MUSIC / Angel voices singing: Next Wednesday is the 400th anniversary of the death of Palestrina. Bayan Northcott assesses his legacy

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The scene is set around 1562 in the Roman home of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, and the ageing composer is being harangued by his patron, Cardinal Borromeo. It appears that zealots at the Council of Trent on Church reform are agitating for the destruction of the entire centuries-old repertoire of sacred polyphony; to prevent this, Palestrina must write a Mass demonstrating that contrapuntal artistry need not obscure, indeed may enhance, holy writ.

But the composer insists that, since the death of his wife, all inspiration has left him and the Cardinal sweeps out, accusing him of the sin of despair. In his dark abandonment, Palestrina seems to behold the masters of earlier ages imploring him not to betray them but to add a crowning glory to their art. Suddenly, an angel appears singing the opening phrase of a new Mass. As the composer seizes his quill and begins to write it down, more angel voices are heard and at the height of his ecstasy he is granted a brief, beneficent vision of his late wife. When dawn finally breaks, Palestrina is seen slumped over the pages of the now-completed Missa Papae Marcelli while all the bells in Rome ring out in triumph. The great tradition has been saved.

This might sound like the scenario for a Hollywood epic of the more religiose kind. In fact it is the inaugural act of one of the most moving of all 20th-century operas. No doubt as he elaborated, first, his beautifully written libretto, and then the glowing expansive score of his huge 'musical legend' Palestrina between 1910 and 1915, Hans Pfitzner was consciously drawing a parallel with his own creative world. Just as the historical Palestrina could be seen as the last upholder of the great medieval-Renaissance contrapuntal line before the more operatic developments of the Monteverdi generation took music into a new, uncertain future, so Pfitzner felt himself to be the last Romantic, sustaining the true voice of feeling against the artificial innovations of Modernism.

In fact, as he doubtless knew, the real Palestrina was only in his early forties when the Council of Trent ended in 1568 - at which point his first wife still had another 12 years to live. And though the Missa Papae Marcelli does indeed reflect Counter-Reformation pressures towards clearer text-setting, there is no certain evidence it was ever requisitioned as a test piece. Yet within decades of his death just 400 years ago next Wednesday, the legend of Palestrina as the saviour of music was already current, and this in turn served to maintain at least a modicum of his vast output in the liturgy over the next three centuries when even the greatest of his predecessors and contemporaries were virtually forgotten. As a result, later composers seeking to understand the 'antique style' automatically referred to him: J S Bach transcribing a Palestrina Mass for his own performing purposes and Beethoven invoking the Palestrina style at moments of his Missa Solemnis - and even speculating on the possibility of a symphony in the old church modes.

More remarkable still was the devotion of Wagner, who not only wrote eloquently of the 'spiritual revelation' of Palestrina but conducted the Stabat Mater in Dresden in 1849 in an edition of his own. He was completing Lohengrin at the time and it is hard not to hear the serene opening of the opera's Prelude as a 19th-century tribute to the Palestrina manner. Seventeen years later Bruckner actually quoted from Palestrina's Missa Brevis in his own Mass in E minor - that numinous synthesis of Renaissance counterpoint, Romantic harmony and Classical form. By the 1880s, Verdi was arguing that the vocal counterpoint of Palestrina ought to be considered as basic to the Italian tradition as the instrumental counterpoint of Bach was to the German. Meanwhile, a young Prix de Rome student, Claude Debussy, was enthusiastically hailing Palestrina as the unsurpassed master of the melodic arabesque. Even in the 1920s, after the first upheavals of Modernism, Sibelius was still seeking sublimity through the evolution, in his Sixth and Seventh Symphonies, of great paragraphs of Palestrinan counterpoint.

Yet the Great Original was not just a legend; what compounded his unique posthumous fame was that he also became a pedagogical method. It was in 1725 that the Austrian composer Johann Joseph Fux set about reducing the universally acknowledged perfection of Palestrina's technique to a set of systematic rules, publishing in the process possibly the most influential textbook in the history of composition. Gradus ad Parnassum comprises a series of exercises offering the student just the degree of controlled choice he or she may be reasonably expected to handle at each stage of acquiring a mastery of counterpoint. Continually republished, adapted and imitated, Fux's manual has remained in use ever since. Even today, that most radical of post-modern masters, Gyorgy Ligeti, insists all his students undertake a strict course in Palestrina counterpoint after the Fux method.

Granted, by now, scholarly research, performance and recording have restored to circulation for the first time since its own day a vast gamut of other Renaissance polyphony besides Palestrina. We may resume the debate as to whether his 104 Masses, his 250-odd motets, his Lamentations, sacred and secular madrigals, and so much else, really surpass in power and perfection the achievement of his greatest predecessor, Josquin Desprez; whether his output matches in variety, intensity or humanity those of, respectively, his Flemish, Spanish, or English contemporaries, Lassus, Victoria, or Byrd. Or maybe it is the continuing submission of music students to the rigours of Palestrina counterpoint that causes some of them to reject his work as remote, impersonal and monotonous - for so two of our trendier young composers together with one of the BBC's busiest music presenters could be heard agreeing in a recent broadcast discussion, leaving only Peter Phillips to defend the cause.

Admittedly, the re-release of the four Palestrina discs Phillips has made to date with the Tallis Scholars constitutes a pretty convincing counter-argument. In this set one can not only follow Palestrina's evolution from the florid lengths of the early Missa Benedicta es, by way of the more cogent Missa Papae Marcelli to the tight litanies of the late Missa Assumpta est Maria; one can sample the contrasts between works modelled on pre-existing originals, elaborated upon plainchants or freely composed. And the inclusion of an edgy, minor-inflected work such as the Missa Sicut lilium inter spinas reminds one that Palestrina was by no means only a composer of serene repose.

The set also reminds one of the astonishing consistency with which the Tallis Scholars have sustained the highest standards of intonation, clarity and balance over the last decade. Only, have these become a little too consistent? Does their elegant despatch, for instance, of the final five-part Agnus Dei of the Missa Brevis, their emphasis on the upper lines rather than the bass, skate over the elegiac depths? Put on the rival recording (Hyperion CDA 66266) by the Westminster Cathedral Choir under David Hill. Here the tempo sounds almost dangerously slow, the expression swelling to a degree authenticists would doubtless denounce as anachronistic. Yet Hill's dynamic ebbs and flows always serve to articulate real compositional functions. By the centre of the movement, with its repeated, subtly reharmonised phrases on 'qui tollis peccata mundi', the music has accumulated a mesmeric pendulum swing, and the climb to the final climax on 'dona nobis pacem' before the part-writing drops away to a calm close is quite overwhelming. At least no one hearing this performance could ever again dispute the potential of the music of Palestrina to convey - as Pfitzner strove to remind us - the profoundest feelings of the creative spirit.

Palestrina 400 Collection, Tallis Scholars / Peter Phillips (Gimell CDGIMB 400: four CDs)