Music for a Pope

Pope Marcellus II (1555) a three week Pontificate inspired some great music.(Photo: Wikipedia)
Pope Marcellus II (1555) a three week Pontificate inspired some great music.(Photo: Wikipedia)

The huge body of sacred music going back 1,000 years owes a great deal to the occupant of the See of Peter.

If I highlight every sacred work with a pope’s imprimatur we’d be here all day. Here are two obvious choices.

The first is the Missa Papae Marcelli, The Pope Marcellus Mass by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina.

College level music courses assign this work for its complicated harmonies. What is not mentioned enough is its beauty. This Mass was thought to have been written against the decree of the Council of Trent (1545-1563) forbidding polyphony in sacred music. That’s the legend. The Mass was named for the Pontificate of Marcellus II (1555).  That Marcellus died three weeks after the papal Election adds a bit more pathos to this exquisite work:

The Miserere by Gregorio Allegri is loved by our listeners. This too has an attractive legend. Allegri (1582-1652) was a Roman priest and musician employed by the Vatican. Thus he answered to those who answered directly to the Pope. Allegri’s Miserere was kept a secret and was performed only within the Vatican. That is until 1770 when the 14-year-old Mozart heard it in the Sistine Chapel, wrote it down and snuck it out.

Don’t try this at home!

[Musica Sacra airs Sunday nights at 8, with two hours of sacred choral music.]

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