Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina

Composer Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina

Late 16th-century, Italian composer of masses, motets, and madrigals. He was extremely prolific and is regarded as one of the greatest composers of the late Renaissance.

Vital Statistics
1525 or 1526, in Palestrina or Rome
February 2, 1594, in Rome
Performed As:
Choirboy and organist
During Lifetime:
The Council of Trent marks the beginning of the Counter-Reformation, a period of revival for the Catholic church.
Biographical Outline
  • First gig, 1544: Serves as organist and teacher at Santo Agapito in the city of Palestrina.
  • Into St. Peter’s: From 1551 to 1561, he is magister cantorum (singing master) of the Cappella Giulia, one of the two choirs at St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome. Composing is not part of the job description.
  • Sistine Chapel: In 1555 Palestrina is admitted to the Cappella Sistina, the choir that performs at all papal functions and ceremonies and that is designated as the model for Roman Catholic liturgical music. He is later dismissed by Pope Paul IV because he is married, which violated an outdated rule of the institution. He continues to compose for the papal chapel.
  • “The savior of church music”: Polyphony (when choirs sing overlapping lines of text) is nearly banned by the Council of Trent, but Palestrina’s famous Pope Marcellus Mass (1562) proves that it is possible to write polyphony without obscuring the text.
  • Back to the start: In 1571 Palestrina returns to the Cappella Giulia, where he remains until his death, despite several other job offers. Throughout his career, Palestrina also composes church music for various other patrons and institutions.
  • Publications: His first published work is a book of Masses from 1554, followed by two more in 1567 and 1570. Other publications include books of motets, madrigals, lamentations, and hymns.
Fun Facts
  • Tough negotiator: In 1568 Palestrina is offered a post as imperial choirmaster in Vienna, but he is not satisfied with the terms laid out by the emperor’s ambassador and so declines.
  • Man of the cloth, almost: In the 1570s, a string of unfortunate events make Palestrina consider becoming a priest: His brother and sons die of the plague, he becomes ill, and in 1580 his wife dies. In 1581, though, he remarries a wealthy widow and becomes financially independent.
  • Purveyor of purity: For centuries, Palestrina’s work was promoted by Roman Catholic authorities as being the apex of “pure” religious polyphony.
  • Popular man: Palestrina remains popular for about 200 years after he dies — many historical writers praise his works while ignoring his contemporaries.
  • Perfect art: His music was “rediscovered” in the 19th century, when he became the symbol of the ars perfecta (perfected art) of Renaissance polyphony.
Recommended Biography
Explore the Music
  • Palestrina was extremely prolific: We know of 104 masses, some 300 motets, 68 offertories, 72 hymns, and 140 madrigals, just to name a few genres. Many of Palestrina’s Masses are based on other polyphonic works (by himself or other composers). Others use plainchant or popular melodies, and some are freely composed.
  • The Palestrina style: Palestrina owes his popularity with officialdom partly to the fact that he was extremely disciplined about staying within his own style. Smooth, flowing, vocally splendid, his music lends itself to contemplation, and doesn’t disrupt the liturgical action. That was important to Counter-Reformation religious ideology.
Recommended Websites
  • Missa “Papae Marcellae” (Pope Marcellus Mass); Missa “Aeterna Christi munera”; Stabat Mater. Oxford Camerata/Schola Cantorum Oxford/Jeremy Summerly, cond. (Naxos, 1999).
  • The Pope Marcellus Mass and the Stabat mater are standard repertory for choruses and choirs. This CD includes another fine Palestrina Mass, along with Giovanni Allegri’s popular Miserere, another standard rep work composed in 1603 in the Palestrina style.