Italian composer, born in Palestrina in 1525. Palestrina, whose family name was Pierluigi, named himself after his place of birth. He spent his childhood selling products of his parents’ farm, and it’s generally assumed that while he was singing in the streets of Rome his talent was discovered by the choirmaster of Santa Maria Maggiore. The identity of this choirmaster remains today a mystery. He was long thought to be Claude Goudimel (1505-1572), but currently the majority of musicologists assume it was Jacques Arcadelt (1514-1560). In 1544 Palestrina became organist and singer in the cathedral of Palestrina. In this period his reputation and fame increased at such rate that by 1551 he was called to the St. Peter’s in Rome, where he was entrusted with the direction and musical formation of the choirboys.

In 1554 Palestrina dedicated a volume of four-voiced Masses to Pope Julius III (1549-1555). He was rewarded with the appointment as a cantor of the papal chapel, even though Palestrina was a married man by then. Enjoying patronage of the pope, he was not required to be in Holy Orders and did not receive thorough examination beforehand. These circumstances and the fact that his voice was inferior to those of the other cantors, aroused the opposition of his fellow-members. Cardinal Marcellus II had always protected and admired Palestrina, but after Paul IV replaced him the former rules were restored: Palestrina and two other married men were dismissed with a small pension.

After his dismissal in 1554, Palestrina was seriously ill for a few months. Restored, he was appointed cantor of St. John Lateran - one year later he replaced choir director Orlando di Lasso. His composition of “Improperia” was ordered by Paul IV to be performed on Good Friday: it has remained in the papal choir’s repertoire for Holy Week ever since. The success of “Improperia” caused Palestrina to regain most of his fame. Encouraged by his rising popularity, he asked the chapter of St. John Lateran for a raise, which was refused. Indignant about the refusal, Palestrina accepted a post as choir director of Santa Maria Maggiore, where he stayed from 1561 till 1566. After this period he spent a few years in a Roman seminary, until he returned to the Cappella Giulia of St. Peter’s in 1571. Apart from his work for St. Peter’s, he also wrote motets and laudi spirituali for St. Philip’s Oratory and taught musicology at the school of Giovanni Maria Nanini. When his wife died in 1580, Palestrina expressed his sorrow in two compositions: Psalm 136, “By the waters of Babylon”, and a motet on the words “O Lord, when Thou shalt come to judge the world, how shall I stand before the face of Thy anger, my sins frighten me, woe to me, O Lord.” With these compositions he intended to make an end to his career, but with the appointment in 1581 as director of music to the court of Prince Buoncompagni, he began the most productive period of his life. This increased productivity can also be explained from his improved financial position, especially when he remarried to Virginia Dormoli, a wealthy merchant’s widow, whom he was married to till his death in 1594.

Palestrina’s oeuvre is of significant importance to the history of liturgical music. The Council of Trent (1545-1563) recognized his style as the one true form of polyphonic liturgical music. “Missa Papae Marcelli” was written especially for the council and proved that many-voiced liturgical music did not have to be at the expense of audibility. His techniques and conceptions were based on fifteenth century Dutch Schools; just like these Schools’ representatives, he was a master of imitation techniques and clever canons. In comparison with contemporary Orlando di Lasso, Palestrina’s music is more conservative. This proves from his reasoned treatment of dissonance, and from the diatonic character of his melodies. Another reason for his conservative approach is the fact that he based the biggest part of his oeuvre on the Gregorian style. Many of his Masses used Gregorian hymns as cantus firmus. He also wrote Masses with a secular cantus firmus, which he converted so the secular character was not recognizable anymore. For example, there are the Masses of “Missa Sine Nomine”, which were arranged by Bach for voices and instruments.

Palestrina utilized all means of polyphony in the Renaissance and converted these to a classical unity. He improved the choral song to a climax of a cappella style, often with multiple choirs. Significant for Palestrina is the exceptional care for perfect harmony, something that was reached by strict rules for use of consonants and dissonance. Tierces and sixths often have a harmonic function, and outer parts run in parallel tenths. Fixed connections between chords lend a clear structure to his works: a cadence finishes every part. Avoiding chromatics gave his works a solemn, mystical dignity. Palestrina avoided complicated rhythmic structures and had a preference for syllabic melodies. These characteristics caused the Palestrian style to be generally recognized as an idealized image of polyphonic a cappella music (the only kind of music to be allowed in the Sistine chapel), a style that set foot for a revival of unaccompanied choral music around 1900.

Twenty-nine motets on the words from the Canticle of Canticles, brought Palestrina the title “Prince of Music”. Some of his most famous works were composed for the enthronement of Sixtus V: a five-part motet and Mass on the theme to the text “Tu es pastor ovium” and the Mass “Assumpta est Maria”. In the last years of his life Palestrina composed “Lamentations”, “Stabat Mater” and several litanies in honor of Blessed Virgin Mary. In total he composed 105 Masses, about 250 motets, and more than 100 sacred madrigals, psalms and hymns. His works are collected in thirty-three volumes. They’re edited by DeWitt, Espagne, Commer, and Haberl, and published by Breitkopf and Hartel.

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