Palestrina, Giovanni Pierluigi da
The old Gregorian plain chant, formerly the only form of church-music, had, under the Netherland masters, given place to a more elaborate contrapuntal form, which in turn, influenced by the effect of the Renaissance and the striving of the contrapuntists to outdo each other in displaying their science, had become so intricate that the words of the service were hidden by the mass of interwoven passages. It had also become customary for composers to use a popular air for the theme of their mass, and frequently the original words were retained, with the final result that many of the choir and congregation would be singing the ribald words of some drinking song simultaneously with the words of the mass. The Catholic Church finding itself endangered by a degraded condition internally, and by the reforms of Luther without, held the famous Council of Trent and there the condition of church-music was briefly discussed. The council was in favor of abolishing contrapuntal music altogether from the service, but a commission of eight cardinals was appointed to take charge of the matter, and after consulting with an equal number of the Pope's singers, gave to Palestrina the commission for a mass which would prove that music could be a help, not a hindrance, to the church service. But, fearing to intrust the destinies of music to a single work, Palestrina composed three masses, which were performed before the committee at the home of Cardinal Vitellozzi on April 28, 1565. All three were greatly praised, but especially the one dedicated to Pope Marcellus.
It was given with great ceremony before the Pope at the Sistine Chapel, June 19, Cardinal Borromeo directing, and His Holiness was so pleased that he ordered it copied in the chapel books in letters twice as large and beautiful as usual. The light of modern research, however, shows this celebrated mass in a much less picturesque way. It has now been proven by documentary evidence that the committee of eight was chiefly concerned in purifying the Pontifical Choir, and that the investigation of music itself was a secondary matter. The journal records the performance of certain works before the committee at Vitellozzi's, but gives no names. Nor in the record does it speak of a particular mass by Palestrina being performed. Even further, Dr. Haberl is of the opinion that Palestrina's famous mass was written before Marcellus became Pope, for it is found in the archives of Santa Maria Maggiore and the Sistine Chapel, without dedication, previous to its publication in 1567 as the Missa Papae Marcelli. As to the reformation in church-music, it was more a purification of the words and methods of singing, than a radical change in the music itself, beyond the improvement which one of Palestrina's genius naturally made, for his music shows no direct departure from the old contrapuntal style, but the culmination of all the best in that style in him, the greatest and last composer of the old school. The production of the Missa Papae Marcelli is assigned as the reason for his being honored with a pension and the title of composer to the Sistine Chapel.
Until 1571, however, he continued at Santa Maria Maggiore, then he returned to his old post at St. Peter's, where he remained through the rule of seven pontiffs until his death. Outside his duties Palestrina's time was occupied so fully with composing that he could not do much teaching. As often as he was able he taught in the school of Giovanni Nanini, the friend of his youth and his successor at the Liberian Chapel. This was the first public music school in Rome, and from it, Baini says, " was derived all the beauty, the grandeur, the sentiment, of the Roman School, mother and mistress of all." Though his salaries were never very large, great honor was bestowed upon Palestrina by the church and his fellowmen, one expression of which manifested itself in 1575, when Pope Gregory held a jubilee and the people of Palestrina, fifteen hundred strong, marched to Rome in gala attire singing the songs of their great townsman, while he led the procession. But among many honors there was one rebuff: In 1585 Pope Sixtus V. wished to make Palestrina chapelmaster of the Pontifical Chapel in return for the beauitful mass, Assumpta est Maria in Ccelum, dedicated to him, but the singers, jealous perhaps of Palestrina's renown, flatly refused to obey the Pope's commands. It was now five years since a great sorrow had come to him in the death of his wife, who for thirty years had been so dear to him, and some of his most beautiful music was written in his grief. Gregory XIII. commissioned him to revise the Graduate and Antifonario, and though he never completed the Graduale, the other part, which he intrusted to his pupil Giudetti, was published in 1582 as Directorium Chori, In 1587 Sixtus V., wanting the music to the lessons for Holy Week changed, Palestrina set the first lesson for Good Friday, and the next year published his first book of Lamentations. He continued to compose up to the last, and when he felt the end approaching, called his only surviving son, Ignio, and later charging him to publish the remainder of his works, blessed and dismissed him, and spent the last few hours of his life with St. Neri, his beloved friend and confessor, whose sanctity he himself so nearly approached. Palestrina was buried with great ceremony, all the musicians and ecclesiastics of Rome, as well as a concourse of people, attending at St. Peter's, where his own Libera me Domine was sung by the whole college of the Sistine Chapel. He was interred before the altar of St. Simon and St. Jude, and near by a tablet was placed bearing the inscription:
Johannes Petrus Aloysius Praenestinus