Among the most eye-catching books acquired recently by Burns Library is this collection of masses by the prolific and influential Italian composer Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. Printed in 1570, in Rome, this is the first edition of the third collection of Palestrina’s masses (the first book was printed in 1554; the second in 1567). It includes eight masses for four to six voices.
On opening the volume, the first thing you notice are the elaborate woodcut depictions of musical instruments and allegorical figures which border the title page. The decorative elements and large format appear to signal a major composer at the zenith of his career, however by 1570 Palestrina’s prospects were actually dimming. In an essay memorably titled “Publish or Perish,” Jane A. Bernstein writes:
[Palestrina] dedicated his second and third books of masses to Philip II of Spain during a period of financial uncertainty when he was not employed by the papacy and had left his appointment at Santa Maria Maggiore. We know that Palestrina was looking for a position with a foreign ruler at this time, since in 1567 he had entered into negotiations with Emperor Maximilian II in Vienna. His dedications to Philip II also suggest that the Roman composer might not have been in sympathy with the reigning Pope Pius V, since at this time there were clashes between Philip and Pius concerning control exercised over the church in Spain by the crown.
Publication was thus a shrewd, though financially risky, act of self-promotion. Printers in 16th-century Italy operated more like vanity presses than modern publishing houses, so Palestrina probably funded the venture himself. Though he did not secure royal patronage, Palestrina’s financial worries were resolved when he was offered his former position as chapelmaster at the Cappella Giulia, thereafter enjoying a long and prosperous career.
Typical of polyphonic vocal music of this era, the typeset music is represented by mensural notation. Devised in the late 13th century and in use until about 1600, mensural notation used different shapes to convey the rhythmic duration of notes, an innovation which remains an essential feature of modern musical notation.
Of note are the pages where the printer has amended errors by pasting a corrected section over the misprinted staff. The book is bound in full vellum with the initials C.R. stamped in gilt on the front and back covers.
Unfortunately we don’t know who C.R. was, but we do have some clues about a later owner. In pencil on the inside front cover is written “Acquistato da Domenico Mancini di Roma il 23 VI 1971.”
This is a bookseller’s annotation, noting the purchase of the book on June 6, 1971 from one Domenico Mancini, perhaps referring to the 20th-century Italian falsetto singer of that name.
Emblematic of the Roman School, and a tangible reminder of Palestrina’s reputation for rescuing polyphonic music from the strictures of the Counter Reformation, this volume complements Burns Library’s holdings of Renaissance music, which include a 14th-century Franciscan Antiphonary and a 1546 edition of Cristóbal de Morales’s Missarum liber primus.
- Noah Sheola, Special Collections Cataloging Librarian, John J. Burns Library.
- Bernstein, Jane A. “Publish or Perish? Palestrina and Print Culture in 16th-century Italy.” Early Music 35, no. 2 (2007): 225-36.