Palestrina: Master in Music’s Art

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina was an Italian layman who was born around 1525 at or near Rome, into a world in which most the greatest musicians and composers of Europe were clerics, and disproportionately from Northern Europe.  By his death in 1594, two of the other three most important composers in Europe, the Lowlander Orlandus Lassus and Englishman William Byrd, were laymen, with the Spaniard Tomas Luis de Victoria the only cleric among them.  And circumstantial evidence establishes the distinct possibility that Victoria was Palestrina’s student, having been sent to Rome to study composition (with a letter of recommendation from none other than St. Teresa of Avila).  Italy was by then rapidly becoming the most important country for European music, with musical experiments in Florence, Mantua, Venice, and Palestrina’s own Rome leading the way toward what we today recognize as the Baroque style of music.

The era through which Palestrina lived also saw upheaval in the musical life of the Church, brought about by sharp Protestant criticisms of the inaccessible and elite nature of the older style of polyphonic Church music.  This is not to mention the generally milder, but still marked, criticisms of Catholic reformers, most notably the Council of Trent, which reproved the way in which its contrapuntal complexity often rendered liturgical texts unintelligible.  In the center of all this change in the world of European ‘art’ music (and the Church which was still its most important single patron) was Palestrina.  In some ways his life and work represent these main tendencies, but in other ways he stood aloof from them, and even counterbalanced them with his own unquestioned stature as a composer of European-wide reputation.

Before saying more about his music, it is useful to note a few more things about the man and his career.  Although he did set to music a significant number of secular texts in his younger days, mostly to love-related themes, as he grew older he disavowed them, and even expressed regret and repentance at ever having once been among composers who “offend good and serious-minded men by the depraved taste of their work,” this is despite the fact that none of his chosen love texts were particularly explicit in nature, given the standards of his day.  More positively, he expressed his desire to write “in praise of Our Lord Jesus Christ and His most Holy Virgin Mother Mary.”

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PalestrinaAbove all, Palestrina was a church-musician dedicated to hone a style suitable to the needs of the Church and its increasingly specific demands for the expression and projection of sacred texts. Besides more elaborate liturgical music for the professional choirs of Rome, Palestrina did not disdain to write simpler works in Latin and the vernacular suitable for procession or private singing of the pious, including the flourishing religious confraternities of late sixteenth century Rome.  Circumstantial evidence suggests he wrote music for St. Philip Neri’s Oratory of Divine Love, among other less famous organizations dedicated to building up the piety of the diocesan clergy and laity of Rome.  Upon the death of his first wife in 1580, he seriously considered entering the priesthood, taking minor orders.  His family produced religious vocations in the generation or two after his passing, probably a fruit of his own piety.

There is another more worldly side to Palestrina, however.  He carefully developed his own career, holding a sequence of appointments in Rome that helped establish his position as one of the city’s premier musicians.  After a brief appointment in his family’s ancestral town of Palestrina, he became master of the singers at the Cappella Giulia, which was the musical establishment of St. Peter’s Basilica, while in 1555 he joined the papal choir in the Sistine Chapel, then still the premier papal musical establishment.   His musical career then suffered its only major setback, when several months later the newly elected Pope Paul IV, a rigorist, dismissed Palestrina from the choir, since, as a married man, he was not eligible to belong to it, on any strict reading of its statutes.  He continued, however, to be paid from the papal choir’s accounts, in part for compositions he wrote for it, a sign of his already considerable reputation in that sphere.

He then became head of the choir at the papal Cathedral church of St. John Lateran and then moved on to become head of music at the important Roman basilica of St. Mary Major in 1561.   In 1571, he returned as head of the choir in St. Peter’s, where he stayed until his death.  His circle of students, and other young colleagues and associates, dominated much of Roman music making for the next generation, and their influence reached throughout Europe (for instance, Asprilio Pacelli, a choirboy of his at St. Peter’s transplanted the Roman style to Poland by becoming the longtime Master of the Chapel for King Sigismund III.)

Throughout his career Palestrina carefully, but diligently, arranged for the printing of his music, and upon his somewhat abrupt remarriage to a wealthy widow in 1581, his ability to do so improved markedly.  He proved his business acumen not only by having his own music successfully published, but together with his second wife and a younger partner, by successfully managing the fur and wine business she had inherited from her first husband.

It is as a composer that Palestrina is chiefly remembered today.  His style of composition came to be regarded as the epitome of the polyphonic style, that is, music written as a web of distinct, but harmonically coordinated melody lines.  These lines may frequently imitate each other in melodic contour and rhythmic pattern, but each remains independent and capable of being elaborated in any number of ways.  The growth point of their elaboration is typically melodic, therefore, rather than harmonic, although Palestrina’s polyphony, as much in his generation, shows a strengthening of harmonic sense in comparison to earlier music.  Be that as it may, Palestrina’s careful development of polyphonic style, marks him as a conservative composer, especially in the vast masses of his earlier career, like the Mass on the tune L’homme armé for five voices or his luminous six-voice mass on the hexachord (Ut re mi fa sol la, i.e the first six notes of the major scale sounded in order).  He was thus less interested in developing unusual and arresting sonic landscapes than his more mannerist contemporaries, like Lassus, whose exploration of chromaticism and other striking musical devices was widely celebrated in the day.

The development of modern musicology, however, has pointed out ways in which Palestrina’s style was very much up-to-date.  His love of clear and transparent melodic textures and melodic elegance come to mind, as well as his favoring of those church modes that have a bright, “major key-like” sound to the modern ear.  His use of “polychoral” technique later in life (especially in his shorter and textually varied “motet” pieces), in which more than one group of singers, typically placed at spatial distance from each other, “answer” each other in more or less self-contained musical phrases can also be cited.  Polychoral style is a development in music history often commonly more associated with the “Venetian school,” of composition, and strongly correlated with nascent Baroque tendencies in music.  Yet Palestrina is undeniably a master of it, according to his own muse, and the needs of the churches of Rome.

Some of what made Palestrina’s style especially admired as suitably decorous for liturgical use is shaped by his own unique talent in distilling certain relevant stylistic tendencies present in other composers of his day.  An example would be his very careful restriction of dissonance to rhythmically unaccented beats, except for carefully introduced (and smoothly resolved) “suspension” dissonances, i.e. dissonance constituted by tones held over from previous chords, which create some of the most glorious harmonic effects in the sound world Renaissance music.  Often remarked on is Palestrina’s ability to write carefully balanced melodic lines that seem often to sweep through significant parts of the scale and elaborate themselves variously without every seeming to lose their equipoise and composure, as well as his skill in projecting words audibly in even elaborate music, thus according with the requirements of the Council of Trent as well as the side of Renaissance aesthetics derived from ‘humanist’ literary taste, with its concern for clear diction and declamation of the word.

Let us listen to some examples:

Here is an example of a relatively large-scored motet (six voices) by Palestrina, his famous motet on St. Peter’s receiving the keys of heaven.  Although one can certainly still hear elaborate imitative polyphony, variations in vocal scoring and registration create a less uniformly thick musical fabric, and almost polychoral effects can sometimes can be heard, for instance high and low voices answering each other.  The text is certainly more audible than in many pieces of Flemish polyphony of the previous generation: Tu es Petrus. (Text and score here.)

Here is one of most famous motets of Palestrina, adapted, as was then common in domestic pious entertainment, for solo singer and lute rather than the original choral arrangement.  This approach especially shows off the lyrical beauty and equipoise of Palestrina’s melody writing, as well as his gentle and subtle expressiveness—in this case the desire of the soul for God: Sicut Cervus. (Text and score here.)

Palestrina is famed as writer of masses.  Here is one of his most felicitous and brief ones, the Missa Brevis. (Text and score here.)

Here is a work of Palestrina in ‘alternatim’ style, i.e. alternating chant and polyphony, in this case a setting of a Latin Christmas hymn.  This style, allowing both easily ‘singable’ plainsong and more elaborate choral writing is arguably well suited to modern liturgical needs: A solis ortu cardine. (Text and score here.)

Palestrina’s music has been often successfully revived in the concert hall in the last generation or two, and no doubt will continue to be.  Some liturgical use has also been revived.  There is no doubt any number of things Church musicians and composers can and should learn about their craft from Palestrina, in terms of a certain ideal of liturgical music.  His general lesson for Catholics today is much harder to judge.  One might postulate that he shows Catholic artists, at least, that greatness in art that serves the Church requires one to both engage the forms, expectations and tastes of one’s own times, but at the same time stand aloof from them, in the name of both the objective forms and needs of truth relevant to the particular art, and according to the spirit of one’s own capacities and muse.  This Palestrina certainly did.  The situation of modern Catholic artist is much more difficult in this regard, given the strong currents in many modern arts that seem to reject the beauty, coherence and form needed for all true art in a Catholic spirit.  We should support them, therefore, when they earnestly attempt this, and all the more when they succeed.


  • Paul Radzilowski

    Paul Radzilowski teaches history at Madonna University in Livonia, Michigan.

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