Born probably 1525 ; died 1594. The birthplace of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina is indicated in the surname which has attached itself to him. Palestrina is a small place about twenty miles from Rome, with a cathedral, of which, after a choir-boy and student life in Rome, Giovanni became organist and choir-master at the age of (probably) eighteen. Six or seven years late1 his Bishop became Pope, and made him choirmaster of the Julian Chapel in the Vatican. For a couple of centuries or more the Sistine Chapel (the Pope’s own private chapel, regarded therefore as, in one way,
Palestrina. the chief church in Christendom) had been largely recruited with Flemings and other foreigners, and the Julian Chapel Choi1 at St. Peter’s had been constituted, shortly before Palestrina’s time, with the express intention that it should become a training school for Italian musicians and a means of using their services. Shortly after appointment the new choirmaster brought out a new book of masses, which was the first ever dedicated by an Italian to the reigning Pope. A woodcut, from which our illustration is taken, showed Palestrina on his knees offering the volume to the Pope, and the dedication ran –
‘A few days ago, having set to music in a more exquisite manner these Christian praises to the most high God, no other name but yours seemed worthy of the dedication, not only because you alone are next to God on earth, but because you are so disposed by nature to encourage music, that I hope that it will not be unacceptable to you if I sing your praise after that of God, and that I may be permitted this favour for a long time is my wish and my prayer. Farewell.’
At the age of about thirty, Palestrina was made a member of the actual Pontifical (i. e. the Sistine) Choir ; here, however, his patron made a gift which had to be recalled, for the appointment violated the rules of the Choir, in that the new member was a married man, was not in orders, and had a poor voice. A new Pope, Marcellus, reigned but three weeks; the incident of a meeting of his Choir which he called one Good Friday, at which he impressed upon the members the necessity for church music being sincere and suitable to its occasion, and of its not obscuring by its complexity the words set, is probably commemorated in -the title of a work of a few years later, Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli. The next Pope, Paul IV, was legal-minded, and the irregularity of Palestrina’s position coming to his notice, dismissal on a pension followed.
Palestrina’s reputation, however, was already established, and he did not wait long for another appointment. In a few months he became choirmaster of the Lateran. Later he occupied a similar post at Santa Maria Maggiore, and at last, at the age of about forty-six, returned to his old post of choirmaster of the Julian Chapel.
A good deal has been made of Palestrina’s part in ‘ saving’ church music from destruction by the Council of Trent. The Council had declared that church music should be purified from methods tinged with secularity (as, for example, the use of some popular tune as the basis, or canto fermo, upon which the mesh of counterpoint should be woven) ; but it had not taken the drastic decisions sometimes reported of it in histories of music. Two Cardinals (one of them the learned but simple-minded and devoted St. Charles Borromeo) were appointed to see that the reasonable resolutions taken were carried into effect. They called together eight Papal singers, who easily agreed with them on certain reforms, but demurred to the suggestion that contrapuntal music should be verbally intelligible. It is traditional that certain of Palestrina’s pieces were brought forward by the two Cardinals as evidence to the contrary, and in any case it is at least probable that his example and his advice had both great influence upon the outcome of the whole proceedings.
Palestrina’s life was not embittered by poverty, as has been some-times suggested. Both he and his wife inherited buildings and vine-yards in their native place, and the work he did was not ill-paid, as payments then went. A complaint he made on that score was probably prompted not by inability to meet his domestic needs but by the lack of resources sufficient to publish his works, and indeed, though he brought out various volumes, much remained unpublished at his death. Such trials as came to him arose from the inevitable disappointments and rubs of musical professional life in all places and ages, and from domestic bereavements, which with him were frequent and severe. Yet his life must, on the whole, be counted a prosperous and happy one, and it was enriched with friendships, amongst which is to be numbered that of St. Philip Neri, the founder of the Oratorio. The association of these two noble-minded men was very close, Palestrina acting for some time as musical director of the Oratorians, and doubtless conducting their congregational musical services, both in the church which had been built for Neri and in the open air on the Coelian Hill.
In the year of the Jubilee (1575), when pilgrims of all nations flocked to Rome to obtain the indulgence offered to them, a pro-cession of fifteen thousand Palestrinans, divided into three huge choirs, marched to Rome and entered it, singing their great towns- man’s music.
FURTHER READING. Recent research has destroyed several legends about Palestrina. The present position of knowledge concerning him is conveniently set out in Zoë Kendrick Pyne’s Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, his Life and Times (Lane, 7s. 6d.), and this (the latest work has been taken as chief guide in the compilation of the above brief sketch. There is an interesting and detailed account of the life in Grove’s Dictionary ; it is by E. H. Pember, K.C., who doubtless sifted all evidence then available, but whose case is now, on a few important points, upset on appeal to documents that have since come to light. Parry’s interesting chapter in his Studies of Great Composers must now also be read with reserve.
PRINTED MUSIC. A large number of the Masses and a considerable number of the Motets can be obtained in the edition by Charles Bordes, published under the auspices of the Schola Cantorum of Paris (Paris, Durand; London, J. & W. Chester).
GRAMOPHONE RECORDS. Particulars of the Records of the Mass Aeterna Christi have already been given, and in the Appendix to this book will be found in full the words of such part of the service of the Mass as is included in the Records, whether given to the traditional Plainsong or set by Palestrina.