Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (Roman, 1525-1594): Sicut Cervus
Anniversary of his death on February 2 (his birth date is not known)
Palestrina is another one of those composers you should know about, even though you may never perform his music (and even if you don’t love it!). He is often considered the musical embodiment of something called the “counter-reformation.” To put it VERY simply: in 1517 Martin Luther started the Protestant reformation, a “protest” and rebellion against the Catholic Church. As often happens, a counter-reformation followed, in which Catholic leaders tried to defend and strengthen their church and its traditions. Musically, the music of the reformation was “homophonic,” which means all the voices in the texture move together. Think of “A Mighty Fortress”/“Ein Feste Burg” which we heard a couple weeks ago in Bach and Mendelssohn. In contrast, Palestrina mostly used “polyphonic” textures in his music—which means the voices are singing different words at different times. Martin Luther thought this obscured the all-important text, but Palestrina proved that one could write in polyphony and still keep the words clear.
I surveyed my early music singer friends on their favorite Palestrina work, and the one chosen by most was “Sicut Cervus.” Here’s the text:
Sicut cervus desiderat ad fontes aquarum,
ita desiderat anima mea ad te, Deus.
As a hart longs for the flowing streams,
so longs my soul for thee, O God.