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Old Music Monday: Palestrina, The Sixteen and music for Lent

I’m sitting at home nursing a cold, the last of the three of us to catch it.  Being sick with a kid is infinitely worse than being sick on your own.  Because when the kid is awake, you’re awake.  And not only are you awake, but you’re also keeping them company, entertaining them, feeding them, changing their diapers, and worrying about how sick they are, and if they’re turning a weird shade of gray.  Plus you get to buy (and use) something called – I’m not making this up – a Snotsucker.

Anyway, I digress.

I haven’t done much on Old Music lately, and I think a great way to remedy that is with The Sixteen’s Palestrina albums.  Palestrina, as I’ve said before, is the granddaddy of early music.  He got this title by being a prolific composer of amazing liturgical music throughout the 16th century, but it also helped that he lived until he was almost 70.  Good genes.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JD7obDKzLL8]

The Sixteen have several albums of Palestrina’s music out, and this one is specifically music for Lent and Easter.  It opens with an 8 part Stabat Mater, which would have been sung at the beginning of Holy Week.  The Stabat Mater is one of the most interesting parts of liturgy for me.  It literally translates to the Sorrows of Mary, and depicts Mary’s sorrow at watching her son being crucified.  The opening words, “Stabat Mater dolorosa” mean the sorrowful mother stood, and it goes on from there, meditating on the pain that Mary felt watching her son on the cross. Sometimes it seems morbid to me to think that most of the Western world (and much of the rest of the world) is based on a religion where the holiest week in the liturgical year starts with a mother watching her son die.

But then I think about these beautiful motets, and about how the greater message is that God understands the suffering of humanity.  Until very recently life for most people was hard.  Like, “I’m really hungry and who knows whether I’ll be able to eat and I’ve had to go through hard labors four times because there’s no such thing as reliable birth control, and I’ll probably have to again and chances are if I do, I’ll probably die, because women die in childbirth all the freaking time, and probably at least two of my kids won’t make it to adulthood anyway, and oh yeah, the plague is coming back, and there’s probably going to be another war soon because it’s been fifteen years and the king is getting antsy, so, you know, that will f*ck up my life to no end, but there’s nothing I can do about it, and my clothes are so freaking itchy because they’re just homespun and feel like sandpaper, and yeah, have I mentioned that I’m hungry,” kind of hard.

Of course I’m sure most people didn’t really think about it.  Just like I’m sure that in five hundred years people will talk about how hard life in the 21st century was, when people had to cook their food, or diet to lose weight, or go to Target to go shopping, or something.  It’s how life was, you didn’t know any different, you didn’t know it was even possible for clothes to not itch, and so you just went on about your business, burying your children and grieving for those who died in the plague as best you could, and knowing that your time was probably going to come sooner rather than later, and scratching your back a lot.

So people spent a lot of time preparing for death; there were lots of advice books on the best way to prepare your soul, and art everywhere encouraged people to meditate on their own upcoming demise.

These kinds of motets, like the Stabat Mater, were part of that meditation, showing that God knew and understood our pain, and that even the Holy Saints and the mother of Christ knew what it meant to watch a child die.

They are incredibly moving to listen to with that context, and especially then followed up by the music from the rest of Holy Week, which celebrates the Resurrection, and reminds people that there is salvation available and an eternity of goodness, where the plague and medieval warfare can’t touch them.

Additionally, by the time Palestrina was writing, there was another force at play in the Catholic church – the Counter Reformation.  The Reformation started when Martin Luther famously nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the All Saint’s Church in Wittenberg in 1517.  At first Rome was like, “yeah, whatevs; so some guy in Germany has a stick up his ass.  We’re Rome, we don’t care.”  But then England got in on it, and so did most of Northern Europe, and before you know it the Pope is feeling just a tad bit threatened.

And thus comes along the Counter Reformation, the Council of Trent, and the re-branding of the Catholic church as a little less into usury, bribery, and canoodling with one’s daughters (along with a giant FU to the reformers through a not-so-nice Inquisition).  Thanks in part to the long-living Palestrina, the Roman church was able to do all this with a great soundtrack.

It’s good music to listen to while going through my own trials and tribulations in this sick-house (though I have NyQuil, and our colds aren’t life threatening!).

Spotify Link:

The Sixteen – Palestrina Volume 3

Amazon Link: