Palestrina, Giovanni Pierluigi da

(between 3 February 1525 and 2 February 1526, Palestrina near Rome – 2 February 1594, Rome)
   Composer of 104 masses, at least 375 motets, 68 polyphonic offertories, 65 hymn settings, and 35 Magnificats, in addition to Lamentations, madrigali spirituali, and secular vocal works, his oeuvre is one of the largest of his time and came to represent the ideal style for Roman Catholic polyphony.
   He is listed as a singer at Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome in October 1537. He took an organist’s position in a small church, San Agapito, in Palestrina, married Lucrezia Gori there on 12 June 1547, and then was suddenly appointed to lead the Cappella Giulia at the Vatican on 1 September 1551. He published his first book of masses in 1554. On 13 January 1555, Pope Julius III appointed him to the {}Cappella Sistina, but he was dismissed in September when rules against married members were strictly enforced under Pope Paul IV. The next month, he began a five-year tenure as maestro di cappella at St. John Lateran. After various short engagements, he returned to the Cappella Giulia in April 1571 for the remainder of his career, despite many offers from Vienna, Mantua, and elsewhere. He considered entering the priesthood after his wife died of the plague in 1580, but then married a fur merchant’s widow and lived in relative security until his death.
   In 1577, Palestrina and Annibale Zoilo were engaged by Pope Gregory XIII to revise the chant in the wake of the Council of Trent. He worked on the project, eventually known as the Medicean chant, only one year.
   It is clear from wide citation by theorists and testimonials of other composers that Palestrina was esteemed as the greatest living composer in his own lifetime, challenged perhaps only by Orlandus Lassus. But unlike the great reputations of Lassus, Josquin Desprez, and most others, Palestrina’s reputation did not wane with the succeeding centuries. Instead, he became an icon of "classical polyphony," or the stile antico, a musical language frozen in time, particularly after the invention of opera at the close of the 16th century. His sincere efforts at intelligible diction in his polyphony and its association with the Council of Trent were exaggerated into legends early on, as when Agostino Agazzari wrote in 1607 that his Missa Papae Marcelli had convinced the council delegates not to abolish polyphony from Catholic liturgy. With such fame, it was natural that Palestrina should be the model for those who wished to learn the traditional counterpoint of the church: he is the teacher in Johann Josef Fux’s Gradus ad Parnassum (1725), the most influential such textbook for the 18th and 19th centuries. Giuseppe Baini (1775– 1884) wrote the first Palestrina biography in 1828, and a complete edition of Palestrina’s works was completed in 1903.
   The modern historical view is that the "Palestrina style" was the common musical language for sacred music in the second half of the 16th century and practiced as such by all of Palestrina’s colleagues, including the great Lassus, William Byrd, and Tomas Luis di Victoria. But his early canonization by church authorities and pedagogues was no accident. In its melodic and rhythmic syntax and rare chromaticism, his personal musical style is conservative, even for his own time, but without the slightest effect of constraint or rigidity. For example, Palestrina’s imitation: it can be perfectly strict, and yet he designs the subjects so that they may enter at varied, unpredictable time intervals. In particular, his handling of meter, always present but subtle, allows his music a flowing, flexible movement that comes close to a true polyphonic chant.

Historical dictionary of sacred music. . 2006.

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