Palestrina And His Influence On Music

—But one master of the Italian Poly-phonic schools is worthy of lengthy notice, more because of his influence on the music of the Church than his contribution to the new instrumental school then only in its infancy. Palestrina, while acquainted with Galilei, the reformer of Opera, and Neri, the originator of Oratorio, and with many of the men identified with the new style of vocal and instrumental music, gave his entire life to the composing of Church music, though in his poverty-stricken condition musical work under wealthy patronage must have often appealed to him. At any rate, the farthest he ever strayed from the Church was in the composing of many madrigals, in which he excelled ; it is almost certain that in these he unintentionally influenced the development of instrumental music. For the present, however, a consideration of his life and influence on Church music is more important. But for him, Church music would have lacked for at least a century that simple and individual note so often struck by himself and Bach. Palestrina, by the enormous number of his masses and by the fertility of his invention, placed the music of the Latin Church on so high a plane that no composers, at least until the time of Bach, even approached him, much less equalled him.

Giovanni Pierliugi Sante, known as Palestrina, after his birth-place, was born in 1514 at Palestrina, a small town southeast of Rome. His parents were peasants and the boy received but the ordinary education of his class. While very young he seems to have become a choir-boy at Rome, though it is recorded that his voice was anything but pleasing. Upon this supposition rests the statement that he was, for a short time, a pupil of Arkadelt; this is unimportant because eventually (1540) he became a pupil of Goudimel, whose influence far overshadowed that of any former teacher. In 1548 he married and four sons were the result of the union, three, however, dying at an early age and the fourth proving, in after-life, a worthless fellow. In 1551 he succeeded Arkadelt as choir-master of St. Peter’s; later the dedication of three masses to Pope Julian III won him a position as singer in the Papal Choir. Owing to the jealousy of the other singers he finally lost his position, but received an appointment at the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore where he stayed for ten years. Naumann says that in 1565 he received the appointment of master of the Sistine Chapel, but never occupied the position be-cause of the opposition among the choir. Grove, however, says that in 1565 he was made composer to the Pontifical Choir and did not become master until 1585, holding the position from that time on. In 1571 he was again connected with St. Peter’s; this also marks his acquaintance with Neri, for whom he wrote some music, and the founding of a music school, though it cannot have amounted to much since most authorities give no particulars in regard to it. Indeed, it is certain that he cannot have had much influence in that line, for his pupils, outside of his own family, did not amount to more than a scant half-dozen. In 1576 he was given the task of revising the Gradual and Antiphonary of the Latin Church but, with the assistance of a pupil, finished only a little more than one-half of the work, He died in 1594 and was buried in the Vatican. His life is marked by the usual jealousies and quarrels of musicians, though Palestrina himself seems to have been nobleminded and more than reasonably free from all such faults. He was in poor circumstances during his life, and his only living son was a bitter disappointment. Altogether, as we examine his life we are impressed by many things; first, his apparent failure from a worldly point of view; secondly, the enormous amount of composing which he did; and, finally, his devotion to the Church and her music, and because of it, his glorious success as a musician, and his undying fame.

Reform of Church Music.—The year marking the climax of his life was 1565. The Council of Trent, by a unanimous vote, decided to prohibit the use of music in the Church unless some means could be devised to make it more devotional and suited to its purpose. Naumann says that it was the desire of the Council of Trent to simplify the music so that the people might take part in the services ; but Grove claims that it was because of the use of secular music in the composition of the masses. It seems that it was customary, for part of the singers at least, to sing in services not only the melodies of the popular songs, but also the words, thus producing confusion and defeating the very purpose of the music. In all probability, both of these reasons had something to do with the edict. It is plain that the fundamental principle at stake was the lack of the personal devotional note (which caused this action by the Council of Trent), and it was the supplying of this want that made Palestrina the saviour of music in the Church. A committee of Cardinals was appointed to see if proper music for the service could be found. They commissioned Palestrina to write a mass and submit it for trial. When the trial came, at the home of Cardinal Vitellozzi, Palestrina submitted three masses, the last of which was the best; this he afterwards called the “Missa Papae Marcelli.”

Palestrina’s Style.—In these masses Palestrina had succeeded so well in subordinating technic to expression, and in eliminating all extraneous matter, that he was hailed as the greatest musician of the Church, and honors were showered upon him. From this it would be supposed that Palestrina had shown an entire change in style, yet this was not the case. Goudimel, his master, shows traces of the so-called Palestrina style, and Palestrina himself was gradually growing into that simplicity which marked the music of his later days. This simplicity was not only simplicity of emotion but also simplicity of technic; only a man with a most consummate skill could have written such great music with such little use of showy technic. Palestrina wrote in all of the polyphonic forms, complex and simple, but he reached his highest point in his most simple works; and those works were written for his Church.

Secular Art Song.—The secular life of the 15th and 16th centuries, as well as the Church, had an art music, which, like the other music of the period was vocal, not solos with accompaniments, but choral, consisting of three or more parts; this we may call a species of vocal chamber music. We can trace the development of this form of musical composition to an application of the principle of Discant to secular or Folk-melodies. The minstrels, as mentioned in a previous lesson, were accustomed to improvise accompanying parts to a familiar song—a favorite custom was that of adding two parts—for the entertainment of their hearers. This process was not a haphazard one, but followed fixed rules. The absence of a simple system of notation, however, prevented the accumulation of musical records. And when minstrelsy ceased to exist as a calling, only the memory of the crude attempts of the minstrels remained. But the principle was not lost. Fortunately for the good of the art, the trained musicians of the Church took it up, and, calling to their aid the resources of their art as used in the music of the Church, applied them all to secular melodies, the songs of the people.

The Predecessors of the Madrigal.—Several of the forms of secular music found in Italy, the Frottole (song of the mass or crowd), and the Vilanelle (village or peasant songs), were used in a crude way by the musicians of the people as airs to which to add accompanying parts. Both Germans and English made similar use of their folk melodies. But since the text was usually of a humorous, or a witty character, the accompanying melodies or “counter-points” were simple in style. The work of the trained composers along this line resulted in the Madrigal, which shows a union of the musical spirit of the people with the finest poetic art; the melodies had the style of the popular music, but they were used with technical skill.

The Madrigal.—The text of the madrigal was erotic in character, representing the emotions of a heart filled with noble, often hopeless love. The Italian poets Tasso and Petrarch were masters in this style of writing. The name Madrigal was first applied to this kind of lyric, and after-ward became identified with the music itself. There is disagreement as to the origin of the name, the common ex-planation being that it comes from the word mandra, a sheepfold, mandriale, shepherd, in allusion to the frequent pastoral character of the text. The Madrigal undoubtedly owes its origin to the composers of the Flemish school. The musicians of the Netherlands, in the middle of the 15th century, had a polyphonic song, elaborate in construction, in the old Church modes, modeled doubtless on the plan of the Motet, but using the melody of some popular song as a Cantus Firm us. When the centre of musical power was transferred to Italy, the madrigal principle came into new hands, those of the composers of the Venetian school, who gave it the character which made it so popular.

The Italian School.—The first great composer in this style was Adrian Willaert. After him came Arkadelt, who published several books of madrigals. The most famous composer of madrigals was Luca Marenzio (156o-1599), called by his contemporaries “the sweetest swan of Italy,” whose works attained extraordinary vogue. They are extremely melodious. A composer who made considerable use of the chromatic element was Gesualdo, Prince of Venusia (156o-1614). Other Italian composers of madrigals are Festa, Palestrina, Anerio, Waelrant, Orlando di Lasso, Cipriano di Rore, Vecchi and Gastoldi, the latter being credited with the introduction of the “Fa, la.” ‘

The English School.—The Madrigal never displaced the Folk-song in Germany or the Chanson in France, but it found a home in England, in which country a number of composers were developed whose best work is considered to be superior to that of their Italian predecessors. The period of fifty years, beginning with 1588, when the first collection of madrigals was published in London, is, called the Madrigalian Era. The composers of prominence are: William Byrd, Thomas Morley, Thomas Weelkes, John Dowland, John Wilbye, Orlando Gibbons and Richard Edwardes. So great was the interest in this class of music that it was considered a necessary part of the education of a gentleman that he should be able to sing, when requested, a part in a madrigal, as we learn from a work or music study published by Thomas Morley in 1597.

Characteristics of the Madrigal.—The best means of se-curing an understanding of the Madrigal style is to study good examples, and, if possible, to hear them sung by a good choral organization. They are written in three, four, five and six parts, the five part being the one most favored. The principle of construction is polyphonic, imitation being freely used, cross accents being frequent on account of the syncopated style, each part being conceived as melody, not as the result of the movement of successive chords.

Influence of the Madrigal.—The great number of madrigals written by so many composers may be taken as an indication of the growth of musical sensibility. The creative side developed. The composer was no longer contented with taking a melody or some theme ready made, and elaborating it or accompanying it; he invented his own themes, thus opening the way to the idea that each text should have a theme to suit its special character, a principle which rules in modern music. Since the themes thus took on greater significance, it became important that accompanying parts should not obscure them by over-elaboration ; hence the counterpoint used became clearer and simpler, and therefore more artistic. Another fact of great significance is that frequently the madrigals were played by viols, in-stead of being sung by voices. Composers marked the pieces as “Apt for viols or voices.” It was also customary to sing one part and play the others on instruments, the design being to cause the melody to stand out more clearly; this aided in developing a feeling for the solo with instrumental accompaniment, a fact of great significance in pre-paring the way for the opera.

Petrucci.—Music owes a great debt to Ottaviano Petrucci. who is credited with devising a method for printing music from movable type. He was born in 1466, died in 1523 or shortly after that date. Before he began his great work all music was written out by hand, a fact which necessarily interfered with its circulation ; the works of the great writers were jealously guarded and students had small chance to profit by the work of experienced composers. Petrucci and his successors changed this. In 1501, he printed a collection of ninety-six pieces in three and four parts by Isaac, Josquin, Hobrecht, Okeghem and others ; in 1504, a collection of eighty-three motets for four, five and six voices. By the time the composers of the Venetian Madrigal school appeared on the scene, printing processes had been improved and spread more widely; thus their works could be circulated freely and made popular. We who know the tremendous power of the printing press can appreciate the new force in the development of music inaugurated by Petrucci in the early part of the 16th century.


Grove.—Dictionary of Music and Musicians, articles on Palestrina and the Madrigal.

Dickinson.—Music in the History of the Western Church.

Parry.—Evolution of the Art of Music, Chapter V.

Barrett.—English Glee and Madrigal Writers.