We’re fortunate to have Palestrina’s setting of the Magnificat Antiphon at Second Vespers on the Feast of the Ascension which this year falls today May 5th. It’s a four-part setting (SATB) and was originally published by Gardano at some point during 1563 in the Motecta festorum totius anni cum Communi Sanctorum … liber primus that edition is now lost1 but happily for us Palestrina’s music was so popular that there were several reprints and it is from these that we have O rex gloriae (O king of glory).
As you might expect from a piece of music written in celebration of the Ascension it’s a lively and joyful piece of music which like Exsultate Deo about which I wrote two days ago utterly refutes those who would have us believe that Palestrina was capable only of writing bloodless and abstract polyphony – Palestrina is often restrained and subtle yes, but there’s nothing lifeless about his music.
It’s the way Palestrina combines the two aspects of the Ascension that makes this motet so special. One the one hand we have triumphant joy of the Christ’s ascent while on the other we have the sadness of the faithful at being left on earth until he should come again. We can see these two aspects very clearly for example in the way in which Palestrina treats the phrase ‘qui triumphator hodie super omnes caelos ascendisti’ (who today have ascended above all the heavens as conqueror) emphasising it by switching to homophonic writing from the contrapuntalism that had previously dominated the motet and then, having made his point, switching back to counterpoint to develop the phrase further as the motet progresses. Once this central part of the motet is concluded Palestrina turns his attention to the feelings of the Apostles and the faithful as the impact of Christ’s departure hits them. If you listen to what he does to the plea ‘ne derelinquas nos orphanos’ (do not abandon us as orphans) and the way in which he echoes its semitonal inflections, varies them, inverts them, and expands them you’ll hear what I mean about how he combined the two aspects of the Ascension in one piece of music. He finishes with a triumphal Alleluia to remind the congregation that they can share in Christ’s triumph. Enjoy :-).
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (±1525-1594): O rex gloriae
O rex gloriae, domine virtutum,
Magnificat Antiphon at Second Vespers on the Feast of the Ascension
O king of glory, lord of hosts,
Performers: Westminster Cathedral Choir conducted by James O’Donnell