Mass for Pope Marcellus

Mass for Pope Marcellus

In Brief

In Telemachus Stephen thinks of the "mass for pope Marcellus," pondering both the paradoxical achievement of the music ("the voices blended, singing alone loud in affirmation") and its religious significance ("and behind their chant the vigilant angel of the church militant disarmed and menaced her heresiarchs"). Musical tension between multiplicity and unity, addressing a theological dispute about heresy and orthodoxy, was an essential concern of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina when he composed this great work of Renaissance polyphony in or around 1564. The music clearly meant a lot to Joyce: in Lotus Eaters he has Bloom too mention Palestrina after thinking, "Some of that old sacred music is splendid" and "Those old popes were keen on music." It seems likely that Stephen may be considering the work's relevance to composing a masterpiece in his own realm of literary art.

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Palestrina's mass is one of the highest achievements of Renaissance sacred music, as spiritually powerful as it is musically exquisite. It also reflects an ideological struggle. When Stephen imagines that, behind the voices of the singers, the Archangel Michael ("the vigilant angel") stands menacing all those who would endanger Christian verities—Gifford observes that Michael was often invoked in Catholicism’s struggle against Protestantism in the 16th century—he is recalling a church debate about what is acceptable in religious music. Medieval church music had begun with monophonic "chant"; only over the course of centuries did polyphony (vocal music with multiple melodic lines intersecting to produce chords) become popular. In its counter-Reformation efforts to strengthen the church, the Council of Trent (1545-63) issued decrees against "music in which anything lascivious or impure was mixed," and its sterner members argued that only chant should be allowed in churches.   

Palestrina was a brilliant composer of polyphony, and his music was utterly dependent on church patronage. When Marcellus II died in 1555, his successor Paul IV immediately dismissed Palestrina from papal employment. But Paul's death in 1559 opened the holy see to Pius IV, who was more sympathetic to polyphony. In 1564 Pius commissioned Palestrina to compose a polyphonic mass that would answer all the objections to such music. Judging by the esteem in which Palestrina has been held by Italians ever since, he succeeded. Giuseppe Verdi said of the composer, "He is the real king of sacred music, and the Eternal Father of Italian music." In James Joyce and the Making of Ulysses (1934), Joyce's friend Frank Budgen records that "He was a great admirer of Palestrina, and that not alone for Palestrina's musical achievements. It was as something of a hero that he regarded the great Italian. / 'In writing the Mass for Pope Marcellus,' said Joyce, 'Palestrina did more than surpass himself as a musician. With that great effort, consciously made, he saved music for the Church" (182).

It is not primarily theological doctrine, then, that Michael is defending against heresiarchs when choirs sing this mass, but sacred music itself. The righteous archangel evokes Palestrina’s having successfully defended polyphony as aesthetically orthodox. The singers' voices are polyphonically diverse ("blended" together), but they sing "alone loud in affirmation”"in a kind of "chant," just as multiple voices join to make a single haunting voice in Gregorian plainsong. Thus the Mass for Pope Marcellus is artistically innovative but still traditional, an intricately complex mixture of diverse elements yet still radiantly "pure" enough to satisfy the censors.

By the time he wrote Ulysses Joyce had begun to use his discarded Catholic religion as "a system of metaphors" (Richard Ellmann's phrase) for his literary art. It is quite plausible to imagine that he heard in Palestrina's mass something similar to what he was attempting to do in his great novel: carry sanctified literary traditions like Homeric epic and Shakespearean drama forward into the confusing welter of contemporary existence, and combine a kaleidoscopic multitude of subject matters and styles in a single aesthetically harmonious whole. As Stephen stands on the Sandycove rocks, swept up in the inspiring power of Palestrina's music, he may well be thinking about how "his own rare thoughts" may produce a work of comparable power.

Gifford and Seidman note that Edward Martyn helped to generate enthusiasm for Palestrina and his Renaissance contemporaries in 1890s Dublin, and the mass for pope Marcellus was first performed at St. Teresa’s church in 1898. It is likely that Joyce attended this performance: he loved the lute songs of the English Renaissance, and in Penelope Molly thinks of having sung in a concert in "St Teresas hall Clarendon St.

John Hunt 2022
16th century painting of Palestrina holding his mass, by an unknown artist. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Photograph of St. Teresa's church on Clarendon Street, Dublin by benoit.bremilts. Source:
Formal oil portrait of Palestrina by an unknown artist. Source: Wikimedia Commons.