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Nothing compares to a Mass setting by Palestrina

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The “Missa Papae Marcelli” may be the most beautiful piece ever composed.

Today’s Mass is filled with hymns and prayers set to song, but when you bring together a list of songs by different composers, adept though they may be, the compilation can lack a sense of continuity. In the heyday of Catholic composition, however, composers would score an entire Mass in a single piece. These works, known as Mass settings, were extremely popular for hundreds of years and each one would set the mood for a different holiday, season, or even weekly Mass.

In the 16th century, long before the likes of J.S. Bach, the preeminent composer of Catholic music was Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. Palestrina brought together all the best musical advancements of the Renaissance for his monumental compositions, which are widely regarded as some of the most influential in Church history.

Palestrina was a prolific writer to say the least. His body of work includes 68 offertories, at least 140 madrigals, more than 300 motets, and a whopping 105 Masses. It seems difficult to focus on any one Mass with such a dizzying array of works, but his “Missa Papae Marcelli,” featured above, is regarded as his most famous.

Palestrina composed “Missa Papae Marcelli” for the papal coronation of Pope Marcellus II, who reigned for just 3 weeks. The work was so beloved that it became the standard Mass to be performed during all papal coronations. It was the soundtrack for every pope’s ascendance from 1555 until 1963, when Pope Paul VI did away with the tradition of papal coronations.

The music displays the height of polyphony — a style of music in which each voice part sings unique lines that come together to form a completely different sound than each on their own. The use of melisma — singing multiple notes on a single syllable — can give the music a cascading feeling.

This week, we urge you to listen to the entire “Missa Papae Marcelli.” The exceptional recording is bound to put you in the proper mindset for church, and it just might add the perfect ambiance for a family breakfast.

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