Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (Born in Palestrina (Praeneste) or Rome, 1525, latest February 1, 1526February 2, 1594 in Rome) was an Italian composer of Renaissance music. He was the most famous 16th century representative of the Roman School of music composition.

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina

He was nicknamed Il Prenestino. He had a tremendous influence on the development of Roman Catholic church music, and his work can be seen as a summation of Renaissance polyphony, much the way J.S. Bach is for counterpoint in the Baroque era.


He is first known to have been in Rome in 1537, when he is listed as a choirboy there; he studied with Robin Mallapert and Firmin Lebel. There was a persistent story that he studied under Claude Goudimel, which originated in the 19th century, but recent scholarship has disproved this: Goudimel was never in Rome. In 1544-51 Palestrina was organist of the principal church of his native city (St. Agapito, Palestrina), and in the latter year became maestro di cappella at the Julian Chapel (Cappella Giulia) in Rome. With his first published compositions, a book of masses which he presented to Pope Julius III (previously the Bishop of Palestrina), he made so favorable an impression that he was appointed musical director of the Julian Chapel. In addition, this was the first book of masses by a native Italian composer: most composers of sacred music in Italy at that time were from the Netherlands, France or Spain. In fact his book of masses was actually modeled on one by Morales, and the woodcut in the front is an almost exact copy of the one from the book by the Spaniard.

Palestrina held positions similar to his Julian Chapel appointment at other chapels and churches in Rome during the next decade (notably St. John Lateran, from 1555 to 1560, and St. Maria Maggiore, from 1561 to 1566). In 1571 he returned to the Julian Chapel, and remained at St. Peter's for the rest of his life. The decade of the 1570s was difficult for him personally; he lost his brother, both his sons, and his wife in three separate outbreaks of the plague (1572, 1575 and 1580 respectively). He seems to have considered becoming a priest at this time, but instead he married again, this time to a wealthy widow; this finally gave him financial independence (he was not well paid as choirmaster) and he was able to compose prolifically until his death.

Music and Reputation

Palestrina left hundreds of compositions, including 104 masses, 68 offertories, 250 motets, 45 hymns, psalms, 33 magnificats, litanies, 4 or 5 sets of lamentations etc., at least 140 madrigals and 9 organ ricercari (however, recent scholarship has classed these ricercari as of doubtful authorship; Palestrina probably wrote no purely instrumental music). His Missa sine nomine seems to have been particularly attractive to Johann Sebastian Bach, who studied and performed it while he was writing his own masterpiece, the Mass in B Minor. His compositions are typified as very clear, with voice parts well-balanced and beautifully harmonized. Among the works counted as his masterpieces is the Missa Papae Marcelli (Pope Marcellus Mass), which according to legend was composed to persuade the Council of Trent that a draconian ban on polyphonic treatment of text in sacred music was unnecessary. However, more recent scholarship shows that this mass was composed before the cardinals convened to discuss the ban (possibly as much as ten years before). It is probable, however, that Palestrina was quite conscious of the needs of intelligible text in conformity with the doctrine of the Counter-Reformation, and wrote his works towards this end from the 1560s until the end of his life.

The "Palestrina Style"—the smooth style of 16th century polyphony, derived and codified by Johann Joseph Fux from a careful study of his works—is the style usually taught as "Renaissance polyphony" in college counterpoint classes, although in a modified form, as Fux made a number of stylistic errors which have been corrected by later authors (notably Jeppesen and Morris). As codified by Fux it follows the rules of what he defined as "species counterpoint." No composer of the 16th century was more consistent in following his own rules, and staying within the stylistic bounds he imposed on himself, than was Palestrina. Also, no composer of the 16th century has had such an edifice of myth and legend built around him. Much of the research on Palestrina was done in the 19th century by Giuseppe Baini, who published a monograph in 1828 which made Palestrina famous again, and reinforced the already existing legend that he was the "Savior of Church Music" during the reforms of the Council of Trent. The 19th century attitude of hero-worship is predominant in this monograph, however, and this has remained with the composer to some degree to the present day; Hans Pfitzner's opera Palestrina shows this attitude at its peak. Scholarship of the 20th and 21st centuries tends to retain the view that Palestrina was a strong and refined composer, representing a summit of technical perfection, but emphasizes that there were other composers working at the same time with equally individual voices and slightly different styles, even within the confines of smooth polyphony, such as Lassus and Victoria.

Palestrina was immensely famous in his day, and his reputation, if anything, increased in the next century. Conservative music of the Roman School continued to be written in his style (being known as the "prima prattica" in the 17th century), for instance by Gregorio Allegri. Palestrina's music continues to be performed and recorded, and to provide models for the study of counterpoint.

Sources and Further Reading

  • Jeppesen, Knud, The Style of Palestrina and the Dissonance. 2nd ed., London, 1946. (An exhaustive study of his contrapuntal technique.)
  • Jeppesen, Knud; Haydon, Glen (Translator); Foreword by Mann, Alfred. Counterpoint. New York, 1939. Available through Dover Publications, 1992. ISBN 048627036X
  • Haigh, Andrew C. "Modal Harmony in the Music of Palestrina." From the festschrift Essays on Music: In Honor of Archibald Thompson Davison. Harvard, 1957. pp.111-120.
  • Gustave Reese, Music in the Renaissance. New York, W.W. Norton & Co., 1954. ISBN 0393095304
  • Article "Palestrina, Giovanni Pierluigi da," in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie. 20 vol. London, Macmillan Publishers Ltd., 1980. ISBN 1561591742
  • Johann Joseph Fux, The Study of Counterpoint (Gradus ad Parnassum). Tr. Alfred Mann. New York, W.W. Norton & Co., 1965. ISBN 0393002772
  • Schachter, Carl, Counterpoint in Composition: The Study of Voice Leading. Columbia University Press, 1990. ISBN 023107039X
  • Motte, Diether de la, Kontrapunkt. 1981 Brenreiter-Verlag, Kassel. ISBN 3-423-30146-5 / 3-7618-4371-2 (this text is in German; great, though!)
  • Gauldin, Robert, A Practical Approach to Sixteenth-Century Counterpoint. 1995 Waveland Press, Inc., Long Grove, Illinois. ISBN 0-88133-852-4 (direct approach, no species; contains a large and detailed bibliography)
  • Benjamin, Thomas, The Craft of Modal Counterpoint, 2nd ed. 2005 Routledge, New York. ISBN 0-415-97172-1 (direct approach)
  • Morris, R.O., Contrapuntal Technique in the Sixteenth Century. 1978 Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-321468-7 (out of print :( ; one of the first attempts at "direct approach", meaning Morris does away with Fux' five species.)
  • Swindale, Owen, Polyphonic Composition, 1962 Oxford University Press. Out of print, no ISBN availableda:Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina

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