Giovanni P. da Palestrina’s Missa “Assumpta Est Maria”

After writing about Palestrina’s motet Assumpta Est Maria, I could not pass without droping some lines on the mass based on this motet, one of Palestrina’s best known masses together with the Missa Papae Marcelli.

The Missa Assumpta Est Maria is set for six voices (SSATTB) and expresses the joy and vitaly of the festivity for which it is destinated (Assumption of the Virgin Mary), through exhuberant melodic lines combined with elaborate decorative elements. Palestrina combines in this work the clarity and balance of his earlier works with a clear Baroque attention towards vertical sonority.

This is one of Palestrina’s last work, bearing witness of the full genious of the composer. This is seen on the major feature of this Mass: it can be classified as both a paraphrase and parody mass. A short phrase of plainchant (Assumpta Est Maria) provides the melodic basis on which this work is constructed; motifs are extracted from this melody and are used at points of imitation throughout the mass. Palestrina introduces a figure of five ascending notes which is used throughout the mass for a festive decorative efffect. It is at the same time a parody mass for it bears the same voice-setting of SSATTB and maintains the same relation between them: the “micro polychoral” grouping (the three upper voices constrast with the three lower voices), creating and antiphonal effect, which is easily identified in the “Gloria” and the “Credo”, but also in the first “Kyrie”, where greater elaboration was more customary.

Texture is an important feature of this Mass: its scoring (SSATTB) achieves a remarkable lightness and delicacy withing the richness of an elaborate six-part counterpoint. the melodic lines make great use of the high registers of each voice, producing a brilliant tone, while their constant crossing give the work an ethereal feeling. This can be clearly heard in the “Kyrie” and “Agnus Dei”, where Palestrina varies the two groups of voices, contrasting different densities and registers. In the “Christe”, Palestrina reduces the texture to the four lowest voices (ATTB), creating a sort of shadow withing the lightness of the other sections. The “Gloria” and “Credo” are primarily homophonic, where rhythmic elaboration consists of short melodic fragments or syncopated inner parts. In the “Sanctus”, Palestrina achieves a joyful mood using a diversity of contrapuntal means. The texture constantly changes as the voices are grouped in different blocks with alternation between contrapuntal phrases and restrained homophonic passages. In the Sanctus, Palestrina deploys an astonishing diversity of contrapuntal means to achieve a joyful, varied movement. The texture constantly shifts as the voices are grouped in ever-changing blocks, and flowing contrapuntal phrases alternate repidly with restrained homophonic passages.

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