1902 Encyclopedia > Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina
Italian composer
(c. 1524-94)

GIOVANNI PIERLUIGI DA PALESTRINA (c. 1524-1594), now universally distinguished by the honourable title Princeps Musicae, occupies a more important position in the history of art than any other composer, ancient of modern; for it is to his transcendent genius that music is indebted for it emancipation from pedantic trammels which, ignoring beauty as its most necessary element, were fast tending to reduce it to the level of an arithmetical problem.

The exact date of Palestrina’s birth is unrecorded. It most probably took place in 1524, and certainly at Palestrina (the Praeneste of Roman geographers, -- whence the style to him in Latin
[Footnote xx-1]). Some early writers call him Gianetto da Palestina, or simply Gianetto; and this early custom -- which has led some modern critics to mistake his identity -- combined with the general use of his Christian names only, has induced the belief that he was a peasant origin; but Signor Cicerchia is said to have discovered at Palestrina documents proving that his father bore the family name of Sante, and his mother that of Gismondi, -- in which case he must have been of gentle birth. The statement, however, needs confirmation.

In early youth Palestrina studied at Rome in company with Animuccia, and, perhaps also, Giovanni Maria Nanini, in a music school founded by GOUDIMEL (q.v.). After this, we hear no more of him until 1551, when, by favour of Pope Julius III, he was elected Magister Cappellae and Magister Puerorum at the Cappella Giulia, S. Pietro in Vaticano, with a salary of six scudi per month, and a house. Three years later he published his First Book of Masses, dedicated to Pope Julius III, and beginning with the Missa "Esse Sacerdos magnus," concerning which we shall have to speak more particularly hereafter.
[Footnote xx-1] On January 13, 1555, Palestrina was enrolled, by command of Pope Julius III, among the singers of the Capella Sistina. This honour involved the resignation of his office at the Capella Giulia, which was accordingly bestowed upon his friend Animuccia. But the legality of the new appointment was disputed on the ground that Palestrina was married, and the father of four children his wife, Lurezia, being still alive; and, though, for the moment, the pope’s will was law, the case assumed a different complexion after his death, which took place only five weeks afterwards. The next pope, Marcellus II, was succeeded, after a reign of twenty-three days, by Paul IV; and within less than a year that stern reformer dismissed Palestrina, together with two other married singers, Ferrabosco and Bari, with a consolatory pension of six scudi per month to each. This cruel disappointment caused Palestrina a dangerous illness; but better fortune was in store. In October 1555 he was appointed Maestro di Capella at the Lateran, without forfeiting his pension; and in February 1561 he exchanged this preferment for a similar one, with an allowance of sixteen scudi per month, at Santa Maria Maggiore.

Palestrina remained in office at this celebrated basilica for ten years; and it was during this period that the most critical event in his life took place -- an event of such grave importance that its results have never ceased to furnish matter for discussion to the musical historian from the time of its occurrence to the present day.

In 1562 the council of Trent censured the prevalent style of ecclesiastical music with extreme severity. In 1564 Pope Pius IV commissioned eight cardinals to investigate the causes of complaint; and these proved to be so well founded that it was seriously proposed to forbid the use of all music in the services of the church, except unisonous and unaccompanied plain-chant -- a proceeding which, so far as the church was concerned, would have rendered the "art of music," properly so called, a dead letter, not only for the time being, but in perpetuity, for the decree, once promulgated, could only have been repealed by another general council.

It is evident that very gross abuses must have been needed to justify so stringent a measure as this in the eyes of men accustomed to regard art as the obedient handmaid of religion; yet, strange to say, the nature of these abuses has never yet been clearly established by any musical historian, either English or foreign. Baini devotes several chapter of his great work
[Footnote xx-2] to their discussion, but without arriving at any definite conclusion. Burney and Hawkins seem to have regarded the question as one involving no deeper significance than a more or less exalted standard of artistic purity. Ambros, generally so reasonable a critic, denies the existence of nay just ground of complaint at all, even in the limited sense claimed by Burney and Hawkins, and condemns the severer censures of Baini and his followers as attempts to substantiate a groundless myth. Bernsdorf speaks little less strongly, simply because a certain tradition, which represented the circumstances as having taken place in 1555, during the short reign of Pope Marcellus II, has been proved to be certainly false. That more than one groundless myth have been substituted for the real account of the occurrence is true enough -- one, at least, involving an anachronism of no less than twelve centuries. But no sober historian has ever credited these absurd stories; and it is not to them that Baini gives currency or that Ambros objects. The misfortune is that each successive narrator has perpetuated the vague statements of his predecessors, instead of seeking for information at original sources; and this mistaken course has resulted in an infinity of oracular utterances, no two of which agree. To conflicting opinion like these, one only form of answer is possible -- that published by contemporary documents. Fortunately, an immense amount of church music, written in the style universally cultivated at the period of which we are treating, has been preserved to us both in MS. And in print; and, though the forms use, students of mediaeval music are able to decipher them with absolute certainty. Objections like those raised by Ambros can therefore be met by reference to examples of the music actually sung at the time the council of Trent condemned the then prevailing style.

The first impression derived from the study of these venerable records tends to confirm a statement already made, to the effect that the art of music was rapidly degenerating into a mere system of figures. There is evidence enough to prove the existence, from the 14th century downwards, of a growing tendency to cultivate, at the expense of ideal beauty, certain forms of technical ingenuity worthy only of association with a clever conundrum. A canon which could be sung upside down, as well as backwards and forwards, was more highly esteemed than one that could be sung backwards and forwards only. The amount of skill and learning wasted on the construction of such canons was almost incredible; and equally so was the puerility of the conceits with which men known to have been profound scholars endeavoured to give an additional zest to their strange inventions. When the construction of a canon, often written in the form of a cross or a rainbow, was so complicated that it was almost impossible to find out how to sing it, they hinted at the secret by means of a motto as obscure as the music itself. In one instance, Respice me, ostende mihi faciem tuam, indicates that two singers are to hold the music between them, each reading it upside down from the other’s point of view. In another, Justilia et Pax osculatae sunt intimates that two singers are to being simultaneously at opposite ends of the music, singing all the notes in correct time until they meet in the middle. In a third case Batracos ek Âeriqou [Greek] means that a certain voice is to be silent -- in allusion to Aelian’s assertion that the frogs on the island of Seriphus do not croak. We do not say that all the music of the period was of this character; but a multitude of such examples, written by the most celebrated musicians of the Middle Ages, have been preserved to us, and most of them are adapted to the words of the Mass. Surely the council had just right to complain of this.

Another still more serious abuse consisted in the introduction, among the words of the Mass, of foreign passages having no connexion whatever with the original text, -- one voice being made to sing "Alleluia" or "Ave Maria," while others were singing the worlds of the "Credo" or the "Sanctus."

In other to justly appreciate the true bearing of this very prevalent abuse, it will necessary for the English Church composer to divest himself of certain not very unnatural prejudices, -- and, first of all, of the idea that the custom implied intentional irreverence on the part of those who introduced it, which, in spite of appearances, it certainly did not. In England the music sung forms an essential part of the service. This is not the case with the Mass. In reciting the prescribed form of words with the prescribed ceremonies, the officiating priest fulfils unaided all the necessary conditions of the service, while the congregation looks on and worships, and the choir endeavours to excite its devotion by singing appropriate music. As a matter of fact, the words to which this music is set are identical with a portion of those recited by the priest; but they represent no essential element of the service, nor are they for the most part sung at the same time that the priest recites them. Except in the delivery of a few responses, the action of the choir is entirely independent of that of the priest; and the action of the congregation is independent of both. Each member of it may use any book of devotions he pleases, and he will generally be careful to use prayers and meditations suitable to the festival in which he is taking part. For instance, at Christmas he will meditate on the nativity of our Lord, at Easter on His resurrection, -- continuing his meditations on these subjects, without reference, during the greater part of the mass, to the words the priest is reciting. It is only by bearing these facts carefully in mind that we can rightly understand what is to follow.

The mediaeval composer very rarely constructed his Mass upon an original subject. His favourite plan was to select as his principal theme a fragment of some well-known plain-chant hymn or antiphon, and from the words proper to this melody -- technically called the canto fermo -- the Mass was name. We still possess countess examples of the Missa "Aeterna Christi numera," the Missa "Vidi turbam magnam," "Repleatur ox meum," "Dam Complerentur," "Iste Confessor," and others of like character, all named after the canti fermi on which they are based, though, except in a few comparatively rare cases to be presently mentioned, the words proper to the canti fermi do not appear in the work, the selected melody being adapted to the actual words of the Mass. And thus far the custom was not only an unobjectionable but a thoroughly commendable one; for the melodies employed were familiar to every educated member of the congregation, and to these the sound of the well-known tune must necessarily have suggested the sacred words belonging to it, and that so powerfully that the performance on Christmas Day of a Mass founded on the melody of "Hodie Christus natus est," or on Whitsunday of one based on "Veni, Creator Spiritus," could scarcely have failed to induce in the minds of the assembled worshippers the exact train of meditation most desirable on these great festivals.

Had composers been contented with this, all would have been well. But unhappily they were tempted to add the extraneous words; and their intention, in doing so, has been grossly misrepresented. They have been accused of willfully sacrificing sense to sound, with the unworthy object of displaying their technical skill to greater advantage. At the first blush may seem some truth in this; but here again the strictures will not bear examination in presence of the actual records.

Nearly a century before the birth of Palestrina, Joannes de Tinctoris -- the compiler of the earliest known Dictionary of Musical Terms -- wrote a Mass in which one voice interpolated the words here printed in italics, while the others sung the authorized text, exactly as it appears in the Missal:--

Cherubim ac seraphim caeterique spiritus angelici Deo in altissimis incessabili voce proclamant, "Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus, Dominus Deus Sabaoth." "Pueri Hebraeorum sternentes vestimenta ramos plamarum Jesu filio David clamanbant Osanna in exceisis." "Benedictus simper sit filius Altissimi, qui de cœlis huc venit in nomine Domini"

Clearly this is nothing more than an amplification of the received version -- a reverent commentary upon the words actually recited by the priest. In what way can the addition of these extraneous sentences conduce to the display of the composer’s musical learning? He might just as easily have set the same notes to the unaltered text.

Again, Palestrina himself begins his Liber primus Missarum, already mentioned, with a Mass for which he has chosen, as a canto fermo, the entire melody f the gradual, "Ecce Sacerdos magnus," sung on the festival of certain great doctors of the church, such as Ambrose and Athanasius, -- one voice being constantly employed in the reiteration of this in long, slow notes, sung to its own proper words, while three others sing the authorized text in the usual way. What object could possibly have tempted the composer to arrange his music thus, other than that of using the familiar words and tune as a means of reminding his hearers of the great work wrought by the saints whose festival they are commemorating? Palestrina was the last man in the world to have paraded his learning; and, had he wished to call attention to it, he might have done so in a hundred easier ways. Indeed, if the Mass were to be sung to-morrow, nothing would be easier than to fit the words of the Mass to the notes of the canto fermo throughout. Still, notwithstanding the innocence of the composer’s intention, there can be not doubt that the custom was a highly reprehensible one; and it led to something very much worse.

The troubadours and minnesingers of the Middle Ages produced a host of beautiful secular melodies, many of which still live among us in the guise of "national airs," though the names of their melodies tempted composers to select then as canti fermi for their Masses; and not a few such works were actually named after them, as the Missa "L’Homme armé" (a very common example), the Missa "Mon coeur se recommande à vous," and many others. And in this the mediaeval musician had no more thought of intentional irreverence than had the Flemish painter when he presented the Nativity as taking place in a little roadside hostelry like that to which he was accustomed to resort for this evening meal. But he committed a grave error of judgment. For, just as the sound of the sacred canto fermo brought to remembrance the words with which it was connected, so, we may be sure, did that of the secular one; and the greater its beauty the more surely would it do its evil work. It was by its beauty alone that it attracted the composer; yet his treatment of it proves beyond all doubt that he meant no evil. This, however, is the last stage of our history at which we can acquit him of it; and perhaps even here we may have stained the point a little too far.

As might naturally have been expected, the introduction of the secular canto fermo was followed by exactly the same results as that of the sacred one. It took a longer time to bring about the evil, but it came at last. The familiar words were sung to the familiar notes, not by the will of the composer, who would never have dared to insert them, even had he wished to do so, but by that of profane singers, who surreptitiously trolled them forth for the gratification of a prurient taste, while the great body of the choir adhered to the sacred text. And, in the face of these undeniable facts, Hawkins calmly speaks of the reform as one of style only, while Ambros, intoxicated by the beauty of so much of the music preserved to us, and especially by the compositions of Claude Goudimel, for whom he entertained a well-founded admiration, tells us, in so many words, that no reform of church music was ever needed or demanded, and that no such reform as the popularly attributed to the influence of Palestrina ever took place.

Two of the commissioners, however, -- Cardinals Borromeo and Vitellozzi, -- while admitting the urgent need of reform, pleaded for a compromise, and happily the commission agreed to postpone its final decision until Palestrina -- already recognized as the greatest composer then living -- had been permitted to prove, if he could, the possibility of producing a Mass which should not only be free from the abuses complained of, but should also conduce to the excitation of true devotional feeling by bringing the plain sense of the words into the strongest possible relief, and that so manifestly that it might be presented to all future composers as the pattern of what true ecclesiastical music ought evermore to be.

A careful comparison of Palestrina’s works with those of the best of his contemporaries conclusively proves that in him alone were united all the qualifications necessary for the success of this difficult attempt, which demanded the earnestness of a deeply religious mind, the science of a profoundly learned musician, and the refined taste of an artist whose sense of beauty was strong enough to overcome all desire for the display of technical power at the expense of that delicacy of expression without which the required solemnity of style would have been unattainable Animuccia lived as holy a life as Palestrina. The elder Nanini, if not so learned a musician as he, was at any rate more learned than far the greater number of his contemporaries. But the world had yet to learn how far refinement of taste could be carried in the composition of sacred music; and upon Palestrina devolved the duty of teaching it its lesson. Ockenheim had already astonished it by the ingenuity with which he evolved from the contrapuntal materials at his command a form so symmetrically proportioned that it seemed as if no future artificer could add to its perfection
[Footnote xx-1]; but the materials were dry bones, and the resulting form no more than a wonderfully articulated skeleton. To the erudition of Ockenheim Josquin Deprés united the fire of true genius. To him we are indebted for many, if not most, of the finest works produced before the age of Palestrina.[Footnote xx-2] Yet even he could do no more than clothe Ockenheim’s bare skeleton with flesh. It remained for Palestrina to breathe into the perfect body the breath of that artistic life which alone could enable it to give thanks to the Creator of all things in tones which betokened the presence of the soul within it. He first taught the world that music was not a mere lifeless collection of notes, -- that, as the gift of speech enabled man to express his thoughts to his fellow-man, so the gift of harmony enabled him to express his feelings, whether of devotion, or praise, or prayer and this so intelligibly that he might "sing praises with understanding" in the truest sense of the words. And it was to the decree of the council of Trent that he was indebted for the opportunity of showing how great a work it was possible to accomplish in this direction, as well as for the means of accomplishing it with such good effect that to this day the results are apparent in every church in which true ecclesiastical music is sung.

Dreading to trust the issue of so severe a trial to a single work, Palestrina, with characteristic modesty, submitted there Masses to Cardinal Carlo Borromeo for approval. These were privately rehearsed, in presence of the commissioners, at the palace of Cardinal Vitellozzi; and, while warmly admiring them all, the judges were unanimous in deciding that the third mass fulfilled, in the highest possible degree, all the conditions demanded. The private trial book place in June 1565; and the 19th of the month, the Mass was publicity sung at the Sistine Chapel, in presence of Pope Pius IV, who compared its music to that heard by St John in his vision of the New Jerusalem. Thenceforth it was formally accepted as the type of all true ecclesiastical music. Parvi transcribed it, for the library of the choir, in character of extraordinary size and beauty; and, in acknowledgment of his services to art, Palestrina was appointed by the pope composer to the Sistine Chapel, an office created expressly in his honour, and confirmed to him by seven later pontiffs, though with the very insufficient honorarium of three scudi per month, in addition to the six which formed his pension.

In 1557 this Mass was printed in Palestrina’s Liber secundus Missarum. The volume was dedicated to Philip II of Spain, but the Mass was called the "Missa Papae Marcelli." This title, clearly given in honour of the shortlived pope Marcellus II, has given rise to an absurd story, told by Pellegrini and others, to the effect that the Mass was composed by Pope Marcellus I, martyred early in the 4th century, and was only discovered by Palestrina. Of course, in the 4th century the composition of such music was impossible; but this is only a specimen of the innumerable fables which have brought the true history into disrepute. The Missa Papae Marcelli is undoubtedly Palestrina’s greatest work. Its ineffable beauty has often been described in glowing by those who have heard it in the Sistine Chapel, but it was never heard in England until 1882, when the Bach choir, consisting of two hundred unaccompanied voices, sang it at St. James’s Hall, under the direction of Mr. Otto Goldschmidt; and the effect produced on the occasion more than justified all that had ever been said of the music, which is certainly the most beautiful, the most solemn, and the most truly devotional that has ever been dedicated to the service of the church .

We have dwelt at some length on these circumstances, because they felt a more indelible impression upon the history of art than any other events in Palestrina’s life, which was not what the world would call a prosperous one, though he himself was quite satisfied with his condition.

Upon the death of Animuccia in 17,571 Palestrina was re-elected to his appointment at the Cappella Giulia. He also succeeded Animuccia as Maestro di Capella at the Oratory of Philip Neri; but these appointments were far from lucrative, and he still remained a very poor man. In 1580 he was much distressed by the death of his wife; and the loss of three promising sons, Angelo, Ridolfo, and Silla, left him with one child only -- Gino -- a very unworthy descendant. In 1586 a new trouble befell him: Pope Sixtus V wished to appoint him maestro to the pontifical choir, as successor to Antonio Boccapadule, then about to resign, and commissioned Boccapadule to prepare the choir for the change. Boccapadule, however, managed so clumsily that Palestrina was accused of having meanly plotted for his own advancement. The pope was very angry, and punished the calumniators very severely; but Palestrina lost the appointment. These troubles, however, did not hinder his work, which he continued, without intermission, until February 2, 1594, when he breathed his last in the arms of his friend, Filippo Neri.

The printed works of Palestrina include twelve volumes of Masses; seven volumes of Motets for from the four to twelve voices; two volumes of Offertoria, and one of Hymns, for the whole year; one volume of Lamentations, three of Litanies, and one of Magnificats. Two of Madrigals, the loveliest in existence; and two of Madrigali spirituali; besides an immense number of compositions still remaining in MS. The whole of these are now in course of publication by Breitkopf and Härtel, of Leipsic [Leipzig]. (W. S. R.)



The above article was written by: William Smythe Rockstro, pianist and musical composer; author of A General History of Music from the Infancy of the Greek Drama to the Present Period and other works on the history of music.

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