Music of Palestrina


Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina was born in – perhaps unsurprisingly – Palestrina, a small town near Rome, which was, at the time of his birth (1524/25), part of the Papal States. Over the bulk of Palestrina’s life and the entirety of his career were spent in Rome with documentary evidence of his first work there (as a young chorister) in 1537, singing at the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore.

By 1544 Palestrina already organist of the principal church of his hometown and, by 1551, he was maestro di cappella at the Cappella Guilia, the papal chapel choir at St Peter’s Basilica. It was because of his first published compositions, a book of masses, which made such a favourable impression on Pope Julius III (who, significantly, had been previously the Bishop of Palestrina), that Palestrina was swiftly appointed to the Cappella Guilia at the relatively early age of 26.

Importantly – and perhaps surprisingly when we consider his fame across the ages – this book of masses that had so impressed Pope Julius was the first by a native (Italian) composer for, in the Papal States at this time, the bulk of published composers came predominantly from the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal or France. Indeed most of Palestrina’s teachers during his early years in Rome we either French or Burgundian – not Italian.

Like all church musicians, Palestrina moved to various major musical centres over the next few decades, all of them in Rome (primarily at St John-in-Lateran and St Maria Maggiore) though he ultimately returned to the Julian Chapel in 1571 and held the position of maestro di cappella there until his death.

Like many in Europe, the 1570s was a hard time for Palestrina – plague was rampant and he lost his wife, two sons and a brother to that scourge of Renaissance cosmopolitan cities. Unusually for the time, this lionised and liturgically gifted church musician was not in holy orders though there is some evidence that he considered becoming a priest following the death of his wife. However he died almost two decades later than she, in 1594.

Palestrina left hundreds of sacred compositions, including at least 105 masses, 300 motets, 35 Magnificats, five sets of Lamentations as well as hymns, offertories, litanies and well over 100 secular madrigals! His compositions are typified as clear, with balanced voice parts and beautiful harmonies and have come to be seen as the exemplar of perfection in polyphonic composition for voices.

It has long been promulgated that Palestrina’s purity of form in church music was what saved polyphony from being banned by the Council of Trent. No factual basis can be found though it is reasonable to assume that all church composers were aware of the problems that excessive polyphony (where the music masked or broke-up the sacred texts) caused not only a problem for performers and liturgists but clouded the understanding of the congregation and allowed the plainer Protestant music to crowed the field.

No matter – Palestrina and his contemporaries certainly adapted their compositional styles to the wishes of the Counter-Reformation (and their employers) and, in doing so, created a musical form that speaks to us plainly yet passionately after over 450 years.

The ‘Palestrina Style’– a smooth mid-16thcentury polyphony – was defined and codified by Johann Joseph Fux (an Austrian composer and contemporary of Bach) from his almost forensic study of Palestrina’s compositions. As codified by Fux the rules of what he defined as species counterpoint – and the apotheosis of Renaissance polyphony – were established by Palestrina and followed these immutable facts:

  • The flow of music is dynamic, neither rigid nor static.
  • The melody should contain few leaps between notes.
  • If a leap does occur, it must be small and immediately countered.
  • Dissonances are either passing, immediately resolved or off the beat.

The conservative musical style of what became known as the Roman School continued to be written in his style (known as the prima practica or ‘First Practice’ in the 17thcentury) by such Palestrina students as Francesco Soriano and – importantly – Gregorio Allegri. Palestrina was famous and highly influential while he lived and, remarkably given the transient nature of composers in the centuries before the 20th, his reputation increased after death.

Notably, the great J S Bach studied the works of Palestrina (and particularly his Missa Sine Nomine) when preparing his own masterpiece of Catholic liturgy – the Mass in B minor. Scholarship in our own time retains the view that Palestrina was a powerful, refined and influential composer, perhaps representing a summit of technical perfection, but he has had to yield the field a little as musicologists discover the long hidden works by those non-Italian though no less great contemporaries: Spaniard Victoria and Burgundian Rolando Lasso.

Still, for many, Palestrina is the name synonymous with Renaissance liturgical music of the highest order whether it is sung in Rome, Sydney – or Dublin.