Emma Coull

Palestrina for All: Unwrapping, singing, celebrating by Jonathan Boswell Review

8:53, 25th September 2020

Palestrina for All: Unwrapping, singing, celebrating

Jonathan Boswell

Boswell, ISBN 978-1721968954, p/b, 176pp, £6.23, (Kindle ed.) £3

‘I hate Palestrina’ was the burden of an opinion piece by the chief music critic of one of Scotland’s broadsheets some years ago, prompted by this reviewer having a wee contretemps with him about the Italian sacred music maestro during interval drinks. In short, he was convinced that his experience as a music student had inoculated him permanently against the pleasures of Palestrina’s pure, sublime, spiritual counterpoint. He is not alone. Could this wonderful, welcome, long overdue book be the answer?

It seems incredible that something so worthwhile and necessary should be self-published, but here it is, illustrated clearly and to the point with sections of score, packed with fascinating and illuminating statistics, not only a powerful and easily digested distillation of Boswell’s own and others’ research, but also an invaluable guide to programming Palestrina’s music both for the liturgy and concert hall. Boswell places Palestrina in historical and theological context (he has firm grasp on the latter), tracking the liturgical year with illuminating explanations for the uninitiated. This is truly an essential companion to all singers/leaders, whether amateur or professional, who want to understand Palestrina through performance or by listening to his music, not merely setting the seal on the rehabilitation of a much-misunderstood master, but also teaching one how to hear, appreciate and absorb the internal workings of Palestrina’s counterpoint, rather than be distracted by the line highest in pitch.

Here is a refreshing lack of jargon, a grand demystification of both man and music, rescuing Palestrina from both the dead hand of academic discipline and the ridiculously romantic pedestal erected by Pfiztner and others. It’s a great boon for Palestrina’s fans, of course, but if you’ve struggled to get on with his music, maybe having been turned off by time spent as a music student obliged to replicate his style for harmony and counterpoint classes, bored by poorly conceived performances, baffled by his musical/spiritual philosophy, then this is aimed at you. If this brief book (there isn’t a word too many) doesn’t change those feelings, then surely nothing can. It should be on the shelves of music students, choir directors, church musicians, academics, singers (both amateur and professional), and listeners, and it’s so approachable and modestly priced that it really is ‘for all’.


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