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OU on the BBC: Sacred Music - Palestrina and the Popes

Updated Thursday, 13th March 2008

Music was vitally important to the Vatican - but in the 16th Century it raised its game to a new level.

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In the second episode Simon travels to Rome to investigate how the music of the Vatican powered the Renaissance.

For the Catholic Church music was an important symbol of its power but at the start of the sixteenth century the sacred music available for its liturgy and worship was essentially that of the Middle Ages. In Rome Simon discovers the life and work of the man who transformed medieval polyphony into something that could match the expectations of his employers, the powerful Renaissance popes: Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina.

Simon follows Palestrina’s journey from the sleepy market town where he was born to his introduction as a 12 year old to the choir of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. He discovers the personality behind the composer: how Palestrina lost his job with the Sistine Chapel choir when Pope Paul the Fourth declared that all its members should be celibate then went on to write a Latin mass for his wedding based on an erotic section of the Bible, the Song of Songs.

He investigates one of Palestrina’s key influences: the composer Josquin des Prez who developed his own interpretation of the polyphonic style by combining ideas from his Flemish background together with the new techniques he was hearing in Italy.

Visiting the key locations in Rome he reveals that Palestrina lived through the reign of thirteen popes, witnessing at first hand the dramatic impact of the counter-reformation which forced the Catholic Church to re-evaluate the role of sacred music. He concludes that Palestrina responded in the way of great composers - by writing some of the most beautiful music ever written, music that transcended the turbulence of his age.

In St Peter’s Italian Church in London, built in the style of the classic Italian basilica, Harry Christophers and members of ‘The Sixteen’ perform some of the key repertoire - including Palestrina’s “Missa Papae Marcelli” considered to be the purest and most beautiful example of Renaissance sacred music.

First broadcast: Friday 21 Mar 2008 on BBC FOUR

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