Personalities | Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina | Renaissance | Classical

(Jo-van’-e Per-loo-e’-je da Pa-les-tre’-na) 1525/6–94
Italian composer

Palestrina is named after a small town near Rome, where he is thought to have been born. He was educated in Rome; in 1537 he was a choirboy at the basilica of S Maria Maggiore, one of the city’s principal churches and an important musical establishment.

By 1544 he was back in Palestrina, in his first post – as organist at the cathedral. He spent the next seven years there, marrying Lucrezia Gori in 1547. In 1551 he returned to Rome, where he remained for the rest of his life.

Palestrina’s first position was the prestigious one of maestro di cappella at the Cappella Giulia, the choir of St Peter’s. Subsequently he served in most of the major institutions in Rome: the Cappella Sistina (the pope’s personal choir) briefly in 1555; S Giovanni Laterano (1555–60); S Maria Maggiore (1561–66); and back to the Cappella Giulia from 1571 until his death. From 1567 to 1571 he was in the private service of the powerful cardinal Ippolito d’Este, a member of the ruling family of Ferrara. Palestrina’s reputation spread across Europe during his lifetime and he turned down job offers from other parts of Italy and abroad.

The Counter-Reformation

Palestrina’s life spanned the first 50 years of the Counter-Reformation, which had an impact on his career and was in turn defined, musically, by his contribution. He was personally affected by the reforms when in 1555, after only a few months in the Cappella Sistina, he was dismissed along with all other married men in the chapel, by the strict reformist pope, Paul IV.

In general, however, the atmosphere of the Counter-Reformation was beneficial to Palestrina. Music, which had always been an important part of Catholic worship, came under new scrutiny by church leaders eager to stem the tide of defectors to the Protestant cause. When the reformers wanted a revision of the church’s plainchant, they turned to Palestrina and another Roman, Annibale Zoilo (c. 1537–92). Although the project was not finished in Palestrina’s lifetime, much of the resulting publication – the Editio Medicea of 1614 – was undoubtedly his work.

Among the concerns of Counter-Reformation churchmen interested in music was the intelligibility of text. By the 1540s, the predominant melodic and contrapuntal styles made it very difficult to understand. With the extensive use of melisma, individual words were often stretched out over many notes, and natural speech rhythms were obliterated. Further, the vocal lines were combined in close, dense, counterpoint. The result was often a web of sound without audible words or phrases.

On 28 April 1565, the singers of the Cappella Sistina gathered in the home of the reforming cardinal Vitellozi to ‘sing some Masses and test whether the words could be understood’. An early biographer of Palestrina claimed that the composer’s Missa Papae Marcelli (‘Pope Marcellus Mass’) was sung here and that it convinced the cardinals that the texts of polyphonic music could be intelligible. Unfortunately,...

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