Monday, November 9, 2009

A Response to Brett Terry’s Reflection on Missa Assumpta est Maria by Palestrina

 In discussing some of the pieces with colleagues after a recent concert of George Crumb’s music, I discovered that each piece of music provided a different experience for each listener.  I became intrigued with this mysterious characteristic of music that exists in all times.  Though the listeners in a performance are collectively experiencing the same piece, each person is trained to hear music in a way that makes their listening experience unique. Among other factors, the average listener’s training is based upon the amount of musical exposure and the significance of music in their life.  For musicians in an academic setting, that training includes learning how to listen to music through classes but, more importantly, through their instrumental training.

In my experiences as a musician, I have found that each type of instrumentalist detects different subtleties when listening to a piece of music. When I read Brett’s journal, I was intrigued by the way he spoke about Palestrina’s Missa Assumpta est Maria, for it revealed what nuances he was able to detect as a vocalist. Since I am a percussionist who has not experienced much vocal music, it was interesting to hear his perspective on the piece and be able to compare it to what I experienced while listening.

 I was impressed with the Tallis Scholars’ sound, color, and intonation on their recording of Missa Assumpta est Maria, though I could not identify more traits that could support my personally defined greatness of this recording. After giving an introduction of the work and composer, Brett discussed the Tallis Scholars use of vibrato and how it aided the performance of Palestrina’s work. I did not notice this detail the first time, but when I listened again, his direction helped me experience the effect alteration between vibrato and straight tone has on highlighting moving lines and dissonances.

This technique's effectiveness led me to examine the performance practice of vocal music during the late sixteenth century, the period when Missa Assumpta est Maria was composed. Research shows that vocal vibrato during the sixteenth century was regarded as an ornamental technique that was not widely taught or accepted by musicians of the time. Though this attitude toward vibrato continued into the Baroque era, there was a brief period at the end of the sixteenth century where this technique was taught to be frequently used when singing in a continuous fashion rather than reserving it as an ornamental technique (Moens-Haenen). Though there were different opinions of how vibrato should be used during the time Missa Assumpta est Maria was composed, the Tallis Scholars' vibrato preserves the Renaissance principle of supporting the text and creating variety in the music.

In Brett’s response to the Missa Assumpta est Maria, he made an interesting observation about declaration of the text, stating that Palestrina declares the text in a different but effective way each time “agnus dei” returns. Since this section is less polyphonic and contains less imitation than the other sections of the mass, the Agnus Dei shows Palestrina’s dedication to creating variety in the music. Brett’s observation of the variation in the music-text relationship helped me understand the form and make musical sense of the Agnus Dei.

Overall, I really enjoyed reading Brett’s response to Missa Assumpta est Maria because it was informative yet it included his own insight on the piece. The information he provided helped me hear and understand Palestrina’s powerful writing, while his insight gave me an idea of the types of nuance exist in vocal music. By reading Brett’s journal I not only learned about Palestrina but I experienced a vocalist’s perspective of the piece and absorbed some listening techniques that I can apply to my study of percussion.


G. Moens-Haenen. "Vibrato." In Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online,    c/29287 (accessed November 3, 2009).

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