Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina
Part I: Preparation for Reform
by Joseph Otten
Transcribed by Jim Holden
This article is reprinted here with the kind permission of Kevin Knight, who has undertaken a project to transcribe an online version of the 1907 Catholic Encyclopedia.
The greatest composer of liturgical music of all time, born at Palestrina (ancient Praeneste) in 1514 or 1515, according to Baini, Riemann, and others, according to Haberl, in 1526; died at Rome, 2 February, 1594.
His early history is practically unknown.
Giusseppi Ottavia Pittoni (1657-1743), in "notizie dei maestri di cappella si di Rome che altramontani", 1600-1700, a manuscript in the Vatican, relates that young Pierluigi sang in the streets of Rome while offering for sale the products of his parents farm and that he was heard on such an occasion by the choirmaster of Santa Maria Maggiore, who, impressed by the boy's beautiful voice and pronounced musical talent, educated him musically.
As to the identity of the choirmaster, tradition gives no clue.
Some hold that Palestrina was taught by Jacques Arcadelt (1514-60), choirmaster and composer in Rome from 1539 to 1549.
The opinion, so long held, that Claude Goudimel (1505-72) was his principal teacher has now been definitively abandoned.
As far as is known, he began his active musical life as organist and choirmaster in his native city in 1544; his reputation increasing, in 1551 he was called to Rome, entrusted with the direction and musical formation of the choirboys at St. Peter's, and within the same year was advanced to the post of choirmaster.
In 1554, he dedicated to Julius III (1549-55) his first compositions, a volume of masses for four voices, and was rewarded with the appointment as a member of the papal chapel in contravention of the rules governing that body.
The pope had set aside the rule requiring those who held membership in the papal choir to be in Holy Orders, and also used his authority to exempt him from the usually severe entrance examination.
These circumstances and the further fact that his voice was much inferior to those of the other singers, aroused the opposition, and antagonism of his fellow-members.
The papal singers did not appreciate the object of the pope, which was to secure for the gifted young man the necessary leisure to compose.
In the course of the same year, Palestrina published a volume of madrigals.
The texts of some of these the composer himself in later years considered too free.
In the dedication of his setting of the Canticle of Canticles to Gregory XIII, he expresses not only regret but repentance, for having caused scandal by this publication.
Marcellus II, as cardinal, had protected and admired Palestrina, but died after a reign of only twenty-one days.
Paul IV, shortly after his accession, re-inforced the former rules for the government of the papal choir.
Besides Palestrina, there were two other lay married members in the choir.
All were dismissed with a small pension, in spite of the understanding that these singers were engaged for life.
The worry and hardship caused by the dismissal brought on a severe illness; restored, the composer took charge, 1 October, 1555, of the choir at St. John Lateran, where he remained until February, 1561.
During this period he wrote, beside Lamentations and Magnificats, the famous Improperia.
Their performance by the papal choir on Good Friday was ordered by Paul IV, and they have remained in its repertoire for Holy Week ever since.
This production greatly increased Palestrina's fame.
In 1561 he asked the chapter of St. John Lateran for an increase in salary, in view of his growing needs and the expense of publishing his works.
Refused, he accepted a similar post at Santa Maria Maggiore, which he held until 1571.
It is not know at what period of his career Palestrina came under the influence of St. Philip Neri, but there is every reason to believe it was in early youth.
As the saint's penitent and spiritual disciple, he gained that insight into the spirit of the liturgy, which enabled him to set it forth in polyphonic music as it had never before been done.
It was his spiritual formation even more than his artistic maturity, which fitted him for the providential part he played in the reform of church music.