself with romantic love. This piece has its own singular eloquence, lyricism, heroic, and is enlivened everywhere by dance rhythms, and sophisticated harmonic structure.

It has also been praised for its originality of libretto, its straightforward theme (fraternal love), beauty of music, and novelty. Palestrina was said to have the most organized technique of the age of pure vocal polyphony. He believed that the tendency to over-elaborate and over-ornament lead to unnecessary complexity in the music. The repetition of words and syllables, the use of interpolated themes with their original texts must give way to a purer style. The style of this piece is described as curvilinear movement or, “a series of carefully proportioned curves in

which ascending movement is balanced by descending movement and melodic leaps are very small, and smoothed over and balanced by notes stepwise. “(2) Harmony did not signify any interest according to Palestrina, as chords had not yet reached a stage where they had their own life. All that was required in the Mass was the clarity of sonority. There is no canon, no inverted fugue or complicated measures in this work. The harmony is pure, and therefore the Pope Marcellus Mass is described as the simplest of his works. The music is diatonic, and the use of chromatic alteration does not exceed what was valid in plainsong.

The piece is based on a modified version of the Ecclesiastical Modal System, and conforms to the maxims laid down by Pope Marcellus II, including simplicity, clarity, and intelligibility of words. The entire Mass is written within two octaves and a fifth, and the absence of a mechanical rhythm, or a strong or weak beat permits a pure unbroken flow of sound and a sense of a calm, sweet, ordered progress. In comparison, Rameau believed that harmony, not melody, was the focal point for a good piece of music. In the opera Castor and Pollux, he modulates in ways that were so swift

and expressive, that many thought his music seemed centuries ahead of its time. Also, his use of percussion and independent woodwinds ( for example, a flute part would not just double the violins) makes parts of his opera extremely evocative. However, this brought down harsh criticism on Rameau. Half of the Paris Intelligentsia attacked him as a radical composer of grotesque, unmelodic, discordant music that was made even more offensive by its noisy instrumentation. Critics would say that compared to the simple, beautiful music of Palestrina, Rameau’s music seems unnecessarily complex and artificial.

But Rameau is said to be one of the founders of modern theory. He believed that all harmony is based on the root, the third and the fifth, or the triad, which is still a fundamental part of any theoretical teachings. This was unheard of in the time of Palestrina, but by Rameau’s time, no vestige remained of the ancient modal system which made Palestrina’s Mass so beautiful. In conclusion, upon listening to both of these works, it is evident that both are well crafted musical masterpieces, though obviously from different time periods. Palestrina’s music

is simple and pure, soothing and calm, while Rameau’s music is extremely dramatic, expressive and harmonically very colourful. In Palestrina style, the starting point is the pure melodic line, free of ornamentation or harmony. In Rameau style, it is the harmonic structure which gives the music its foundation. This Palestrina composition incorporates a skillful and subtle use of vocal colour, which demonstrates why Pope Marcellus Mass is such a beautiful piece. Rameau’s Castor and Pollux is an excellent example of how melody depends on the rules of harmony, and how an estimable piece can come out of more than a nice melody.


1) Jeppesen, Knud. The Style of Palestrina and The Dissonance. Copenhagen: Levin and

Munksgaard, 1927.

2) Andrews, H. K. An Introduction to the Technique of Palestrina. London: Novello and Co. Ltd,


3) Coates, Henry. Palestrina. New York: Pellegrini and Cudaby Inc, 1949.

4) Anthony, James R., Hitchcock, H. Wiley., Higginbottom, Edward., Sadler, Graham. The New

Grove: French Baroque Masters. New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1986.

5) Christensen, Thomas. Rameau and Musical Thought in the Enlightenment. New York:

Cambridge University Press, 1993.

6) Girdlestone, Cuthbert. Jean-Philippe Rameau: His Life and Work. New York: Dover

Publications Inc., 1969.

7) Bernard, P.J., Correas, Jerome., Christie, William., Castor et Pollux. France: Harmonia

Mundi, 1993. (set of three compact discs)

8) Phillips, Peter. Live in Rome. England: Gimell, 1994. (one compact disc)

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