Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina Biography

(Italian Composer Best-Known as the16th-Century Representative of the 'Roman School of Musical Composition')

Born: 1525

Born In: Palestrina, Italy

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, the Renaissance master of counterpoint, was a celebrated Italian composer of church music and undoubtedly the most renowned composer and representative of Roman School of music during the 16th century. His name has been identified with smooth, clear, polyphonic perfection for around four centuries. He remained instrumental in development of sacred as well as secular music in Europe, particularly in development of counterpoint. His rich oeuvre that comprise of works with remarkably high standard is regarded as the culmination of Renaissance polyphony. Palestrina became the first Italian composer to publish a book of Masses during a time when most composers of sacred music in Italy were from the Low Countries, France, or Spain. He enjoyed immense success during his lifetime and his reputation and influence only increased following his death. The Gloria melody from his work Magnificat Tertii Toni is used extensively in the resurrection hymn tune, Victory (The Strife Is O'er). One of his most famous and widely performed works the mass sine nomine Missa Papae Marcelli, is used many a times in university courses on music as a model for the study of stile antico Renaissance polyphony.

Quick Facts

Died At Age: 69


Spouse/Ex-: Lucrezia Gori (m. 1547–1580)

father: Santo Pierluigi

mother: Palma Pierluigi

Born Country: Italy

Composers Italian Men

Died on: February 2, 1594

place of death: Rome, Italy

Cause of Death: Pleurisy

Childhood & Early Life

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina was born in the family of Santo and Palma Pierluigi, natives of Naples, tentatively on February 3, 1525, in Palestrina, near Rome, at that time a part of the Papal States. Palestrina lost his mother on January 16, 1536.

According to certain documents, Palestrina visited Rome for the first time in 1537 and became a choirboy at the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, a Major papal basilica as also the largest Catholic Marian church in the city. He studied literature and music there between 1537 and 1539. According to an assumption Palestrina used to walk around the streets of Rome to sell his family farm products and while doing so, he used to sing songs. One day the choir master of Santa Maria heard him sing and was so impressed with Palestrina’s talent that he began training the boy in music.

Palestrina was one of the singers of Robin Mallapert when the latter served as maestro di cappella at Santa Maria Maggiore during 1538-1539. Mallapert probably taught Palestrina singing and/or composition during such time. Firmin Lebel, a chaplain at Santa Maria Maggiore and maestro di cappella of its Liberian chapel, also possibly taught Palestrina. A common belief that Palestrina was taught by French composer Claude Goudime is presently considered as untenable as recent researches revealed that Goudime never visited Rome.

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Palestrina was influenced by the northern European style of polyphony, which attained prominence in Italy mainly because of French composers Guillaume Du Fay and Josquin des Prez. With time Palestrina evolved as an influential Italian musician with comparable repute and prowess in polyphony and later during the 18th and 19th centuries his fame overshadowed that of Josquin, and his music was considered as the summit of polyphonic refinement. Many theorists like Johann Fux codified his music into a system of composition.

He was inducted as organist of Cathedral of St. Agapito, in Palestrina, in 1544. He served the position till 1551 when he was brought to Rome by Pope Julius III (who earlier served as Cardinal-bishop of Palestrina) as maestro di cappella of the Cappella Giulia, the choir of St. Peter's Basilica.

Palestrina left an extensive oeuvre that comprise of 105 masses, over 300 motets, at least 140 madrigals, 68 offertories, at least 72 hymns, 11 litanies, 35 magnificats and four or five sets of lamentations.

In 1554, Palestrina published his first book of Masses and dedicated it to Pope Julius III. The book also marked as the first of its kind published by an Italian composer as during his time, sacred music was mostly composed in Italy by composers from the Low Countries, France, or Spain. His masses clearly show the way he developed his compositional style over the years. These generally appear in thirteen volumes and were published during 1554-1601, with the last seven being published posthumously.

The mass sine nomine Missa Papae Marcelli, or Pope Marcellus Mass, generally considered to have been composed by Palestrina in honour of Pope Marcellus II (who ruled for three weeks in 1555), is the most famous and beautiful mass of the composer that is regularly performed in Catholic churches across the globe. The work reflecting complex polyphony championed by him and epitomizing Renaissance polyphonic choral music is celebrated for its intricate interplay of vocal lines and has remained a subject of study for centuries. According to one belief, the work was probably composed in 1562 to convince the Council of Trent that a harsh ban on polyphony from church music was unnecessary. This information involving the Council of Trent, which forms the basis of German composer Hans Pfitzner's opera Palestrina, was later found to be erroneous. The rumour was however maintained by 17th century Jesuit musicians and found place in several music history books including in Giuseppe Baini’s monograph Life of Palestrina (1828) where Palestrina was tagged as the saviour of church music in context of the alleged ban on counterpoint by the Council of TrentMissa Papae Marcelli was performed at the Papal Coronation Masses till 1963.

Meanwhile, in 1555, Palestrina was elevated to singer in the Pontifical Choir. He became composer to the papal chapel. However, when Pope Paul IV became Bishop of Rome and ruler of the Papal States later that year, he issued a decree forbidding married men to serve in the papal choir. Thus the already married Palestrina had to discontinue his service in the chapel as a layman and received a small pension as compensation for his dismissal. Thereafter he assumed the post of maestro di cappella of the Basilica of Saint John Lateran and departed from there in July 1560. In March 1561, he accepted a similar position at Santa Maria Maggiore and held it till 1566.

He then accepted invitation of Cardinal Ippolito d’Este and took charge of the music at Villa d’Este in Tivoli. He served the cardinal for four years and during such tenure, he also held the post of music master of a Roman Seminary. His two sons Rodolfo and Angelo studied there. He rejoined as the magister cantorum of the Capella Giulia at St. Peter's Basilica in 1571 and remained at the church for the rest of his life.

His 1584 work Canticum Canticorum (Song of Solomon), originally titled Motettorum - Liber Quartus, is a cycle of 29 motets and is counted among the largest collections of sacred motets of the composer. Scored for five voices, this work is in Latin and was dedicated to Pope Gregory XIII. The individual pieces of the work reflect a combination of the madrigal and the motet and texture of the work is particularly tighter than the ones usually found in motets or masses of that period. The powerful yet passionate tone observed all through the work also sets it apart from others of its time. While Palestrina published two collections of sacred madrigals, he also spawned two collections of secular madrigals (in 1555 and 1586 respectively). The Gloria melody of his 1591 work Magnificat Tertii Toni is presently used widely in the resurrection hymn tune, Victory (The Strife Is O'er

His music is characterized by smoother and more consonant type of polyphony, clarity of line, intelligible words, beautiful harmonies, rich vocal sounds and a cheerful rhythmic sense. The seminal treatise on counterpoint Gradus ad Parnassum written by Fux in 1725 and used for instruction in musical theory and composition has emerged as the most important and influential book on the Palestrina Style of Renaissance polyphony. A sense of perfect balance and equilibrium typified the Palestrina Style that is taught in colleges today covering Renaissance counterpoint and is often based on Fux’s Gradus ad Parnassum.

Personal Life, Reputation & Legacy

Palestrina married Lucrezia Gori in 1547 and together they had three sons, Rodolfo, Angelo, and Iginio. The virtuoso had to cope with the loss of his loved ones during the 1570s when a series of epidemics stuck Italy. In three different outbreaks of the plague that occurred in 1572, 1575, and 1580, respectively, Palestrina lost his brother, his two elder sons, and his wife. Palestrina fell ill and following his wife’s death, he was possibly thinking of becoming a priest. He however later married Virginia Dormoli, widow of a wealthy merchant in 1581. Following his second marriage Palestrina, who was not getting a good pay as choirmaster, achieved financial independence, which enabled him to compose prolifically and afford publication of all his scores. He also continued to serve his position at St. Peter’s and spent considerable time administering his wife’s fortune.

He succumbed to pleurisy on February 2, 1594. His funeral was held at St. Peter’s and a five-part psalm for three choirs was sung on the occasion. He was interred beneath the floor of the basilica and the lead plate on his coffin was inscribed with the words Libera me Domine.

Palestrina was a celebrated composer in his day and his repute and influence only grew with time, even after his death. J.S. Bach of the late Baroque period studied and copied his first book of Masses and arranged the Kyrie and the Gloria of his Missa sine nomine. Palestrina’s students like Ruggiero Giovanelli, Giovanni Maria Nanino, Gregorio Allegri and Francesco Soriano continued to compose conservative music of the Roman school in his style.

Two comprehensive editions of his works include the thirty-three volume edition edited by Franz Xaver Haberl and published between 1862 and 1894’ and the thirty-four volume edition edited by R. Casimiri and others and published during the mid-20th century.

The Cagliari Music Conservatory located in the Italian municipality of Cagliari is named after him as Pierluigi da Palestrina. The 2009 Italian/German music film Palestrina - Prince of Music directed by Georg Brintrup was made on the life and music of Palestrina.

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