This exercise asks us to research the life and work of a Renaissance composer; I have chosen Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina.
This influential Renaissance composer was born in the town of Palestrina, close to Rome, around the year 1525. He became a choir boy at the church of S. Maria Maggiore in Rome, and later returned to his home town as an organist and singing teacher.
When the Bishop of Palestrina was appointed as Pope Julius III, he took Palestrina with him to Rome as director of the Cappella Giulia (the choir of St Peter’s Basilica). Here he wrote masses showing a strong command of the polyphonic style introduced from the Netherlands by composers such as Guillaume Dufay and Josquin des Prez.
After the Pope’s death, Palestrina returned to the Basilica of his choir boy days. This was an interesting period in history, coinciding with the Counter-Reformation which led to the complex polyphonic style being simplified to ensure that it didn’t interfere with the clarity of the words of the liturgy.
In 1571 Palestrina was reappointed to the Cappella Giulia where he stayed until his death in 1594. He suffered tragedy in his personal life during the 1570s through the loss of his wife, brother and two sons in an epidemic. Palestrina himself died a wealthy man, and was honoured by a burial in St Peter’s.
Palestrina was a prolific composer who wrote 105 masses, as well as hundreds of madrigals, motets and other forms during his lifetime. Although he did write secular music, he is most well known for his sacred works, probably due to his close ties with the Catholic church.
I have written notes on a selection of his works on my listening log.
Musical legacy and influences
Palestrina was very well respected in his lifetime, described by a contemporary diplomat as “the very first musician in the world” (). His works continued to be copied after his death, and he is one of the first composers to have had a continuous role in the history books. Bach is known to have had copies of his music, and even transcribed his setting of Missa sine nomine.
Palestrina’s smooth style of polyphonic writing became held up as a model for later composers, and Fux’s text on species counterpoint (which I have previously written notes on here) was largely based on Palestrina’s style of music.