Magazine article Musical Times

Palestrina and the German Romantic Imagination

Magazine article Musical Times

Palestrina and the German Romantic Imagination

Article excerpt

Perfectly Palestrina PETER PHILLIPS Palestrina and the German Romantic imagination James Garratt Cambridge UP (Cambridge, 2002); xiv, 318pp; L50. ISBN 0 521 80737 9.

Palestrina's claim to have been the most influential composer in the history of music gains a significant boost from this book. The other names in the hat would surely be those of Beethoven and Wagner, whose candidatures would seem to benefit from the fact that their influence was more recent and more sustained. The temptation has long been to think of Palestrina as a composer on a pedestal to whom musicians have reliably paid lip-service ever since his death. But to admire an artist for his position in history is not the same thing as admiring what he actually wrote, and Garratt's book shows that Palestrina's music was indeed closely studied and performed at a time one might have least expected it - in early nineteenth-century Germany - and that what people heard in it then deeply affected the Zeitgeist.

One of the chief merits of Garratt's account is that he shows so clearly just what people did hear in music we now think we understand perfectly well and treat so differently. The early Romantic view of him stemmed from a desire that contemporary instrumental music should be less all-pervasive, less so obviously worldly. Today it is understood that at the time Palestrina was writing he would have had little option but to write for the church in an a cappella idiom. We put no weight on that knowledge, and take or leave the results as we please. In Germany around 1810 the ideals which had been forced on to his style throughout Europe for 200 years began to intensify as the surrounding cultural landscape generated a kind of covet repulsion. Having stood for a remote, pedagogic perfection Palestrina's music now came to represent a 'lofty, inimitable simplicity and dignity' (ETA Hoffman) which had become of vital interest to many people as an antidote to the modern world. Slowly the pieces which most interested them (which, contrary to our preferences, were the more homophonic ones, heard as simplicity at its most explicit) came to be performed and published, culminating in the first complete edition of his music, issued by Breitkopf and Hartel from 1862.

This led to a revival of Palestrina's music throughout Germany, with different emphases in the Catholic and Protestant communities. Garratt is meticulous not only in tracing the arguments with which people undertook this revival, but also in uncovering the eighteenth-century cultural thinking which led to it. Some of this thinking is tortuous to a degree. If, as Winckelmann argued, modern art was to be rejuvenated by the study of the purity of Greek art, how could imitating (and copying into one's own music) the work of a sixteenth-century church composer, whose music in the first instance had had a merely functional purpose, be justified? Public discussion on the issue of how pure polyphony really could be said to be, when measured by the highest standards, had reached such a pitch by 1826 that Johann Gottfried Hientzsch felt it necessary to point out in all seriousness that 'music in Italy around 1555 was entirely different from that of the Greeks'. With the rival claims of the Greeks, medieval art and Renaissance art slogging it out for the high-ground of noble, regenerating simplicity, and many philosophers as well as musicians joining the fray, a guide of Garratt's persistence is a prerequisite for any understanding of the overall picture. …

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