Giovanni Palestrina Essay

Both Grove Music Online and Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart contain good recent summaries of Palestrina’s life and works (see Reference Resources). Baini’s pioneering 1828 study (Baini 1966) is still worth reading from a historicist point of view. Brenet 1906 is a generally reliable guide in French, though no longer up to date biographically. Cametti’s contribution to the tercentenary of the composer’s death in 1894 (Cametti 1994) brought much new information and a critical sense to the biographical side, which Coates 1938 filtered through for English-speaking readers. Fellerer 1960’s treatment of the music was a breakthrough for its time, particularly in its diagrammatic representation of textures. It was taken over in Italian translation into Bianchi and Fellerer 1971, supplemented by Bianchi 1995’s updating of the composer’s life. Heinemann 1994 presents the German reader with an up-to-date biography, as does Della Sciucca 2009 for Italians, with the latter’s discussion of the music adding some pertinent observations.

  • Baini, Giuseppe. Memorie storico-critiche della vita e della opera di Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. 2 vols. Hildesheim, Germany: Olms, 1966.

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    Originally published in 1828. The earliest study of the composer and his milieu, which made good use for its time of contemporary documents. A rambling and rather hagiographic work, it did much to promulgate the myth of Palestrina as a “great” composer in the Romantic sense. While much is no longer reliable, it is worth reading for the insights it gives into the attitudes of its time.

  • Bianchi, Lino. Palestrina nella vita, nelle opere, nel suo tempo. Palestrina, Italy: Fondazione Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, 1995.

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    An enlarged version of Bianchi and Fellerer 1971, replacing Fellerer with Bianchi’s own discussion of the works. Bianchi’s approach is descriptive and rather encyclopedic, which makes it a bit difficult to pick out the nuggets, but there is much of value here.

  • Bianchi, Lino, and Karl G. Fellerer. Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. Turin, Italy: Edizioni RAI Radiotelevisione Italiana, 1971.

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    An excellent biographical study with numerous illustrations makes up the first half of this volume. For the second half, Lorenzo Bianconi translated the sections of Fellerer 1960 dealing with the works. This is supplemented by a short discussion of Palestrina’s madrigals by Bianchi.

  • Brenet, Michel. Palestrina. Paris: Alcan, 1906.

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    An important French biography which, for its time, took a sensible and wide-ranging view of the composer and his work.

  • Cametti, Alberto. Palestrina. Facsimile ed. Rome: Fondazione Pierluigi da Palestrina, 1994.

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    The culmination of considerable biographical research by Cametti that started with the first edition of this book in 1894. Somewhat hagiographical in its approach, it is nevertheless thorough and accurate in the information it provides. There is little or no discussion of the music. Also published in 1925 (Milan: Bottega di Poesia).

  • Coates, Henry. Palestrina. Master Musicians Series. London: Dent, 1938.

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    The major early survey of the composer’s life and works in English. Now rather dated and reflecting received opinions rather than questioning them, it nevertheless presents a readable account. Includes a works list.

  • Della Sciucca, Marco. Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. Palermo, Italy: L’Epos, 2009.

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    This well-integrated account in Italian provides the most recent synthesis of Palestrina’s life and works. Incorporates recent research and contains a stimulating essay on reception history and aesthetics. Includes a works list, taken from Grove Music Online, a bibliography, and some useful illustrations.

  • Fellerer, Karl G. Palestrina: Leben und Werk. Düsseldorf: Musikverlag Schwann, 1960.

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    This is a classic treatment of Palestrina’s music by an author with an extensive knowledge of its style and who developed innovative methods to deal with it. His diagrams illustrating texture continue to be particularly illuminating. Includes a summary treatment of the composer’s life. Originally published 1930.

  • Heinemann, Michael. Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina und seine Zeit. Laaber, Germany: Laaber Verlag, 1994.

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    An up-to-date biography in German, written for the nonspecialist reader. There is a detailed chronology that includes contemporary events, a catalog of works, and a good bibliography.

  • The Renaissance

    • Dance music

    • Polyphony

    • English madrigal


    The Renaissance was a time of rebirth in learning, science, and the arts throughout Europe. The rediscovery of the writings of ancient Greece and Rome led to a renewed interest in learning in general. The invention of the printing press allowed the disbursement of this knowledge in an unprecedented manner. The invention of the compass permitted the navigation of the world's oceans and the subsequent discovery of lands far removed from the European continent. With Copernicus' discovery of the actual position of the earth in the solar system and Martin Luther's Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Church lost its grip on society and a humanist spirit was born. This spirit manifested itself in the painting and sculpture of Michelangelo, the plays of Shakespeare, and in both the sacred and secular dance and vocal music of the greatest composers of the era.

    Dance music of the Renaissance

    Throughout the Renaissance instrumental dance music flowered and thrived, and was composed, or more likely improvised, by many people. Musicians whose names have come down to us collected much of this existing music and had it published in various volumes over the years. The Terpsichore of Michael Praetorius (c.1571-1621) and the dance music of Tielman Susato (c.1500-1561) represent some of the outstanding examples of dance music from the late Renaissance. A piece such as La Spagna, (attributed to Josquin des Prez) is an excellent example of the buoyant rhythms and sounds of the Renaissance dance. Many of these dance forms were modified and developed by later composers and found their way into the Baroque dance suite.


    Josquin des Prez
    Born: Hainault or Henegouwen (Burgundy), c. 1440
    Died: Condé-sur-Escaut, August 27, 1521

    One cannot talk about the age of polyphonic development with out mentioning the music of Josquin des Prez. Not much is known about the life of this composer, but it is generally agreed that he studied under the earlier Renaissance master Johannes Ockeghem (c.1420-1495), who was the first great master of the Flemish school of Renaissance composers. There are references to Josquin's having served at several courts in Italy and France, and at the Sistine Chapel in Rome. He died while serving as canon of the collegiate church at Condé. Among his surviving works are more than a dozen masses, a hundred motets, and a good deal of secular music.

    The serene and beautiful choral sound of the Flemish school's style can be heard in the Gloria from Josquin's Missa L’homme armé Flemish (sound clip)

    Composers of this era often based the cantus firmus on a popular melody of the day, composing new music for the other voices in counterpoint to the tune. The simultaneous interweaving of several melodic lines (usually four: soprano, alto, tenor, bass) in a musical composition is known as polyphony. Polyphonic music of the Renaissance could be very complex and intricate, often obscuring the words and the meaning of the text which had been set.

    Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina
    Born: Palestrina, near Rome, ca. 1525
    Died: Rome, February 2, 1594

    Palestrina spent much of his career in Rome, serving as organist and choir master at both the Sistine Chapel and at St. Peter's. A productive composer, he wrote over a hundred mass settings and over two hundred motets. Without question he is one of the most important developers of the polyphonc syle. For the sake of this study, I have included several short examples of this music of this most important composer. (sound clips)

    In keeping with the structures of the Council of Trent (1545-1563) to rid the music of the Catholic rite of the "worldly excesses" of the Protestant Reformation, Palestrina composed in a purer, more restrained style. No longer are the vocal lines based on popular melodies. Instead, each voice part resembles a chant melody, each with its own profile and beauty of line. In the opening Kyrie from Palestrina's most famous work, the Pope Marcellus Mass (sound clip) at once hear the classic, pure lines of the text set clearly amidst the various voices of the choir. Palestrina's polyphonic writing is of such quality that many later composers (including Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms) spent their early years studying counterpoint in the "Palestrina style" as set down in a famous textbook by J. J. Fux in 1725.

    Audio clip, Sicut Cercus (Palestrina)
    Performance by Cantores in Ecclesia Portland, Oregon

    English Madrigalists

    Around 1600 in England, composers and poets were collaborating on a body of music known as the English madrigal. The composer and lutenist John Dowland (1563-1626), although concentrating mostly on melancholy arias for solo voice with lute accompaniment, also wrote madrigals. Some of the best known of the English madrigalists include Thomas Morley (1558-1602), Francis Pilkington (ca.1570-1638), William Byrd (1543-1623), Orlando Gibbons(1583-1625), and Thomas Weelkes (1576-1623). Queen Elizabeth I herself was an accomplished lute player, and supposedly delighted in the songs and arias of the madrigalists. Weelkes' madrigal (sound clip) is a prime example of this cheerful and sprightly part-song. The texts of many of these madrigals, however, deal with spurned or unrequited love, and are often sad, but very beautiful.

    Audio clip, Vigilate (Byrd)
    Performance by Cantores in Ecclesia Portland, Oregon

    Cantores in Ecclesia is the choir of St. Patricks Catherdral in Portland, Oregon directed by Dean Applegate. They perform a latin mass every Saturday at 7:30p.m.



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