Palestrina, Giovanni Pierluigi da
Much is uncertain concerning the life of this man, the musical giant of the Sixteenth Century. Born in the rambling hill-town of Palestrina, a famous resort in the days of ancient Rome, from which it is but twentyfour miles distant, he is generally known by its name, though his real name was Giovanni (John) Pierluigi (Peter Lewis.) In familiar parlance he was Gianetto and his published works shows various other differences in the spelling of his name. No biography of him was written until 1828, and then Giuseppe Baini had to found his work, for the most part, on traditions. No record of his birth remained, as the town archives had been burned. So, probably, misinterpreting a passage in the dedication of the eighth volume of Palestrina's masses published by his son Ignio in 1594, stating that for nearly seventy years Palestrina had spent his time composing praises to God, Baini set 1524 as the date of his birth, and he has been followed by many others. Yet Baini's pupil, Cicerchio, discovered some family papers from which, later, Schelle fixed the date as 1514, a conclusion to which Kandler had arrived from the inscription on a portrait of Palestrina in the Sistine Chapel. Haberl, the founder of a Palestrina Society and chief editor of the complete set of his works, favors 1526, and another writer thinks that or the previous year most likely. The family name of Palestrina's father was Sante and his mother was Maria Gismondi, and they are now conceded to have been well-to-dopeasants.
In 1540 Palestrina went to Rome and began his musical studies, but beyond this fact nothing about his student life is very certain. He is generally said to have attended the school of one Goudimel or Gaudio Mell, a Fleming or Frenchman, though much doubt exists on this point. Whoever his teacher was, Palestrina must have obtained a very thorough education, and in 1544 he returned to his native town, where he became canon in the Cathedral. There until 1551 he sang in the daily service, taught, and played the organ on festal occasions, and meantime, probably in 1547, he married Lucrezia Goris. The Bishop Cardinal of Palestrina was a patron of his, and on becoming Pope, Julius III. appointed Palestrina master of the boys of the Cappella Giulia in St. Peter's, under the new title, Magister Cappellae (teacher or master of the chapel). Though the salary was small, the position was a very honorable one, and to show his gratitude Palestrina dedicated to the Pope his first volume of masses. This volume is interesting not only as the first work by this great composer but the first to be dedicated to any Pope by an Italian, so completely had the Netherland School held sway in Rome. Pope Julius appreciated this action and forthwith appointed Palestrina one of the singers in the Sistine Chapel, violating his own rule that no layman could be a member of the choir, and overlooking the quality of Palestrina's voice. The Pontifical singers protested, but the Pope insisted, and on Jan. 13, 1555, Palestrina was entered on the journal as becoming a member without the consent of the college. He himself hesitated to break the rules and moreover he was loath to leave the post which he enjoyed so much.
Unfortunately for Palestrina the Pope died soon after and when Paul IV., the stern reformer, became Pope and ascertained that there were three married men in the choir, Palestrina being one, he immediately dismissed them with a pension, despite the intercession of the singers and the rule that members of the Pontifical Choir are chosen for life. So deeply did Palestrina feel this "disgrace," as he considered it, that he became dangerously ill. On his recovery he was straightway made chapelmaster of St. John at Lateran, where he remained from October, 1555 until February, 1561, and there he wrote, among other things, his beautiful music for Holy Week: Lamentations of Jeremiah for four voices; Improperia, Reproaches of Christ; and the hymn, Crux Fidelis, all for eight voices. These compositions were so enthusiastically received that Paul IV. had them sung in the Vatican and added to the collection, and they are still sung in the Sistine Chapel. From the Lateran he went to the Liberian Chapel of Santa Maria Maggiore, where he remained until 1571, and it was while there that he wrote the famous Missa Papae Marcelli, which won him the name of " Savior of church-music."