It was exactly five hundred years ago, on October 31, 1517, that a German monk mailed a list of ninety-five “theses” to the Bishop of Mainz and kicked off the Protestant Reformation. The monk, Martin Luther, focused his attack on the the Catholic Church’s practice of selling indulgences (i.e., offering absolution for sins in exchange for money), yet his small action kicked off a storm of radical religious changes. Most importantly, Luther and his followers believed that every individual could have direct access to God. Wishing to incorporate the laity into religious ceremonies, Protestant leaders translated the bible into vernacular languages (French, German, English––in contrast to the Latin that would remain the language of the Catholic church until the 1960s), and began composing short, simple hymns that the entire congregation could sing together. These hymns stood in stark contrast to the wildly complex, mathematically precise “imitative counterpoint” had become the norm in Catholic compositions.
The Catholic Church was the richest and most powerful entity in Europe, and their payroll included the greatest artists, architects, and musicians that money could buy. Five short years before Luther mailed his theses, Michelangelo Buonarotti finished painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Six years before that, ground had been broken for a new Basilica di San Pietro at the Vatican, a project funded primarily by the indulgences that Luther so abhorred. Ensconced in Rome, the leaders of the Catholic Church could initially afford to overlook the religious unrest to the North. But as Luther’s Reformation picked up steam, the Catholic oligarchs realized the need to counter the Protestant threat more directly. In 1545, Catholic leaders met in the city of Trent to plan a Counter Reformation; the Council of Trent would meet on and off for the next eighteen years.
It was not until 1563, the final year of the Council’s meetings, that an official (if vague) statement was released pertaining to the performance of music in the church. The intelligibility of the words should be prioritized, it was declared, and influences from secular music should be avoided. Yet the most important musical development had taken place some years before––not in Trent, but in the Sistine Chapel, underneath Michelangelo’s famed frescoes.
In 1555, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina had been named the maestro di cappella of the Sistine Chapel. The appointment, the most important musical position at the Vatican, was unexpected: traditionally, the Sistine Chapel had employed foreigners, and it was forbidden for married men to work in the chapel. Palestrina was an Italian, and a married Italian at that. He was also young––born in 1525 or 1526 in the town of Palestrina (near Rome), he was younger than Luther’s theses by almost a decade. As Holy Week of 1555 approached, Pope Marcellus II called his musicians together: the piety of Holy Week, he suggested, demanded a more reverential musical approach to the religious texts, one which prioritized the words. As the maestro di cappella of the most important chapel at the Vatican, the task of developing an intelligible form of counterpoint fell squarely upon Palestrina’s shoulders, and he began developing a style of composition that would retain the polyphonic complexity of his predecessors while allowing the words to shine through the rich musical textures. The influence of Palestrina’s counterpoint cannot be overstated: the fundamentals of his style are still taught to composition students today. On January 15, NOVA will perform one of Palestrina’s 104 extant masses, the Missa brevis (published in 1570), a musical jewel in which Palestrina’s counterpoint can be heard in all its exquisite (and intelligible) detail.
For NOVA artistic director Jason Hardink, the music of the young American composer Michael Hersch pairs particularly well with that of Palestrina because of Hersch’s use of sounds reminiscent of early music. Coincidentally, the two composers also find a common point in Rome: the first of Hersch’s Two Pieces for Cello and Piano was premiered in Rome in 2001, while Hersch was in residence in the Eternal City as a recipient of the Rome Prize. The work was premiered in its entirety in 2010 at the Phillips Gallery in Washington, D.C., with the composer at the piano and Daniel Gaisford on cello; Sunday will be the first time that Two Pieces has been performed by musicians other than Hersch and Gaisford.
Palestrina and Hersch will joined on NOVA’s concert by Richard Strauss and Anton Webern, two young composers searching to find their unique voices in the early years of the twentieth century. Strauss’s soaring Brentano Lieder, written in 1918, is a tour de force of expression and virtuosity bringing together the techniques of vocal composition Strauss had perfected in his operas. Webern’s Langsamer Satz for string quartet is one of the few extant works dating to his first year of study with Arnold Schoenberg. A lush, Romantic work, standing in stark contrast to the pointillistic modernism for which Webern is better known, the Langsamer Satz is sure to beguile and surprise.