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Spiritual longing is like animal thirst. Palestrina’s two-part motet, Sicut cervus / Sitivit anima mea, sets the first three verses of Psalm 42 for Easter-Vigil baptism:
There is much in Psalm 42 that is dark and desperate. Palestrina’s setting is not, though. To modern ears, the second part of Palestrina’s motet, setting verses 2 and 3, might even sound incongruously chipper (you can listen to both parts of the motet here). Perhaps for this reason, many choirs perform only the first half of the motet, focusing entirely on the first verse of the psalm. I shall do likewise.
Palestrina’s motet opens with a simple stepwise motion from the tonic and back again, on Sicut cervus (“As the deer”). This nearly motionless entrance creates a stable foundation for the motion that follows, more rapid notes with a distinctive dotted rhythm on desiderat (“desires”) ascending to a plagal climax on fontes, with the dotted rhythm on fontes aquarum (“flowing water”) echoing the dotted rhythm of desiderat.
This opening subject is passed from voice to voice rather irregularly, creating counterpoint that’s highly imitative, but not rigidly structured, fluid, like flowing water. The lack of a rigid relation between entrances of the opening subject makes each entrance a bit of a surprise, like sunshine gleaming through clouds on a windy day, each gleam a fixed point around which the voices already in motion swirl.
Fire is not overtly mentioned in this motet, but it’s nonetheless present, and not only in the sense of gleaming light. Both the distinctive dotted rhythms in the opening subject and lambent melismas in its development link desiderat to fontes aquarum, desire to the living water desired, depicting how similar the dancing flames of desire are to the swirl of the water that quenches them.
The next subject to enter begins in the bass with similar simplicity, just a step down from a prolonged tonic on ita, the grammatical counterpart to Sicut, which frames the analogy between animal thirst and the longing for God. (Sicut X, ita Y means “As X, so Y”.) After the soprano’s entrance on ita, each voice below follows with its entrance in a chain of descending fifths, setting up a similar pattern of descent, rich in prominent suspensions, for the words anima mea (“my soul”).
Anima enters with plagal descent, hearkening back to fontes in the opening subject, and anticipating the final cadence on Deus (“God”), which is also plagal. (The plagal cadence is the classic “Amen” sound, which most of us recognize when we hear it, even when we don’t know its name.) Plagal motion thus anticipates the union of the soul (anima) with God (Deus) the living water (fontes). Moreover, the increased prominence of suspensions beginning on anima heighten the ear’s desire for their resolution, allowing our senses to participate in the intensification of the soul’s desire for God.
It’s not difficult to imagine Psalm 42 set to music that brings out its plaintive desperation. The great Anglican composer Herbert Howells set it thus. It’s not difficult to imagine using Gesualdo’s tortured mannerist counterpoint, with its eerie chromaticism, to set Psalm 42, either, just as Gesualdo set so many Tenebrae Resonsories.
Palestrina’s setting is different, though. In it, desire is not agonized, but serenely anticipatory, a fitting prelude to baptism, which is, after all, a homecoming, the seal of no longer being lost and desperate, but found; a sacrament in which desire loses its sorrow, but not its fire: Instead, desire gains the confidence that its fire will be met by the living water, that God will water our thirsty souls.