The Renaissance marked a shift in thinking on art and literature. Music reached new heights and continued to thrive in the following musical era: Baroque. In this column, I take a look at the musical gems of these periods, drawing upon my experiences performing at the New England Conservatory and learning from leading musicians at the Handel and Haydn Society of Boston. I wish to share my passion for this music with you. I assure you, what’s below will bring music to your ears!
This week, we will be looking at Giovanni Perluigi da Palestrina’s motet, “Adoramus te Christe.” For reference, many composers have their own settings of “Adoramus te Christe”: the text itself is one of the prayers associated with the Stations of the Cross and Catholic tradition more broadly. Palestrina’s rendition of “Adoramus te Christe” is particularly prominent as he is considered to be one of the “greats” of the Renaissance era. Beyond the liturgical connections of this motet, there is value in observing the corresponding musical phenomena that enhance the sentiment of the text and the universal effect on listeners.
More often than not, Palestrina’s works are intricate, and each voice part (Soprano, Alto, Tenor, and Bass) is unique and evolving. In this motet, however, it feels as if time slows. Palestrina does not showcase flamboyant vocal passages, for example. Instead, he presents a steady musical progression dense with subtle, intimate musical notions. The text and translation of “Adoramus te Christe” are as follows:
Adoramus te, Christe,
(We adore Thee, O Christ,)
et benedicimus tibi,
(and we bless Thee,)
quia per sanctam crucem tuam
(who by Thy Holy Cross)
(hast redeemed the world.)
Qui passus es pro nobis,
(Thou, who has suffered death for us,)
Domine, Domine, miserere nobis.
(O Lord, O Lord, have mercy on us.)
Starting at the beginning, the first line opens with a resounding minor chord, technically establishing the minor key and metaphorically establishing the solemn atmosphere of the piece. A highlight of this first line occurs on the first syllable of “Christe,” in which an underlying yet boldly stirring dissonance occurs between the alto and bass lines. This occurrence emphasizes the introduction of “Christe” in the prayer, thus helping the text declare its religious objective. Beyond this, the dissonant interval pulls at the listener’s heartstrings and causes the motet’s vibe to seep into the listener’s body and mind. Immediately after, the music falls into a cadence on the second syllable of “Christe,” coming to a momentary hold, at which point the listener has just experienced the first musical peak of the motet.
In the second line of text, there is a complete shift in vibe. After the ending cadence of the first line, the music transitions to the relative major key of the original minor key. We hear the words “bless Thee,” in a calming, warm light. Even more, the progression of the music accompanying the second line of the text is silky smooth, allowing listeners to relish in this magical, bright moment.
The next two lines act like one overall phrase, placing powerful music phenomena on display. A major musical event in these two lines, and arguably my favorite phenomenon in the motet, occurs at the start of the third line. While the soprano line gradually descends, the bass line climbs, creating a contrary, compressing motion in the music that gives the motet a strong sense of direction. Throughout this motion, the soprano and bass line move in steps, with a chord change at each step. Thus a volatile, expressive line is born from this musical motion that both supports the text and enhances the listening experience. Separately, Palestrina reveals the first change in text progression during the third and fourth lines. Up until now, all the voice parts had been changing words or syllables all together. Upon the arrival of the word, “tuam,” however, the different vocal parts sing the syllables at different times, adding a beautifully layered effect to the music.
The final two lines act as one combined phrase as well. In the fifth line specifically, we reach what could be the main climax of the motet, which takes place on “pro nobis.” The texture of the motet preceding this apex is not conclusively major, as the chords oscillate between presenting happy resonances and conflicting tones. Consequently, the musical progression to this climax signals the last intensifying moments of mixed emotions before reaching a pinnacle, after which the music and its sentiment relax into the stable, ending passage, the sixth line. This final passage lets the listener flow through the now comforting, mostly major musical progression to the end of the motet. For me, this sixth line is therapeutic, as it puts my soul to rest after experiencing the emotional journey of the motet. At the absolute end, the vocal parts come together to produce an optimistic yet pensive major chord.
I encourage everyone to take a listen to this motet, as well as Palestrina’s other works, and hopefully take away the magic of this music’s effect on our emotions. Although often found in religious spaces, the beauty and sentiment of Palestrina’s music are frankly all-embracing. I am always speechless and occasionally teary-eyed after listening to this motet.