Skip to content
Catholic Online Logo

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. Giuseppe Ottavia Pittoni (1657-1743), in "notizie dei maestri di cappella si di Rome che ultramontani, 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 his 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 .

The task of hastening the reforms decreed by the Council of Trent was entrusted by Pius IV to a commission of eight cardinals. A committee of two of these, St. Charles Borromeo and Vitellozzo Vitelli, was appointed to consider certain improvement in the discipline and administration of the papal choir, and to this end they associated to themselves eight of the choir members. Cardinal Vitelli caused the singers to perform certain compositions in his presence, in order to determine what measures could be taken for the preservation of the integrity and distinct declamation of the text in compositions in which the voices were interwoven. St. Charles , as chancellor of his uncle, Pius IV, was the patron of Palestrina, increasing his pension in 1565. He celebrated a solemn Mass in presence of the pontiff on 19 June, 1565, at which Palestrina's great "Missa Papae Marcelli" was sung. These historical data are the only discoverable basis for the legends, so long repeated by historians, concerning the trial before the cardinals and pope of the cause of polyphonic music, and its vindication by Palestrina, in the composition and performance of three masses, the "Missa Papae Marcelli" among them. Haberl's studies of the archives conclusively demolished these fictions, but their continued repetition for nearly two hundred years emphasizes the fact of Palestrina's activity, inspired by St. Philip and encouraged by St. Charles, in the reform of church music, an activity which embraced his entire career and antedated by some years the disciplinary measures of the Church authorities.

The foundation of his reform is the two principles legitimately deduced from the only references to church music in the Tridentine decrees :

  • the elimination of all themes of reminiscent of, or resembling, secular music;
  • the rejection of musical forms and elaborations tending to mutilate or obscure the liturgical text.
Pius IV created for Palestrina the office of "Composer of the Papal Chapel " with an increased salary. In this office he had only one successor, Felice Anerio. When in 1571 Giovanni Animuccia, choirmaster at St. Peter's, died, Palestrina became his successor, thus being connected with the papal choir and St. Peter's at the same time. An attempt of his jealous and intriguing colleagues in the papal chapel to have him dismissed by Pius V was unsuccessful. During this year he wrote a number of motets and laudi spirituali for the Oratory of St. Philip Neri . Besides the duties of choirmaster at St. Peter's, composer to the papal chapel, director of music at St. Philip's Oratory, he also taught at the school of music of Giovanni Maria Nanini. In addition, Gregory XIII commissioned him to prepare a new version of the Gregorian chant. His exact share in this edition, afterwards published under the name of "editio Medicaea" because printed in a press belonging to Cardinal de' Medici, and what was prepared by his pupil Giovanni Guidetti, Felice Anerio, and Francesco Suriano, has long been a matter of controversy. The undertaking was not particularly congenial to Palestrina and kept him from original production, his real field of activity. His wife's death in 1580 affected him profoundly. His sorrow found expression in two compositions, Psalm 136, "By the waters of Babylon", and a motet on the words "O Lord, when Thou shalt come to judge the world, how shall I stand before the face of Thy anger, my sins frighten me, woe to me, O Lord". With these he intended to close his creative activity, but with the appointment in 1581 as director of music to Prince Buoncompagni, nephew of Gregory XIII, he began perhaps the most brilliant period of his long life.

Besides sacred madrigals, motets, psalms, hymns in honour of the Blessed Virgin, and Masses, he produced the work which brought him the title of "Prince of Music", twenty-nine motets on the words from the "Canticle of Canticles ". According to his own statement, Palestrina intended to reproduce in his composition the Divine love expressed in the Canticle, so that his own heart might be touched by a spark thereof. For the enthronement of Sixtus V, he wrote a five-part motet and mass on the theme to the text "Tu es pastor ovium", followed a few months later by one of his greatest productions, the mass "Assumpta est Maria". Sixtus had intended to appoint him director of the papal choir, but the refusal of the singers to be directed by a layman, prevented the execution of his plan. During the last years of his life Palestrina wrote his great "Lamentations", settings of the liturgical hymns, a collection of motets, the well-know "Stabat Mater " for double chorus, litanies in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the offertories for the ecclesiastical year. His complete works, in thirty-three volumes, edited by Theodore deWitt, Franz Espagne, Franz Commer, and from the tenth volume on, by Haberl, are published by Breitkopf and Hartel; Msgr. Haberl presented the last volume of the completed edition to Pius X on Easter Monday, 1908. Palestrina's significance lies not so much in his unprecedented gifts of mind and heart, his creative and constructive powers, as in the fact that he made them the medium for the expression in tones of the state of his own soul, which, trained and formed by St. Philip, was attuned to and felt with the Church. His creations will for all time stand forth as the musical embodiment of the spirit of the counter-reformation, the triumphant Church.


More Encyclopedia

The Catholic Encyclopedia is the most comprehensive resource on Catholic teaching, history, and information ever gathered in all of human history. This easy-to-search online version was originally printed in fifteen hardcopy volumes.

Catholic Encyclopedia

Designed to present its readers with the full body of Catholic teaching, the Encyclopedia contains not only precise statements of what the Church has defined, but also an impartial record of different views of acknowledged authority on all disputed questions, national, political or factional. In the determination of the truth the most recent and acknowledged scientific methods are employed, and the results of the latest research in theology, philosophy, history, apologetics, archaeology, and other sciences are given careful consideration.

No one who is interested in human history, past and present, can ignore the Catholic Church, either as an institution which has been the central figure in the civilized world for nearly two thousand years, decisively affecting its destinies, religious, literary, scientific, social and political, or as an existing power whose influence and activity extend to every part of the globe. In the past century the Church has grown both extensively and intensively among English-speaking peoples. Their living interests demand that they should have the means of informing themselves about this vast institution, which, whether they are Catholics or not, affects their fortunes and their destiny.

Copyright © Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company New York, NY. Volume 1: 1907; Volume 2: 1907; Volume 3: 1908; Volume 4: 1908; Volume 5: 1909; Volume 6: 1909; Volume 7: 1910; Volume 8: 1910; Volume 9: 1910; Volume 10: 1911; Volume 11: - 1911; Volume 12: - 1911; Volume 13: - 1912; Volume 14: 1912; Volume 15: 1912

Catholic Online Catholic Encyclopedia Digital version Compiled and Copyright © Catholic Online


Newsletters

Newsletter Sign Up icon

Stay up to date with the latest news, information, and special offers

Daily Readings

Reading 1, Jeremiah 26:11-16, 24
11 The priests and prophets then said to the chief ... Read More

Psalm, Psalms 69:15-16, 30-31, 33-34
15 Let not the waves wash over me, nor the deep ... Read More

Gospel, Matthew 14:1-12
1 At that time Herod the tetrarch heard about the ... Read More

Saint of the Day

Saint of the Day for August 2nd, 2014 Image

St. Eusebius of Vercelli
August 2: Christians who breathed a sigh of relief when Constantine ... Read More

Inform, Inspire & Ignite Logo

Find Catholic Online on Facebook and get updates right in your live feed.

Become a fan of Catholic Online on Facebook


Follow Catholic Online on Twitter and get News and Product updates.

Follow us on Twitter