Palestrina’s Late Renaissance Motet Ego sum panis vivus:
Formal Order and Motivic Unity
 Shona Moiny


The motet form is “one of the most important forms of polyphonic music from about 1220 to
1750.”1 While it was most often used within a liturgical context, composers in the late Renaissance did sometimes take on secular subject matter; generally, these were madrigals.  Since its inception the motet has gone through various changes adapting forms and other styles of music that were common during that time.  Among the most predominant of these is the classical synthesis the form took on in the Franco-Flemish style of Josquin and his successors.2  Palestrina was one successor that was influenced by this style and his motets reflect a forward and critical approach to the form.


Giovanni Pierluigi Palestrina composed nearly two hundred motets in the late Renaissance period. Formal order was an important aspect of Palestrina’s writing.  While he adhered to the structure of the responsories to which he wrote his music, he also seemed concerned with creating musical unity within each piece.  The purpose of this study is to examine aspects of formal order and motivic unity within samples of Palestrina’s motets.  I will illustrate that Palestrina was trying to work beyond a form that limited what he could do musically by placing it within a text-driven form.  Dr. William Renwick states in his precis for this online journal that:

Motet form in its simplest terms links independent contrapuntal sections together.  Each section is characterized by an original motive and single phrase of text.  The overall form of the work is therefore determined above all by the text.  The formal plan in simplest terms looks like A, B, C, D etc.


Making reference to the motet Ego sum panis vivus I will expand on the above text-based breakdown and suggest that perhaps Palestrina has gone beyond this tightly bound formulaic structure by including new concepts of unity that in turn broadens the scope of this form and illustrates an example of binary form. 


Motet form, like fugue, is usually imitative.  Although the late Renaissance motet was modal, it is obvious that the relative key areas of the tonic, subdominant and dominant are crucial within the structure and this is because of the hexachord system.  The motet in this study is driven by the rules we’ve come to accept for subject and answer within fugal form. Take the opening segment of Palestrina’s Ego sum panis vivus for example (see Fig. 1). 

Fig. 1





This entire work gives the impression of standard motet form. However, there are similarities to fugal composition in the way the subject and answer are composed.  Note in Fig. 1 the subject entry on the dominant (assuming that this piece is built on the F hexachord, to be explained later) at m. 1 and the second entry of it in the tenor voice in m. 5.  The answer is on the subdominant in the alto voice in m. 2 and its second entry is in the bass at m. 6.  At the end of the text in m. 14 there is an implied deceptive cadence V-vi signifying the end of the first section but all of the voices do not end at this point.  The tenor voice provides a link to the next section; thus, overlapping of the sections contributes to the forward momentum of the piece.  While overlap is a technique of Renaissance counterpoint it is one that is maintained in fugal form.  “It is a natural way of joining sections together and maintaining the energy through divisional points.”3




Since the motet form is text driven, it becomes important to understand where the section-separations take place in order to further identify any other formal structure that may be at work.  This particular motet is separated into four different textual sections.  Like a choral fugue, the text determines what may be done musically because it is a driving factor in illustrating the meaning of the piece.  The Latin text of Ego sum panis vivus may be broken down into the following four sections:


A         Ego sum panis vivus

B         Patres vestri manducaverunt manna in deserto et mortuisunt

C         Hic est panis de coelo descendens

D         Si quis ex ipso manducaverit non morietur


While the text determines how far this piece may go in terms of conveying its literal message, it does not mean that the motet cannot be unified musically.  In his unpublished manuscript Dr. William Renwick states: “Palestrina’s Ego sum panis vivus, is an instructive example of a texted work in motet form that has a unified content in that the final section returns to the opening theme, albeit with a new text phrase.”4  While the musical material will be discussed momentarily, I have come to understand the text as a sample of binary form as well.  A loose translation and breakdown of the text may be viewed as:


A         I am the bread of life

B         Our fathers ate bread in the desert and have died

A’        This is the bread that comes down from heaven

B’        Those who eat that will never die


There is a distinct connection between the lines of text.  The idea of bread forming the two A sections and the two opposing lines of text regarding/reflecting life/death forming the two B sections. 


Rather than presenting new material for each line of text, Palestrina wished to create unity by relating the thematic/motivic content.  As a result, the musical form may be understood as A, B, A’, and B’.  It is in the variations of A and B that the unity within this piece is shown.   While this breakdown is in keeping with the text, the music itself carries a similarity within each section.  The areas I am most concerned with in this piece are within the beginning two to three measures of the A and B sections.  In Fig. 2 note the opening measures for each of the voices:


Fig. 2









In a) we are presented with a descending statement of C, Bb, A, F.  This pattern is presented in variation in figure 2b) as well and serves to represent the opening statements of the A and A’ sections.  2c) and d) are unified in ascending and descending contour or “Palestrina curve”5 in the notes F, G, A, and G.  In d), or the B’ section, this is varied only slightly in that it begins on a C and moves into the motive and in its slight rhythmic alteration.  Four compositional aspects unify these sections: the descending contour, register, rhythm and the hexachord.  The descending contour of the line is a unifying aspect that may be found in other motets by Palestrina i.e. Benedicta sit and Jesus junxit.  In her book The Development of Western Music, Marie Stolba talks about “…typical “Palestrina curves” within its phrase structure – a gradual rise of the melodic line balanced by a gradual decline.”6  I propose that it is these “Palestrina curves” (or at least the first part of them) that are key in structuring and providing symmetry and unity within his motets.  As is illustrated in the above example the contour of the line is too similar to go unnoticed.  This motet is therefore not only sufficient in terms of text, but in musical terms, the piece is set in a way so that it has meaning based just on its imitative counterpoint.

In order to fully comprehend this motet one must understand the importance and functionality of the hexachord at this time.  A hexachord is made up of six notes and was created in the medieval period for sight-singing purposes.  If a person sang, they were expected to know these hexachords thus enabling them to sing any piece of music with relative ease. There are three hexachords: soft, hard and natural.  The soft hexachord begins on F, the hard on G and the soft on C.  Each of these hexachords overlap in their range and it may (usually) be necessary for a singer to move amongst the three while singing a particular piece of music. 


The hexachord is common within the late renaissance motet.  It is evident in Ego sum panis vivus just as it is in the previously mentioned motets by Palestrina.  The hard, natural and soft hexachord are illustrated in Fig. 3

Fig. 3



It is important to understand that this motet is based on the F hexachord, although it essentially looks like F major and a person without an understanding of modal counterpoint could perhaps understand it and perform it in F major.  The opening sequence is the key element in setting the tone of the piece, and it is this hexachord that Palestrina uses to unify the motet.  It is within the F hexachord (and only in this hexachord) that the Bb is present.  In his book Hexachords in Late-Renaissance Music, Lionel Pike makes this comment on hexachord colour:


“The feeling of sweetness seems to derive from the nature of B flat – the only ‘accidental’ to appear in the strict hexachord system – for B flat is quite often dwelt upon in illustrations of sweetness…One arrives at B flat, in fact, by continual transpositions of the root of a hexachord up a fourth, so that each new hexachord begins on the pitch ‘fa’ of the previous hexachord.”7


In this piece the descending hexachord begins on scale degree five, which is part of the natural hexachord and falls to its ultimate goal of F, thus establishing a tonal grounding.  This grounding is carried through the other sections.  It is also important to note that the tenor line stays true to the F hexachord staying within the six-note structure.  There is however some instances where the tenor line strays beyond this structure, two are illustrated in Fig. 4.


Fig. 4





In m. 39 the low D strays beyond the six-note hexachord being utilized.  This D may be viewed as an octave displacement of the high D that begins the next measure and a way of dramatizing the descent (from heaven).  Therefore the D may be understood as a substitution for dramatic effect.  Later, in m. 43, Palestrina strays from the hexachord once again by ‘falling down’ to the D.  This too may be understood as pure dramatic effect and word painting as the text reflects this idea of falling. 


This particular motet is in binary form and this characteristic is unique because the piece may be looked at in two sections.  Ex. 1 delineates the form according to the text, the music and its larger form:


Ex. 1









Text form








Music form








Binary form




The plan of entries is another compositional technique Palestrina used to provide unity in this piece.  This creates a balance/symmetry between the two sections in the binary form. The plan of entries happens in the following manner:


Ex. 2









Music Form








Order Entry








Binary form



A’ and B’ repeat the plan of entries of A and B, thus emphasizing the binary form.  This is a major design element within this motet and its necessity in creating symmetry should not be underestimated – especially when one considers that this is viewed as a text driven form. 


One of the first things that may become evident to someone looking at the score of Ego sum panis vivus is the predominant use of eighth note ascending passages.  They are another way that Palestrina presents material that is meant to unify the work as a whole.  While these ascending passages are not necessarily important to the subject or the answer, they are a part of the forward momentum in the piece and a way to restate material from the beginning of the piece.  The two most important of these ascending passages are F, G, A, Bb, C and Bb, C, D, E, F.  Like the other (motive) these passages are based on the soft hexachord or what could be considered the home key of F.  The descent from F to C is used eight times throughout the piece, and what is also interesting is where this particular descent is used.  The A section, presents this passage in the soprano in mm. 2-3 and in the tenor in mm. 6-7.  Each time it is presented it begins a minor third below its preceding note (see Fig. 5).


Fig. 5



b) Tenor


In section B, the descent is present but in a variant form in mm. 19-20, and 22 in the tenor, and in mm. 26 of the soprano (see figure 5a, b, and c).  In studying the form perhaps the best explanation for this is that it is a way to unify section B, which is completely different material, to the A sections.  

Fig. 6

a) tenor mm. 19-20

b) tenor m. 22

c) soprano m. 26

This passage appears three times toward the end of the piece.  It is not present in the A’ section at all.  Once again it appears in the tenor voice twice in mm. 64-65 and m. 66 and in the soprano voice once in mm. 64-65.  As there are only 71 measures in total the restatement of these ascending hexachord patterns only serves to emphasize and recall the opening section of the motet. 


The other passage – Bb, C, D, E, F- is used a total of six times in the motet.  It is important because it starts on the ‘sweet’ Bb and it rises up to the F that we feel (and now know) it belongs to.  This run is used three times in the A section and three times in the B’ section.  It too, truly emphasizes the cyclical nature of the piece and serves to unify the beginning and the end.  At the end of the piece it is important in establishing the cadence that occurs in the last two measures (see Fig. 7).


Fig. 7

The passage ascends from the Bb to the F and falls back down to the Bb.  This Bb becomes the root of the second last chord and while the third of the chord is not present, the sound of the chord sets the listener up for the plagal (IV-I) cadence, which ends the piece.  This cadence is fitting because it is associated with liturgical text (it is derived from the plagal form of church modes) and because both chords are a part of the “soft” F hexachord. 


Palestrina worked within the confines of text driven form, the motet.  While it cannot be argued that the form itself is distinctly separated by new sets of words it may be argued that Palestrina was trying to create unity within this form.  The text, while an important aspect of this form did not ‘paint’ Palestrina into a corner – in fact it served to be a means for him to go beyond and search for ways to emphasize the music.  He did this in Ego sum panis vivus by creating subject motives based on the F or soft hexachord and making variants of it.  A well-devised plan of entry and the mirroring of sections only emphasize his desire to provide his audience with a well-rounded, symmetrical and unified piece of music.


The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, v. 17, s.v. “motet”.


3[Back]William Renwick, Encyclopedia Entries on Fugue (unpublished manuscript, 2003).


5[Back]Marie K. Stolba, The Development of Western Music (Madison, Wisconsin: Brow Benchmark Publishers, 1994), 217.


7[Back]Lionel Pike, Hexachords in Late-Renaissance Music (Hants, England: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 1998), 32.


Pike, Lionel.  Hexachords in Late-Renaissance Music.  Hants, England: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 1998.

Renwick, William.  Encyclopedia Entries on Fugue, unpublished manuscript, 2003.

Stolba, Marie K.  The Development of Western Music. 
Madison, Wisconsin: Brow Benchmark Publishers, 1994.

Copyright 2003 by Shona Moiny