Tuesday, August 22, 2023

Palestrina’s Canticle of Canticles

Before the Tridentine reform, very few feasts had Scriptural readings in the first nocturn of the Divine Office. On the feasts of the Saints, it was typical for readings of their lives to supply all the Matins lessons, while on those of Our Lord and Our Lady, the first two nocturns were usually a sermon about the feast, and those of the third a homily on the Gospel read at Mass. There were, however, certain exceptions to this, such as Christmas and Epiphany, which always had the same readings from Isaiah that they do today. Among the feasts of the Virgin Mary, only that of her Nativity had Scriptural readings; these were taken from the Song of Songs, or Canticle of Canticles, as it was traditionally known in the Latin West, from its title in the Vulgate, “Canticum Canticorum.”

Two pages of a breviary according to the Use of Prague, printed in 1502, with the Office of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary; the Canticle of Canticles is read in both the first and second nocturns. In many Bibles of this period, the Canticle also had notes added to the text to indicate who is speaking: “The voice of Christ, (speaking) to the Church”, “the Church (speaking) about its tribulations” etc. These were then often incorporated into breviaries, as seen here. (Click image to enlarge.) 
On the Assumption and through its octave, the readings of the first two nocturns were taken from a sermon known from its opening words as “Cogitis me.” This purports to be a letter of St Jerome, written to his great friend Paula and her daughter Eustochium (who are both also Saints), in which he expounds his belief in the Assumption of the Virgin, and exhorts them to imitate Her as a model of consecrated life. In reality, it was written by St Paschasius Radbertus, a monk of the ninth century, when “forgeries” of this sort were not looked upon as frauds or acts of deception. Patristic scholar Jaroslav Pelikan notes that Paschasius “under the name of Saint Jerome made a far more substantial contribution to the history of Marian spirituality and devotion than any of the genuine works of Jerome, or for that matter than (his own) other principal work … on the subject of the Blessed Virgin Mary.” (“The Odyssey of Dionysian Spirituality”, Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works, Paulist Press, 1987.)

In the early 16th century, however, Erasmus had shown that “Cogitis me” was certainly not by St Jerome, although he did not know who the true author was. It was therefore removed from St Pius V’s breviary and replaced by writings of other Church Fathers. (Ironically, the readings from St Athanasius assigned to the feast in the first edition were also later determined to be not actually his, and were removed from the second edition published by Clement VIII in 1602.)

The upper half of a polyptych of the Assumption, with Ss Paul and Jerome, Catherine of Alexandria and Clare of Assisi, 1529-30, by Alessandro Bonvicino (1492/5 - 1554), known as “Moretto da Brescia.”
The Tridentine breviary also conformed all Matins of nine readings to the arrangement previously found only on major Sundays and a handful of feasts, with Scripture readings in the first nocturn. The Canticle of Canticles, previously assigned to the Virgin’s Nativity and its octave, was then transferred to the Assumption. (On the Nativity itself, they were retained for the feast and the octave day, but not the days between.) The working notes of the editors of this breviary have never been discovered, so we are often left to guess what motivated their changes. They may have thought it was better to emphasize the solemnity of the older and greater of the two feasts by giving it proper readings for every day. But this may also have been done because the readings of the Divine Office in August are, by a very ancient custom, given over to the Sapiential books. The Canticle is always treated as one of these, since it has the same putative author as the others, King Solomon; this is why when they are read at Mass, they all have the same title, “A reading from the book of Wisdom.”

The readings are arranged as follows:

   August 15    chapter 1 (1-16)
August 16
chapter 2 (1-17)
August 18
   chapter 4, 1-4 and 7-15   
August 19
chapter 5, 8-12
chapter 6, 1-5 and 8-12
August 21
chapter 7 (1-13)
chapter 8, 1-4
August 22
chapter 8, 5-14

Two days within the octave have no such readings: August 17th, the octave of St Lawrence, and the 20th, the feast of St Bernard. (The readings of the 16th, 19th and 21st were later removed as other Saints were added to the calendar on those days.)
Palestrina presents his first book of Masses to Pope Julius III; part of the frontispiece of the book itself, which was published in 1554. Julius (whose scandal-ridden papacy was a profound embarrassment to the rising reform movement within the Church; his papal name has never been used again), had been bishop of the very ancient suburbicarian see of Palestrina, about 24 miles to the east of Rome. It was he who called the great musician from his position as organist in the cathedral of his native town to work in the choir of St Peter’s basilica. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
In 1584, when this custom was still less than 20 years old, the great Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525 ca. – 1594) published a collection of 29 motets of texts from the Canticle. There seems to be no information available about their intended use, and particularly, whether they were deliberately conceived to be sung during Mass. Two of the wise men whom I consult on such matters had never heard anything on the subject. I therefore make bold to offer here an observation about them, and no more than that; if anyone who knows more chances to read this, I would be very interested to hear what you have to say, so please leave a comment in the combox, or send me an email at the address on the left sidebar. If it’s interesting enough, I might even make a post about it.

Of these 29 motets, the texts of all but one, the 18th, coincide with the readings for the Assumption and its octave, although they do not include all the verses that are in the breviary. (There are none from chapter 8, so the octave day is not included.) But more interestingly, the same verses that are omitted from the breviary are also not used by Palestrina. The motets taken from chapters 4 and 5 begin at the same verses as readings on August 18 and 19, and those from chapter 6 omit the same verses (8-9) which are omitted in the breviary. The two chapters which get the most thorough treatment, the first (motets 1-8) and second (motets 11-17), are also the ones used on other feast days of the Virgin, the former on Her Nativity, and the latter on the Visitation.

These motets are also quite short, averaging about 2 minutes and 45 seconds each. This would make them very appropriate for the sweltering Roman summer when these feasts are celebrated, a time of year in which we may reasonably guess that people would not want the liturgy to be excessively prolonged by lengthy musical pieces.

Palestrina came to Rome in 1551, and worked there for 43 years, at St Peter’s Basilica, St Mary Major and St John in the Lateran. Given the circles in which he moved, it seems quite possible that he knew the clerics who edited the Tridentine breviary. Taken all together, these things seem to make for at least the possibility that he deliberately selected his texts out of the breviary, and intended them to be used during the Masses of Our Lady’s major feasts in the summer.

Here is a very nice recording of the whole set by the Hilliard Ensemble.

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