Advertise on ChoralNet 
ChoralNet logo
The mission of the ACDA is to inspire excellence in choral music through education, performance, composition, and advocacy.

Palestrina style counterpoint

I was curious if anyone is aware of any current composer using Palestrina style counterpoint. It seems as if this is only used in composition classes and not in current use. Please let me know if there are any 20th century or newer works in this or similar style.
Replies (15): Threaded | Chronological
on August 19, 2012 7:46am
Felices Ter by Randall Thompson was written in honour of his erstwhile colleague, Archibald Davison, conductor of the Harvard Glee Club. Davison loved Ranaissance music, arranging many pieces for his choir, and so Thompson wrote his tribute using Palestrina's style to honour his friend.
Mátyás Seiber's early Missa Brevis owes some of its counterpoint to Palestrina; it is deliberately anachronistic.
Veronica von Dieselheim's Missa Sonus Musicae - each movement based on a melody from The Sound of Music - is an excellent example of blending the old with the new. Sister Veronica (d. 1591) is in reality Michael Mullen, of London's Royal College of Music. This work was given its US premiere in 1999 by the Saint Louis Chamber Chorus.
There are other examples in the canon; often, a composer will set himself/herself the challenge of Palestrinan counterpoint, and then produce a work that is outside their usual style. You might usefully look at early works by Holst and Howells to see this in practice.
Hope this sets you on the right path.
Philip Barnes
Sat. Louis (MO)
on August 19, 2012 10:40am
To Phillip Barnes, re. "Veronica von Dieselheim's Missa Sonus Musicae"
Hello, Phillip. How does one obtain a copy of the "Missa Sonus Musicae" score? I'm not finding it anywhere online, but it sounds fascinating and fun.
on August 20, 2012 11:11pm
Philip, thanks for the sources. At least I have some ideas about where to look.
on August 19, 2012 8:21am
It depends how strictly you're talking about adhering to Palestrina's style. Writing pieces that sound just like Palestrina would indeed only be classroom exercises. But the basic idea of sensitivity to good counterpoint (and its rules) hasn't gone out of fashion, it's just a lot quieter than other more splashy styles; a number of composers are using the same basic ideas with a somewhat expanded harmonic vocabulary.  For a larger work, you might like Distler's cycle "Lo, How a Rose" (in English or German), from the first half of the 20th c., which is exquisite. Paul Crabtree ( and Howard Helvey have written beautiful contemporary works using techniques that are grounded in good counterpoint;  Paul has a number of terrific works, and I would suggest Howard's "O Lux Beatissima" for a superb one.  Paul Carey has also done good work in a similar vein, and Stacy Garrop has a number of great pieces. The late Max Janowski was a master of counterpoint writing for the synagogue (I can give you recommendations).  The point I'm trying to make is that counterpoint is alive and well, though not front and center.  The pendulum may well swing back!
I've also written a few settings that work along similar lines, with a combination of imitative entrances and more chordal writing. My style tends not to be as harmonically adventuresome as some of the writers above;  I tend to get my jollies rhythmically.  Works you might consider include a Hebrew setting of Psalm 4, a setting of a poignant poem about "The Lincoln Memorial," a piece published by Walton called "Let Him Kiss Me" (text from Song of Songs), and a setting that overlaps the melodies of three spirituals ("Daniel, Moses, Joshua") while more or less adhering to the Renaissance rules about fifths, octaves, contrary motion, etc. Contact me at jonathan(at) or singwow(at) if you'd like to see scores (the Walton piece is at Pepper and pretty much everywhere else).
--Jonathan Miller
on August 19, 2012 8:58pm
Felices Ter is awesome. Short but beautifully done.
For a more challenging example of strictly contrapuntal writing in the 20th C, try Milton Babbitt's "Music for the Mass"; it adheres structurally to the Renaissance missa brevis form while using lines that subtly, chromatically violate the ear's expectations and make their own sort of sense entirely. The result is musically stunning, eerie and intricate and heartwrenchingly bleak and amazingly difficult to sing.
on August 20, 2012 11:17pm
Nicholas, Thanks for the info. I'm casting a prestty big net. I'll have plenty to choose from, before I have to narrow down what I really like to focus on this semester.
on August 20, 2012 4:44am
Craig - Check out any of the sacred choral works of Richard Robert Rossi, who I believe is a music prof at E. Illinois U.  There are at least 4-5 published by GIA Publications of Chicago, IL.  You can reach them at, and then just type in Rossi's name on the search prompt.
on August 20, 2012 11:13pm
Ron, thanks for the info. Should be easy to find. Thanks.
on August 20, 2012 5:48am
Craig -- Jonathan Miller said it very well; these techniques are still alive!  I would add Rheinberger's a cappella motets and masses as 19th century examples and Schönberg's "Friede auf Erden" and R. Strauss's "Deutsche Motteten" as significant (early) 20th century pieces, although the latter are too hard for most ensembles.
May I also suggest my "Three Latin Prayers" for SSATBB, which use imitative counterpoint in modern harmonic vocabulary for "Angele Dei," "Agimus Tibi Gratias," and "Dona Nobis Pacem?"  Audio is at above pages and more info including scores available via this link to my website.  Singers really seem to enjoy them, and the sacred texts are not so religious or specific that they cannot be done in most public schools.  
Hope this helps!  Best, chris
Christopher J. Hoh
on August 20, 2012 5:48am
In the general style of Palestrina, I am reminded of "Three Motets" by Carl Nielsen, Danish composer.
on August 20, 2012 11:09pm
Thanks Martin, I'll check that one out.
on August 20, 2012 3:49pm

I am so glad to see this question and the responses. In a seemingly neverending parade of sweet, slow, homophonic choral music written in the US over the last fifteen years I am glad to see someone looking for counterpoint. Thanks to Jonathan Miller for mentioning my name. My involvement in writing contrapuntally to some degree came from studying species counterpoint privately with the composer Ben Johnston, who was also quite the expert on historical tunings, btw. A great man. Choral counterpoint adds many new levels of stimulation to the mind, variety to the texture, opportunities for all singers to feel appreciated- not just the soprano on top, and so many other things.

Lately I have a few pieces which are quite contrapuntal but sure don't sound like Palestrina (harmonically much of my music might sound like Britten, Vaughn Williams, tiny hints of Debussy/Ravel/Stravinsky, etc). One is the Missa Brevis Incheon, commissioned by the Incheon City Chorale and premiered in 2009. It's about 15 minutes- score available for perusal, no charge.

Another is a recent piece written for the pro group Prometheus directed by Paul Crabb. It's called "Dirge for Love" and is a battle of the sexes madrigal I guess you could say. SSAATTBB. Great, witty text and it has all sorts of throwback counterpoint stuff, even some fauxbourdon, and a quote from the Dies IRae for fun. Score also available and recording soon. It was a big hit when Prometheus sang it a few weeks ago for Missouri ACDA.

Finally, a piece which owes a lot to Hugo Distler (yay Jonathan  for mentioning him- what a genius) is my very layered, expressive double choir setting of Billings' When Jesus Wept. This is about 8 minutes and has had some wonderful performances by Chor Anno directed by Reg Unterseher and also at U. of North Texas directed by Patrick Dill. Here is the UNT recording:
You'll hear (and see in the score) a lot of close stretto, othert types of imitation, including linked at semitone/tritone (gasp!), multiple bar lines/dotted barlines or lack of modern barlines, etc. My way of fooling around with a round and using techniques associated with Distler. It's difficult, I suppose, but not fiendish as I always try to write in a singer-friendly manner (I think I can say that truthfully without someone poking me).

Good luck finding counterpoint- hopefully more composers will add it to their playbook and publishers might consider it sellable.

on August 21, 2012 3:30am
Since we've already had suggestions of Nielsen, Rheinberger, Schönberg, Richard Strauss, and Mátyás Seiber, I think this discussion has space for a mention of Vaughan Williams' Mass in G.
on August 21, 2012 2:18pm
Randall Thompson Now I lay me down to sleep (SSAA) was written on a blackboard as part of a classroom demonstration in his counterpoint class.  I believe e.c.schirmer was its publisher.
on August 21, 2012 2:55pm
What a terrific thread.  I can't resist mentioning the music of Arvo Pärt.  Most of his music is expensive to rent and difficult (not necessarily technically but usually musically) but there are a few pieces Universal makes available for less expensive purchase (I believe).  His music is not "in the style" of Palestrina but is directly influenced by him.  Pärt abandoned serialism and stopped composing for a few years to study Palestrina before re-emerging with the "tintinnabulism" style he is now famous for.  Although the music is not harmonically remniscient of sixteenth century style it is meditative and reflective in a simliar way.
  • You must log in or register to be able to reply to this message.