The motet Ad te levavi animam meam by Palestrina

The motet Ad te levavi animam meam by Palestrina

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina died on 2 February 1594. Several months earlier, a collection of 68 motets was published. Although it appeared at the end of 1593 it is generally thought that these motets were composed over a period of years. Many have interpreted this publication as a summation of Palestrina’s life’s work. It was the last of the many publications that appeared during his lifetime.

The Offertoria totius anni secundum Sanctae Romanae Ecclesiae consuetudinem (the long title given here for obvious reasons), as the title suggests, consisted of a collection of motets for the mass offertories throughout the liturgical year. The offertory was an important part of the mass in terms of its ceremonial significance, a moment when the bread and wine were placed on the altar followed by various rituals such as incensing or the washing of the celebrant’s hands. In Rome the offertory was one of the main moments during mass at which motets would be performed. This can be one of the explanations why Palestrina set a collection of motets for the whole year, following earlier large-scale collections such a cycle of hymns (1589) or books of Magnificat and Lamentations. Each composition is appropriate to a different occasion, so that the mood changes considerably from work to work.

The collection, published in partbooks and printed in two volumes, presents a total of 68 works, for five voices, having been first printed in Rome in 1593 by Francesco Coattino. Here, Palestrina did not used the plainchant as a model for the polyphonic settings. Instead, the motives used are freely invented ones in very carefully carved imitative counterpoint. The economy of means and the composer’s use of similar procedures throughout the collection explains why they are all much the same length, with only a handful lasting more than 3 minutes in performance. The collection represents his restrained compositional style, using dissonance only with careful preparation.

The motet Ad te levavi animam meam, for five voices (with a second tenor, which seems to be one of Palestrina’s favourite voice combinations), takes the text of the offertorium for the First Sunday of Advent. Among the other Palestrina’s works I have written; this one presents some very interesting aspects in terms of its conception. First of all, in a first audition, one can easily notice that homophonic sections are scarce. In other of his later works, such as the six-voice Assumpta est Maria, homophony is present in a functional way of emphasising important passages of the text sung. In five-voice motets often the central voice is used as a common part to a micro polychoral dialogue between the upper and lower voices in an extended use of homophony. This is not the case in Ad te levavi animam meam. Here, as in many other works of the collection, he wrote graceful and poised melodic lines for each voice. Each phrase begins with an ascending melody that will be balanced by a descent one at its end. A section of melodic activity wil be followed by emphasis on a single note, and melismatic passages will alternate with syllabic ones. He generally avoids secular features such as dance meters or word-painting.

The motet is divided into four textual segments (“Ad te levavi animam meam”; “Deus meus, in te confido, non erubescam”; “neque irridant me inimici mei”; and “et enim universi qui te exspectant non confundentur”), and one only sees brief homophonic sections in the third and beginning of the fourth segments, with a brief micro polychoral exchange in the third segment, at “neque irridant me”. Each of the segments corresponds to important textual statements. In the first he approaches God, in the second, he pledges confidence in Him, in the third, he pledges for Him to not let his enemies triumph and in the fourth he follows that all expect Him.

Palestrina set the points of imitation according to the traditional way, the first in a sequence of superius, altus, tenor 2, bassus, tenor 1 on one motive, that is clearly audible in the superius. There is not much text repetition and when it happens it is for emphasising certain parts of the text such as “Deus meus, in te confido”. In the first segment he uses longer rhythmic values, that get shorter as the second segment unravels in an ascending motive, which descends in an octave ambitus. The scarce use of homophony causes this motet to be very intense in contrapuntal terms practically from the beginning to the end. In the fourth segment Palestrina uses a descending motive that in part resembles the motet’s opening motive. The second part of the segment (“non confundentur”) is even more noticeable, using the opening notes of the motive.


Luís Henriques is a PhD candidate in Musicology at the University of Évora and researcher in training at the University of Évora branch of the Centre for the Study of Sociology and Musical Aesthetics, based at the NOVA-FCSH.

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