Engaging with Palestrina

So, I was sitting there, behaving (as well as I generally can), when a sentence leapt out of my mouth unbidden. The occasion was a grant review panel, the subject was a chamber choir requesting funds to present a concert of music by Palestrina, and the precipitating topic was a discussion of the group’s response to the question about the public benefit of the activity. As is typical (and totally understandable given the state of the arts industry today), they had obviously struggled with their answer. They promised to reach out to all kinds of choral groups (e.g., church choirs), citing particularly African-American and ethnic European ones and to be welcoming to everyone. In addition, they said, “the music is chosen to be accessible and inspiring to all.”

Let me be clear. I am a huge fan of the music of Palestrina, but in today’s world, including among African-American and ethnic European communities, this would be an atypical and acquired taste. It would take a good deal of work to engage the audiences they listed. The truth was, and this is neither surprising nor something about which I could really take them to task, there was no acknowledgement of that fact nor any consideration of what to do about it. Generally, we don’t consider the issue because we suspect there is nothing that can be done.

So, the sentence that leapt out, without bypassing my thought processes, was, “Anything can be made engaging if you want to do so badly enough.” (If that statement had passed through my cerebellum at all, I probably would have amended “anything” to “any great art,” but that’s hindsight.) We briefly discussed their assessment of public benefit and went on from there.

But my exclamation stuck with me, nagging at the fringes of my consciousness. When I finally let it in, I realized I needed to examine it to see if I really believed it. Or rather, if I believed it (and I do), is it even remotely true.

I have used Palestrina before as an example of a truly great artist whose work is no longer the center of an industry the way, say, Beethoven might be considered to be a center of the orchestral industry today. But could things be done to make Palestrina engaging for uninitiated audiences today?

So, what do I have to say about this? Let’s begin with the music itself. It is the epitome of reflective music, especially in today’s context. It is not “easy listening.” It is “foreign” in text, mood, subject matter, and complexity. Yet, over the last decade or so there have been several “top 40” (or so) hits that focused on Gregorian chant. While most of those added (at some point) a strong (and stylistically inappropriate “beat”), there is precedent for music not wholly unlike Palestrina’s to be popular. Additionally, I think highlighting the music’s “points of imitation” could provide a viable window into the music itself. (If you question whether it’s possible to make structural details of music interesting to the general public, see http://www.openculture.com/2009/09/how_a_bach_canon_works.html.)

Another avenue that might be open to engagement is the meditative quality of at least some of the music–its potential for personal reflection. I know we are not a meditative society, but there are times and places when/where people are looking for opportunities to consider their place in the cosmos.

A third option is understanding Palestrina’s context. He was the musical center of the Counter-Reformation, attempting to stem the tide of messy modernism. (To my musicologist friends: cut me some slack for hyperbole and for over-simplification here.) Regardless of which side one is on in such debates today, understanding Palestrina’s socio-cultural role is kind of interesting as a basis for listening to the music.

I recognize that this may not represent an overwhelmingly compelling case for engaging via Palestrina, but they are a few “off the top of my head” ideas that might resonate. For those who know him and his music more intimately than I, there should be many others. Ultimately, the point is to see merit in the attempt to engage and then spend the time to seek out points of engagement and offer them to a public that by and large needs convincing.

In the end, I think I agree with myself, “Any great art can be made engaging if you want to do so badly enough.” And you don’t have to sell the art’s soul to do so.



Photo:Attribution Some rights reserved by dom archer
  1. Doug, on this post-election morning it’s nice to return to civilized discourse on matters of the spirit. Thanks.

  2. When all is grey in the world, and my anti-depressants have failed to kick in, nothing revives my spirits so much as Palestrina.

  3. Doug,

    Excellent points! As the founder of an early, vocal music ensemble, I have continually had to make the case for both relevance, and the ability to engage people with repertoire than is neither current or “immediately” accessible.

    And I agree that anything can be engaging if you want to do so badly enough. Also, if people are never exposed to a particular genre, there is no basis to actively like or dislike. Esoteric is not an excuse not to program.

    We have never apologized for our programming choices as being too esoteric, but what we do to make it engaging and relevant is create an experience around the music exploring multiple aspects of the “who, what, where’ and how” of the time of the composer. We look at what was going on politically, artistically, socially, culinarily, etc. and tie that into our programming in a way that anyone can relate to.

    Audience centric programming can be (and should) done with all genres of music. The key is to engage hearts minds in unusual and unexpected ways!