Giovanni and caretaker of the choirboys at the cathedral

GiovanniPierluigi da Palestrina            This paper will explore the life and accomplishments of GiovanniPierluigi da Palestrina, the first native Italian musician of the 16thcentury to master polyphonic techniques and prolifically develop sacred churchmusic. Thus, earning his title “TheSavior of Church Music”. The reader will be introduced to his biography,followed by the main historical period and events that have influenced hisworks. Then, my area of interest will investigate the publication history ofPalestrina’s music and the development of music printing press in 16thcentury Rome and Venice. This will answer the question to whether Palestrinaaspiredto attain international distinction during his lifetime since he received a posthumousstatus as the savior of polyphony. Subsequently, I will discuss how Palestrina’smusical style conveys his renowned ‘PalestrinaStyle’, Prima Pratica and Stile Antico.

Finally, readers will delve into the analysis of the main piece chosen, Agnus Dei of Missa Papae Marcelli, accompanied by the historical frameworkthrough which Palestrina earned his title “TheSavior of Church Music”. GiovanniPierluigi da Palestrina was born on February 1525 in the town of Palestrina ofthe Sabine Hills, Rome. He was first trained at the age of 12, at the Basilicadi Santa Maria Maggiore in 1537.  From1544 to 1551, he worked as an organist and caretaker of the choirboys at thecathedral of St. Agapito. In 1551, he was appointed Maestro di Capella of the St. Peter’s Basilica and remained in thishumble and conservative setting for seven years. In 1547, Palestrina marriedLucrezia Gori and had three sons together.

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Consequently, from 1560 to 1571, hehad held positions as maestro at different locations, including his hometownthe Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, St. John Latern Church and Seminario Romanoof the Villa d’Este, Tivoli. However, he was not satisfied with his employmentduring that period and documents showed that he became a freelancer for sometime. His reputation had spread during the 1570s, where Emperor Maximillian IIand the Duke of Ferrara had exalted and glorified his work. Nonetheless,Palestrina continued to face hardships during his life when his two sons, wifeand brother had died between 1572 and 1580, due to the spread of the plagueepidemic. Palestrina had also fallen ill, which delayed his work on massescommissioned by the Duke of Mantua. He seriously considered becoming a priestafter his wife’s death.

After eight months of his wife’s passing, however, he remarrieda wealthy widower, Virginia Dormoli, whose husband had connections andinvestments in the fur and leather trade. Being able to find security and satisfaction,Palestrina was able to publish and exercise his artistic and prolific power ofcomposition, and compose up to more than 300 pieces, which include masses,motets, madrigals, offertories, hymns etc. Yet, one of the most importantevents in Palestrina’s life occurred c.1564, when he earned the title “The Savior of Church Music” as a resultof one of his most prolific masses, the “Missa Papae Marcelli” mass. He died ofpleurisy, in Rome, 1594 and was buried beneath St. Peter’s Basilica.Duringthe Middle Ages until early Renaissance, the Roman Catholic Church, hand inhand with the various monarchies, held the apex of power in Europe. On AllSaint’s Day, November 1st 1517, Martin Luther raised the “95 Theses” and so, Protestantismwas born in Europe.

 The ProtestantReformation was initiated in an attempt to expose and reform the systemiccorruption of the Church’s hierarchy and control of indulgences. Nonetheless,this movement brought forth reformation music, which consists of new types ofreligious music. However, the Catholic Roman Church considered the Protestantdoctrines as a form of heresy and felt the need to respond to the movement. Thus,the Catholic Church established “The Council of Trent”, a general council comprisingof theological experts convened to discuss and debate church related practicesand orders, from 1545 till 1564, in the city Trento, North Italy. They proposedand mandated imperative and harsher decrees regarding sacramental practices,religious orders, and the role of prayer in music. This period was known as the”Catholic Revival” or the “Counter-Reformation”. A legend circulated that TheCouncil of Trent threatened to ban polyphony altogether in the church, due tothe rise of secular music and music that disrupted the devotion and meaning ofprayer.

With Protestantism, Lutheran and Calvinist churches introduced differentstyles of music, and required all the congregation to take part in churchservices. The musical types were Chorales;simple metrical tunes with rhyming verses, Contrafacta;secular tunes given religious words, Psalters;Anglican chants based on the “Book of Psalms”, and other polyphonic choralesettings where composers placed the chorale tune in the tenor with afree-flowing accompaniment of three or four voices, and developed each phraseof the chorale imitatively.  This type ofmusic did not conform to the Church’s requirements, and the use of music wasobjectionable since secular songs were provided with religious lyrics andmasses were based on drinking and love making. The imitation in polyphonyobscured the mass, thus, interfering with the listener’s devotion and prayer.

Inaddition, the participation of an untrained congregation would not producespiritually powerful chants as those performed by trained professionals. TheCouncil of Trent assembled at the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore to debate theban of polyphonic sacred music, and so Palestrina presented one of his mostrenowned masses, the “Missa PapaeMarcelli” mass. Nonetheless, Palestrina had faced many difficulties inpublishing his 1st edition of masses in the music printing marketsof Rome and Venice.Myarea of interest consists of investigating Palestrina’s publication history ofmusic and comparing the Roman and Venetian music printing presses during histime.

The Cinquecento was a periodwhen the concept of fame was crucial for authors and patrons alike. The bookindustry played an important role in not only disseminating composer’s music,but also in establishing their reputation, in what is called the ‘publish orperish’ syndrome. Palestrina’s publication history is complex, since thecomposer not only used Roman printers for his first editions, but also employedVenetian ones. Publication firms in Rome and Venice differed dramatically inthe way they financed and marketed their publications.  Music printers in Rome and Venice did publishsimilar musical repertories, by issuing Italian madrigals, motets, liturgicalchants and other publications that include lute, keyboard music, and chansons.However, Venetian presses primarily published Italian madrigals and asubordinate amount of sacred music books to large marketplaces, since madrigalswere the most commercially viable music genre throughout Renaissance Italy. Incontrast, Roman publishers had limited distribution outlets. They wereaccounted for predominantly distributing sacred prints, since an importantoutlet for Roman music printers was the church, and most of their output werecommissioned sacred editions.

 Theprominence of the madrigals of Venetian presses had impacted Palestrina’spublications. From 1554 to 1571, Palestrina issued Italian madrigals from theVenetian press and few sacred music books from Roman presses. However, in the1570s, Roman music printing came to a halt. Palestrina’s sacred music bookswere more expensive to produce than madrigal and motet books because they hadto be issued as large portfolio choir books. Palestrina’s early editions ofsacred music books were scarce because of their lack of marketability and cost.

A composer’s decision as to where his music was printed heavily impacted hispublication record. If Italian composers wanted to achieve the widestcirculation possible, they had to publish in Venice. However, Palestrinadeliberately decided not to exploit the Venetian publication market, butremained devoted to local Roman printers.

Documents reveal that before 1580,Palestrina issued his madrigal editions from Venetian presses for the purposeof securing his position and employment rather than for seeking fame outsidehis Roman circle. Nearly all Palestrina’s first editions were dedicated to hisemployers such as the Duke Ferrara, Emperor Maximillian II and so on.Nonetheless, during Palestrina’s 40 year career in Cappella Giulia or CappellaSistina, he dedicated an individual piece to each of the 6 reigning popes:Julius III, Sixtus V, Marcellus II, Gregory XIV, Clement VIIIand Gregory XIII. His works include 104 securely attributed masses, greater inquantity alone than that of any composer of his age. In addition, more than 300motets, 35 Magnificat settings, 68 offertories, 11 litanies, at least 72 hymnsand four or five sets of Lamentations can be added to his sacred music. He alsocomposed more than 140 spiritual and secular madrigals combined.

Anotheressential strand has been Palestrina’s place in musical pedagogy, where fromthe early 17th century his name became indelibly associated with theideal of the stile antico – thestrict style of diatonic counterpoint that became a widely accepted model for teaching.Palestrina’s musical style consists of the PrimaPratica or first practice, as seen in his sacred Renaissance vocal musicwith its smooth texture, and its careful approaching and leaving ofdissonances. He used a variety of techniques, including cantus firmus, parody,paraphrase, and free composition in his masses. Palestrina’s form gives eachphrase of text its own musical motive, and each phrase overlaps with the next.He created unity by repeating motives and cadences on important notes in the mode.Palestrina’s counterpoint is smooth and mostly consonant, with dissonancesrestricted to suspensions, passing notes, and cambiatas.

The voices moveindependently within a regular harmonic rhythm, and different combinations ofvoices create a great variety of sonorities. The ‘Palestrina style’ serves as abasis for Renaissance counterpoint teachings, due to the efforts ofthe 18th-century composer and theorist Johann Joseph Fux. According toFux, Palestrina had established and followed these basic guidelines: 1) “Theflow of music is dynamic, not rigid or static.” 2) “Melody should contain fewleaps between notes”. 3) “If a leap occurs, it must be small and immediatelycountered by stepwise motion in the opposite direction.” 4) “Dissonances are tobe confined to passing notes and weak beats. If one falls on a strong beat, itis to be immediately resolved.” Themusical piece of interest is Agnus Deiof the Missa Papae Marcelli (PopeMarcellus Mass).

A legend circulated that The Council of Trent wanted toban the use of polyphony altogether in church and return to Gregorian chant.Palestrina presented one of his best masses, Missa Papae Marcelli. MissaPapae Marcelli satisfied the Catholic Church’s requirements; wherebyPalestrina’s melodies move mostly by step in smooth, flexible arches. Leaps arefilled in with stepwise motion in the opposite direction, and chromaticism isavoided.

  Also, the liturgy, the wordsbeing coherently and clearly sung, conformed to the Church’s mandates. It waswritten for a 6 part choir- Alto, Soprano, two Tenors, and two Basses; whichwas a typical setting for an all-male church during that period. The order ofthe Mass, with its Ordinary prayers, consists of Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus/Benedictus, and Agnus Dei.

The lastpart, Agnus Dei (“Lamb of God, Whotakes away the sins of the world”), is sung 3 times with different phrases forthe conclusion. The Agnus Deimovement consists of 6 to 7 voices, acapppella, where voices melodically shift between high and low range. Therhythm is a slow simple quadruple meter and has a weak pulse. It consists offull consonant harmony, and the expression of the mass focuses on the clarityof prayers.

Its form is through-composed, with short ideas and phrasesexchanged between chanters. It has a monophonic opening, then free flowinghomorhythmic, followed by polyphony. There is frequent change in the density ofvoices and careful control of dissonances and imitativecounterpoint. The mass was composed in honor of Pope Marcellus II, one of thethree directors of Council of Trent. Pope Pius IV upon hearing Palestrina’smusic, made Palestrina, by Papal Brief, the model for future generations ofCatholic composers of sacred music.Inconclusion, Palestrina’s title and reputation have echoed over the past fourcenturies and prominently left their mark on sacred Catholic Church music. Since,he was able to construct a polyphonic setting, in such a way that he balancedthe polyphonic and harmonic elements, to preserve the audible clarity of words thateloquently emphasize prayer.

Recounting Palestrina’s publication history, this paperhas compared and contrasted the Roman and Venetian music presses, and their effecton the reputation of the composer. Palestrina’s posthumous status as the saviorof polyphony may lead one to believe that he was as equally renowned during hislifetime. However, all of these factors not only demonstrate that Palestrina hadonly gained his celebrated and prominent reputation after his death, but alsoshow that he did not aspire to seek or achieve international fame during hislifetime.