Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina

The Italian composer Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (ca. 1525-1594) was one of the greatest masters of Renaissance music and the foremost composer of the Roman school.

Born Giovanni Pierluigi, the composer is known as Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina from the name of his birthplace, a hill town near Rome. It is assumed without historical evidence that Giovanni was a choir singer at the church of St. Agapit in 1532, when he was but 7 years old. When the bishop of Palestrina, Cardinal della Valle, was transferred to the basilica of S. Maria Maggiore in Rome in 1534, the 9-year-old chorister may have followed him, but the earliest cathedral record naming Giovanni carries the date 1537. Except for a brief return to his birthplace, Giovanni served at S. Maria Maggiore until his nineteenth birthday. During this formative period he probably trained with one of the Franco-Flemings in Rome: Robin Mallapert, Firmin Le Bel, or Jacques Arcadelt.

In 1544 Palestrina was summoned to his native town as organist and singing master of the local church. During the following half dozen years he married, fathered the first of his three sons, and began composing. Most important for his future career was the attention accorded his music by the new bishop of Palestrina, Cardinal del Monte. When he became Pope Julius III in 1550, one of his first acts of the following year was to appoint Palestrina choirmaster of the Julian Chapel of St. Peter's.

By 1554 Palestrina had published his first book of Masses and dedicated it to Pope Julius, who rewarded him with a coveted assignment to the Pontifical (Sistine) Choir at St. Peter's. By custom all singers of this choir were unmarried, and they were admitted only after rigorous examination. Since the Pontiff had ignored both traditions, Palestrina's designation was viewed with little enthusiasm. When Pope Julius died a few months later, Paul IV dismissed the composer but awarded him a small pension for his services. He also approved Palestrina's appointment as choirmaster at the church of St. John Lateran, where Roland de Lassus had been active only the year before.

Palestrina conducted the chorus at St. John Lateran from 1555 until 1560. But stringent economies and political intrigues made it difficult for him to achieve his artistic aims. After a particularly unpleasant incident about food and lodging for his choirboys, Palestrina left his post without notice. Such bold behavior did not seem to affect adversely his future career, for he became choirmaster at S. Maria Maggiore in 1561. Working conditions in this basilica were considerably better than at the Lateran, and Palestrina remained reasonably content for the next 5 years.

In 1566 Palestrina became music director of the newly formed Roman Seminary. Although he received a smaller salary than at S. Maria Maggiore, he was in part compensated by permission to enroll his sons Rodolfo and Angelo at the institution. What seems to have been initially a suitable arrangement did not, however, work out to his satisfaction, for he left the seminary very soon thereafter. For the next 4 years he was music director for Cardinal Ippolito d'Este II, an outstanding patron of the arts.

In March 1571 Palestrina was appointed choirmaster at the Julian Chapel, where he stayed for the rest of his life. On at least two occasions attempts were made to lure him from Rome. In 1568 Emperor Maximilian had invited him to the imperial court at Vienna. And in 1583 the Duke of Mantua, an amateur musician of talent and frequent correspondent of the composer, invited Palestrina to his court. To both invitations the master set such a high price on his services that it might be assumed that he never seriously considered leaving the Eternal City.

Reforms in Music

Intermittently from 1545 to 1565 the Council of Trent considered the reform of Church music, even contemplating the ban of all polyphony from the liturgy. According to one report, Palestrina saved the art of music by composing the Missa Papae Marcelli according to the requirements of the council. But the role alleged to have been played by this Mass is undoubtedly mythical. Palestrina's reputation makes it likely, however, that he was consulted on decisions about music. We do know that his works were performed before, and approved by, Cardinal Borromeo, who was charged with securing a liturgical music free of secular tunes and unintelligible texts.

Palestrina's influence with the Roman hierarchy is also witnessed by a papal order of 1577. He and a colleague, Annibale Zoilo, were directed to revise the Graduale Romanum by purging the old tunes of barbarisms and the excrescences of centuries. Palestrina never did complete this laborious task, and the Medicean Gradual of the early 17th century, sometimes thought to be his work, is actually the labor of others.

His Works

Palestrina's voluminous works encompass the most important categories cultivated in the late Renaissance: Masses, motets, and madrigals. Of these three the madrigals played a small role, for his orientation was overwhelmingly on the side of sacred music. His 250 motets include settings of psalms and canticles, as well as exclusively liturgical items such as 45 hymns, 68 offertories, 13 lamentations, 12 litanies, and 35 Magnificats. Most of these compositions reveal the so-called Palestinian style, in which stepwise melodic movement dominates expansive leaps, and diatonic tones in both horizontal and vertical combinations are preferred to their chromatic counterparts.

Important as are the motets, they are decidedly secondary to the 105 Masses for which Palestrina was justly admired. He essayed various types: the archaic tenor cantus firmus Mass; the paraphrase Mass; the Mass erected on hexachord and other contrived subject; and the "parody" Mass, which elaborates a preexistent polyphonic model. True to his preferences Palestrina avoided secular models, opting for the tunes of the Church or at least tunes associated with sacred texts. He was not modern in the same way as his Venetian colleagues with their polychoral pieces. His fuller identification with the older Franco-Flemish masters, however, made him the representative of that illustrious group best remembered by posterity.

Further Reading on Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina

The best comprehensive study in English of the life and works of the composer is Henry Coates, Palestrina (1938). His style and historical importance are treated in Gustave Reese, Music in the Renaissance (1954; rev. ed. 1959), and Knud Jeppesen, The Style of Palestrina and the Dissonance (1927; 2d rev. ed. 1946). For general historical background, Donald Jay Grout, A History of Western Music (1960), is recommended.

Additional Biography Sources

Cametti, Alberto, Palestrina, New York: AMS Press, 1979.

Coates, Henry, Palestrina, Westport, Conn.: Hyperion Press, 1979.