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."

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
Musicae Princeps

The character of the "Prince of Music " (he has been given numerous appellations of this sort) must be sought in his works, and they show him to have been a grave, religious man, working not for self-aggrandizement but for "the glory of the Most High God" and these works, to quote Ambros, "breathe the holy spirit of devotion." His attitude toward his art is most clearly set forth in one of his dedications, where he says " Music exerts a great influence upon the minds of mankind, and is intended not only to cheer them, but also to guide and control them, a statement that has not only been made by the ancients, but which is found equally true today. The sharper blame therefore do those deserve who misemploy so great and splendid a gift of God in light and unworthy things and thereby excite men who themselves are inclined to all evil, to sin and misdoings. As regards myself, I have from youth been affrighted at such misuse, and anxiously have avoided giving forth anything which could lead anyone to become more wicked or godless. All the more should I now, that I have attained to riper years, place my entire thoughts on lofty, earnest  things such as are worthy a Christian. He surely accomplished work "worthy a Christian for even today, as was true four centuries ago, his music has an inspiring and uplifting power. Rosenwald has given in a few words a vivid suggestion of the difference in style between Palestrina and Bach, the two greatest church composers, the one of the Catholic, the other of the Protestant faith, "Palestrina prays; Bach preaches." It was not by blazing a new trail that Palestrina attained his wonderful style. He worked with the tools left him by his predecessors, wrote in the old ecclesiastical key, in the old polyphonic style, only his master-hand did work more delicate and polished even than that of his great contemporary, Orlandus Lassus. New methods, new instruments, new views have broadened the musical horizon since his time, but Palestrina's music is still magnificent and touching in its simple grandeur. Many tales of his poverty have been told, but they are now considered groundless, for it has been found that he owned considerable land and a number of vineyards, purchased from time to time. The house with its small back garden, where he lived at Palestrina, can still be seen, and rumor has it that Cardinal Vannutelli is trying to have a statue to him raised in his native town.

Palestrina's works were published at Rome and Venice and are not only of remarkable quality but amazing quantity. There were originally twelve books of masses. Another book of four masses appeared in 1601. A few of these masses need be mentioned by name: Sterna Christi Munera, Dies santificatus, Lauda Sinon, Pater Noster, Iste confessor, and Jesu Nostra redemptio, for four voices; Beatus Laurentius, Panem Nostrum, Salve Regina, O Sacrum Convivium, and Dilexi quoniam, for five voices; Ecce ego Joannes, Tu es Petrus, Veni Creator 'Spiritus, and Ut Re Me Fa Sol, for six voices; Confitebor, and Hodie Christus Natus est. But the most famous are Assumpta est Maria in Ccelum; Missa Papse Marcelli; Missa Brevis; and the Stabat Mater; the latter of which Wagner edited. Mendelssohn is said to have considered the Improperia Palestrina's best work. The first book of motets for four voices, a collection for the feast days of the year, Motecta Festorum Totius Anni, was printed in 1563. Five books   of motets for from five to eight voices appeared later. Of these motets the Songs of Solomon; Fratres ego enim; Exaudi Domine; Viri Galilaei; Dune complirentur; Peccantem me; and Supra flumina Babylonis; are especially fine. There are also four books of madrigals, Hymni Totius Anni was published in 1589; Book I of Lamentations in 1588; Book I of Magnificats in 1591; offertories for five voices in 1593, and Litanies in 1600. Some madrigals were published separately in contemporary works, and nine of Palestrina's masses, motets, hymns  lamentations, offertories and magnificats form seven volumes of Alfieri's Raccolta di Musica, published at Rome in 1841. Burney published the Stabat Mater in 1771 and the Passion music in 1772. Robert Eitner made a complete alphabetical list of Palestrina's works, but the latest and best collection is the complete edition of thirty-three volumes published by Breitkopf and Hartel from 1862 to 1894.