Saturday, February 3, 8525

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594)

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594)

Missa Pape Marcelli (Pope Marcellus Mass) (1555):


Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (between February 3, 1525 and February 2, 1526 - February 2, 1594) was an Italian composer of the Renaissance. He was the most famous sixteenth-century representative of the Roman School of musical composition. Palestrina had a vast influence on the development of Roman Catholic church music, and his work can be seen as a summation of Renaissance polyphony.

Palestrina was born in Palestrina, a town near Rome, then part of the Papal States.

He spent most of his career in Rome. Documents suggest he first visited the city in 1537, when he is listed as a chorister at Santa Maria Maggiore basilica. He studied with Robin Mallapert and Firmin Lebel.

It was rumored Palestrina studied under Claude Goudimel (one of the Geneven Psalter composers); the story originated in the nineteenth century, but according to recent study, Goudimel was never in Rome.

From 1544-1551 Palestrina was organist of the principal church of his native city (St Agapito), and in the last year became maestro di cappella at the Cappella Giulia, the papal choir at St. Peter's Basilica. His first published compositions, a book of masses made so favorable an impression with Pope Julius III (previously the Bishop of Palestrina), that he was appointed musical director of the Julian Chapel. In addition, this was the first book of masses by a native composer: in the Italian states of his day, most composers of sacred music were from Netherlands, France, or Spain. In fact his book of masses was actually modeled on one by Morales, and the woodcut in the front is an almost exact copy of the one from the book by the Spaniard.

Palestrina held positions similar to his Julian Chapel appointment at other chapels and churches in Rome during the next decade (notably St John in Lateran, from 1555-1560, and St Maria Maggiore, from 1561-1566). In 1571 he returned to the Julian Chapel, and remained at St Peter's for the rest of his life. The decade of the 1570's was difficult for him personally; he lost his brother, two of his sons, and his wife in three separate outbreaks of the plague (1572, 1575, and 1580 respectively). He seems to have considered becoming a priest at this time, but instead he married again, this time to a wealthy widow; this finally gave him financial independence (he was not well paid as choirmaster) and he was able to compose prolifically until his death.

He died in Rome of pleurisy in 1594.

Palestrina left hundreds of compositions, including 104 masses, 68 offertories, more than 300 motets, at least 72 hymns, 35 magnificats, 11 litanies, 4 or 5 sets of lamentations etc., at least 140 madrigals and 9 organ ricercari (however, recent scholarship has classed these ricercari as of doubtful authorship; Palestrina probably wrote no purely instrumental music). There are two comprehensive editions of Palestrina's works: one edited by Haberl and published in 33 volumes in 1862-94, the other edited by R. Casimiri and others and published in 34 volumes. His Missa sine nomine seems to have been particularly attractive to Johann Sebastian Bach, who studied and performed it while he was writing his own masterpiece, the Mass in B Minor.

His compositions are typified as very clear, with voice parts well-balanced and beautifully harmonized. Among the works counted as his masterpieces is the Missa Papae Marcelli (Pope Marcellus Mass), which according to legend was composed to persuade the Council of Trent that a draconian ban on polyphonic treatment of text in sacred music was unnecessary. However, more recent scholarship shows that this mass was composed before the cardinals convened to discuss the ban (possibly as much as ten years before). It is probable, however, that Palestrina was quite conscious of the needs of intelligible text in conformity with the doctrine of the Counter-Reformation, and wrote his works towards this end from the 1560s until the end of his life.

The "Palestrina Style" -- the smooth style of 16th century polyphony, derived and codified by Johann Joseph Fux from a careful study of his works -- is the style usually taught as "Renaissance polyphony" in college counterpoint classes, although in a modified form, as Fux made a number of stylistic errors which have been corrected by later authors (notably Knud Jeppesen and Morris). As codified by Fux it follows the rules of what he defined as "species counterpoint." Palestrina established and followed these strict guidelines:

The flow of music is dynamic, not rigid or static.

Melody should contain no great leaps between notes.

If a leap occurs, it must be small and immediately countered by opposite stepwise motion.

Dissonances are either passing note or off the beat. If it's on the beat, it is immediately resolved.

No composer of the sixteenth century was more consistent in following his own rules, and staying within the stylistic bounds he imposed on himself, than was Palestrina. Also, no composer of the sixteenth century has had such an edifice of myth and legend built around him.

Much of the research on Palestrina was done in the nineteenth century by Giuseppe Baini, who published a monograph in 1828 which made Palestrina famous again, and reinforced the already existing legend that he was the "Saviour of Church Music" during the reforms of the Council of Trent. The nineteenth-century attitude of hero-worship is predominant in this monograph, however, and this has remained with the composer to some degree to the present day; Hans Pfitzner's opera Palestrina shows this attitude at its peak. Scholarship of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries tends to retain the view that Palestrina was a strong and refined composer, representing a summit of technical perfection, but emphasizes that there were other composers working at the same time with equally individual voices and slightly different styles, even within the confines of smooth polyphony, such as Lassus and Victoria.

Palestrina was immensely famous in his day, and his reputation, if anything, increased following his death. Conservative music of the Roman School continued to be written in his style (known as the "prima pratica" in the seventeenth century), by such students of his as Giovanni Maria Nanino, Ruggiero Giovannelli, Arcangelo Crivelli, Teofilo Gargari, Francesco Soriano and Gregorio Allegri. It is also thought that Salvatore Sacco may have been a student of Palestrina. Palestrina's music continues to be performed and recorded, and provides models for the study of counterpoint.


In music, counterpoint is the relationship between two or more voices that are independent in contour and rhythm, and interdependent in harmony. It has been most commonly identified in Western music, developing strongly in the Renaissance, and also dominant in much of the common practice period, especially in Baroque music. The term comes from the Latin punctus contra punctum ("note against note"). The adjectival form contrapuntal shows this Latin source more transparently.

In its most general aspect, counterpoint involves the writing of musical lines which sound very different from each other, but sound harmonious when played together. In each era, writing of music organized contrapuntally has been subject to rules, sometimes strict. By definition, chords occur when multiple notes sound simultaneously; however, chordal, harmonic, "vertical" features are considered secondary and almost incidental when counterpoint is the predominant textural element. Counterpoint focuses on melodic interaction, and only secondarily on the harmonies produced by that interaction. In the words of John Rahn:

It is hard to write a beautiful song. It is harder to write several individually beautiful songs that, when sung simultaneously, sound as a more beautiful polyphonic whole. The internal structures that create each of the voices separately must contribute to the emergent structure of the polyphony, which in turn must reinforce and comment on the structures of the individual voices. The way that is accomplished in detail is...'counterpoint."

The separation of harmony and counterpoint is not absolute. It is impossible to write simultaneous lines without producing harmony, and impossible to write harmony without linear activity. The composer who chooses to ignore one aspect in favour of the other still must face the fact that the listener cannot simply turn off harmonic or linear hearing at will; thus the composer risks creating annoying distractions unintendedly. Bach's counterpoint -- often considered the most profound synthesis of the two dimensions ever achieved -- is extremely rich harmonically and always clearly directed tonally, while the individual lines remain fascinating.

Counterpoint was elaborated extensively in the Renaissance period, but composers of the Baroque period brought counterpoint to a kind of culmination, and it may be said that, broadly speaking, harmony then took over as the predominant organizing principle in musical composition. The Baroque composer Johann Sebastian Bach wrote most of his music incorporating counterpoint, and explicitly and systematically explored the full range of contrapuntal possibilities in such works as The Art of Fugue.

Given the way terminology in music history has evolved, such music created from the Baroque period on is described as contrapuntal, while music from before Baroque times is called polyphonic. Hence, the earlier composer Josquin des Prez is said to have written polyphonic music.

Homophony, by contrast with polyphony, features music in which chords or vertical intervals work with a single melody without much consideration of the melodic character of the added accompanying elements, or of their melodic interactions with the melody they accompany. As suggested above, most popular music written today is predominantly homophonic, its composition governed mainly by considerations of chord and harmony; but, while general tendencies can often be fairly strong one way or another, rather than describing a musical work in absolute terms as either polyphonic or homophonic, it is a question of degree.

The form or compositional genre known as fugue is perhaps the most complex contrapuntal convention. Other examples include the round (familiar in folk traditions) and the canon.
In musical composition, contrapuntal techniques are important for enabling composers to generate musical ironies that serve not only to intrigue listeners into listening more intently to the spinning out of complexities found within the texture of a polyphonic composition, but also to draw them all the more into hearing the working out of these figures and interactions of musical dialogue. A melodic fragment, heard alone, makes a particular impression; but when the fragment is heard simultaneously with other melodic ideas, or combined in unexpected ways with itself (as in a canon or fugue), greater depths of affective meaning are revealed.

Through development of a musical idea, the fragments undergo a working out into something musically greater than sum of the parts, something conceptually more profound than a single pleasing melody.

Species counterpoint is a type of so-called strict counterpoint, developed as a pedagogical tool, in which a student progresses through several "species" of increasing complexity, always working a very plain given part in the cantus firmus (Latin for "fixed melody"). The student gradually attains the ability to write free counterpoint (that is, less rigorously constrained counterpoint, usually without a cantus firmus) according to the rules at the given time.

The idea is at least as old as 1532, when Giovanni Maria Lanfranco described a similar concept in his Scintille di musica. The late 16th-century Venetian theorist Zarlino elaborated on the idea in his influential Le institutioni harmoniche, and it was first presented in a codified form in 1619 by Lodovico Zacconi in his Prattica di musica. Zacconi, unlike later theorists, included a few extra contrapuntal techniques as species, for example invertible counterpoint.

[8530 Bray Lute Romanesca / 8525 Palestrina / 8519 Arbeau]