University Musical Encyclopedia/Great Composers: A Series of Biographical Studies/Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina

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This great pioneer among masters of music was born of humble parents at Palestrina in the Campagna of Rome. The exact date of his birth is unknown. The inscription on an old portrait of him in the muniment room of the Pontifical Chapel at the Quirinal states that he died at about eighty years of age in 1594, and if this were true he would have been born in 1514 or 1515. The Abbé Baini interprets a doubtful phrase used by his son Igino, in the dedication of a posthumous volume of his masses to Pope Clement VIII, to mean that his father died at the age of seventy in the year 1594. The truth is that the exact date of his birth cannot be stated. The public registers of Palestrina, which would probably have certified it, were destroyed by the soldiery of Alva in 1157, and no private documents have been discovered which make good their loss.

It is certain, however, that at a very early age, and probably about the year 1540, he came to Rome to study music. Toward this career the different capitals of Italy offered many inducements to boys with musical aptitudes, and it is said that Palestrina owed his reception into a school to his being overheard singing in the street by the maestro of the Chapel of Santa Maria Maggiore. The authenticity of this anecdote is at least doubtful. Palestrina, at all events as a man, had but a poor voice. The statement, made by many historians, that Palestrina was a pupil of Claudio Goudimel, a Fleming, who had opened a public school of music in Rome, ad been controverted by F. X. Haberl, who may be considered the most reliable writer upon the subject of Palestrina and Dufay.

In 1551 Rubino finally retired from the teachership of music in the Capella Giulia of the Vatican, and in September of that year Palestrina, who during the eleven years that had elapsed since his arrival in Rome must have given good proofs of his quality, was elected to the vacant post.

In 1554 he published his first volume, containing four masses for four voices and one for five. These he dedicated to Pope Julius III. It is worth saying, in order to show the dominance of the Flemish school in Italy, that this was the first volume of music that had ever been dedicated by an Italian to a Pope. It was printed in Rome by the Brothers Doriel in 1554; a second edition of it was published by their successors in 1572, and third by Gardano of Rome in 1591. In the last edition Palestrina included a number of his masses.

About this time Palestrina married. Of his wife we know nothing more than that her Christian name was Lucrezia, that she bore to her husband four sons, and that after a long married life, which seems to have been marked by uncommon affection, she died in the year 1580.

In 1555 Julius III, mindful of the dedication of the book of masses, offered their author a place among the twenty-four collegiate singers of his private chapel. The pay was greater than that which he was receiving as maestro in the Vatican. Palestrina was poor, and he had already four children. On the other hand he was a layman, he had a bad voice, and he was a married man. For each of these reasons his appointment was a gross violation of the constitutions of the college, and a high-hand and unwarrantable act upon the part of Julius. All this Palestrina knew, and to his credit he hesitated to accept the offer; but his desire to do his best for his family combined with a fear of offending his patron to enforce his acceptance. He resigned his old post, and on January 13, 1555, was formally admitted as one of the Pontifical Singers.

In the course of this year he published his first volume of madrigals for four voices. His intention to dedicate this to Julius was frustrated by the death of that pontiff, which took place while they were still in the press. Marcellus II, who succeeded Julius III in the papacy, died after a reign of twenty-three days, and was succeeded in turn by Paul IV. Paul was a reformer, and one of the first acts of his reign was to weed the College of Pontifical Singers of those members whose qualifications would not bear scrutiny. Among these was undoubtedly Palestrina, and he was dismissed accordingly. The Pope tempered his severity by assigning to each of the dismissed singers a pension, but not the less did his expulsion seem ruin to the anxious and oversensitive Palestrina. He straightway took to his bed, and for some weeks lay prostrate under an attack of nervous fever. As might have been foreseen, his despair was premature. A young man who had so speedily and so surely left his mark upon the music of his generation was not likely to starve for want of employment. Within two months he was invited to the post of maestro di capalla at the Lateran. He was careful to inquire at the Vatican whether in the event of his obtaining fresh preferment he would be allowed to keep his pension, and it was only upon receiving a favorable answer that he accepted the proffered office, upon which he entered in October, 1555.

Palestrina remained at the Lateran until February, 1561, when he was transferred to a similar post at Santa Maria Maggiore. At the last-named basilica he remained for ten years, until the month of March, 1571, when he was once more elected to his old office of maestro at the Vatican.

The fifteen years which thus elapsed since the rigorous reform of Paul IV had set him for a moment adrift upon the world, had been years of brilliant mental activity in Palestrina. His genius had freed itself from the influence of the pedantry by which it had been nursed and schooled, and had taken to itself the full form and scope of its own specialty and grandeur. His first volume had been full of all the vagaries and extravagances of the Flemish school, and in it the meaning of the words and the intention of the music had alike been subordinated, according to the evil fashion of his epoch, to the perplexing subtleties of science. But beyond this first volume, few traces of such faults are to be found. His second volume, "The Lamentations of Jeremiah," for four voices, shows more than the mere germs of his future manner; and although the third, a set of "Magnificats" for five and six voices, is full of science and learning, it is of science and learning set free. A hymn, "Crux Fidelis," and a collection of "Impressaria," all for eight voices, written in 1560, obtained speedily so great a renown, that Paul IV, who had dismissed him, could not refrain himself from asking to have them sung at the Vatican, and after hearing them had them added at once to the collection of the Apostolic Chapel. The publication of all these works was made anonymously, and was completed within the six years of Palestrina's stay at the Lateran.

The ten years during which he remained at Santa Maria Maggiore formed at once the most brilliant decade in the life of Palestrina and one of the most remarkable epochs in the history of his art. It is not easy for us at this moment to realize the position of Church music at the date of the Council of Trent. It may be said that it had lost all relation to the services which it was supposed to illustrate. Bristling with inapt and distracting artifices, it completely overlaid the situation of the mass; while founded, as it was for the most part, upon secular melodies, it was actually sung, except by two or three prominent voices in the front row of the choir, to the words with which its tunes were most naturally and properly associated. It was usual for the most solemn phrases of the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, and Agnus to blend along the aisles of the basilica with the unedifying refrains of the lewd chansons of Flanders and Provence, while ballad and other dance music were played every day upon the organ. Other irregularities and corruptions hardly less flagrant were common among the singers; and the general condition of affairs was such that a resolution as to the necessity of reform in Church music, which very nearly took the shape of a decree for its abandonment altogether, was solemnly passed in a full sitting of the Council of Trent.

In 1563 Pius IV issued a commission to eight cardinals authorizing them to take all necessary steps to carry out the resolution of the council. Among these, two of the most active were the Cardinals Borromeo and Vitellozzi. At their instance, Palestrina as commissioned to write a mass as a type of what the music of the sacred office should be. With a noble mixture of modesty and energy the great composer declined to trust the fate of his art to one work. He composed a series of three masses and sent them without titles to the Cardinal Borromeo. It is supposed that he feared to attach names to them lest he should arouse by an ill-judged choice of words either powerful prejudices or unfounded fears. They were performed in the first instance with the greatest care at the house of Cadinal Vitellozzi. The verdict of the audience assembled to hear them was enthusiastic and final. Upon the first two, praises lavish enough were bestowed; but by the third, afterward known as the mass "Papæ Marcelli," all felt that the future style and destiny of sacred art were once for all determined. The Pope ordered a special performance of it in the Apostolic Chapel; and at the close of the service the enraptured Pontiff declared that it must have been some such music that the Apostle of the Apocalypse heard sung by the triumphant hosts of angels in the New Jerusalem. There was a general agreement of prelate and singer that Palestrina had at last produced the archetype of ecclesiastical song.

The post of composer to the Pontifical Choir was created for Palestrina by the Pope in honor of this noble achievement, and so the amends, if any were needed, from the Vatican to its dismissed chapel singer, were finally and handsomely made. But the jealousy of the singers themselves, which had been evinced upon his original appointment as one of their number in 1555, was by no means extinct. His present appointment was received in surly silence, and upon the death of Pius, in August, 1565, their discontent took a more open and aggressive form. The new Pope, however, Michele Ghislieri, who had taken the title of Pius V, confirmed the great musician in his office, as did the six succeeding pontiffs during whose reigns he lived.

The production of this series of masses by no means represents the mental activity of Palestrina during the period between 1555 and 1571. In 1562, in gratitude for his monthly pension, he had sent for the use of the Apostolic Chapel two motetti, "Beatus Laurentius" and "Estote fortes in bello," and a mass for six voices, entitled "Ut Re Mi Fa Sol La." To the Cardinal Pio di Carpi, who had shown him some personal kindness, he had dedicated a volume of graceful motetti, which were printed in 1563, and were republished in several other editions.

In 1565 the Cardinal Pacacco, Spanish representative at the papal court, intimated that he dedication to Philip II of a work by Palestrina would be pleasing to that monarch. The musician consulted his friend Cardinal Vitellozzi, and arranged the dedication of a volume which should contain the famous mass, which he then christened, "Papæ Marcelli," with four others for four voices, and two for five voices. These, with an appropriate inscription, were forwarded to the Spanish king. They were printed as Palestrina's second volume of masses, in 1569, and in a fresh edition in 1598. A year or two afterward he published a third volume of masses, which he also inscribed to Philip. It need hardly be said that a message of thanks was all that he ever received in return for so splendid a homage from the heartless, wealthy, and penurious bigot at the Escurial.

In an enumeration of the works of Palestrina, published during this period of his life, we must not forget to mention five secular madrigals of his which Vincenzo Galilei, father of the astronomer, and a musical virtuoso of no mean order, set for the lute, and included in a collection of similar compositions which he published under the title "Fronimo," through Scoto of Venice, in 1568, and again in 1584.

Somewhere about the year 1560 Palestrina had acquired the patronage of the Cardinal Ippolito d'Este, and for many years subsequently was treated by him with much kindness. As an acknowledgment of this he dedicated to this personage his first regular volume of motetti, which was published at Rome in 1569. This remarkable volume contains several works of the very highest class. It was in 1570 that he published his third volume of masses, dedicated to Philip II. It contains four masses for four voices.

We have now briefly surveyed the works of Palestrina down to the date of his reappointment to the Vatican. He had accepted the post from a love for the basilica in whose service his first fame had been gained. But he suffered what to him must have been a serious loss of income when he left Santa Maria Maggiore. For this, however, he obtained some compensation in his appointment as maestro di capella to the new oratory founded by S. Filippo Neri, his confessor and intimate friend. But at no time had Palestrina any large share of worldly prosperity. We never hear that he derived an profit from the sale of his works; nor, indeed, can it be supposed that at that epoch there was much money to be made by musical publications. He gave lessons for a short period in the school carried on by Nanini; but it is not at all likely that he did so with any other object than to assist his friend, or that he accepted any payment for his assistance. Throughout the whole course of his career he only taught seven private pupils, and three of these were his own sons. It is probably therefore that, save for a few exceptional gifts from patrons and a little temporary employment as director of concerts, he had to subsist upon the very humble salaries attached to the permanent offices which he held.

In addition to this chronic penury he had to endure stroke after stroke of the severest domestic affliction. His three promising sons, Angelo, Ridolfo, and Silla, all died one after the other, just as they had given substantial proofs of their intellectual inheritance of their father's genius; in 1580 his wife died; and his remaining son, Igino, was a wild and worthless man. Yet neither poverty nor sorrow could quench the fire of his genius, nor check the march of his industry.

No sooner was he reinstated at the Vatican than he sent a present of two masses, one for five and the other for six voices, to the Papal Choir. The subject of the first of these was taken from one of the motetti in his first volume, "O Magnum Mysterium"; that of the other from the old hymn, ""Veni Creator Spiritus," of the Libri Corali. They are in his finest and most matured manner, and were probably composed in the year of their presentation. They have never been printed, but they may be seen in the Collection of the Vatican. In the following year, 1572, he published at Rome, probably with Alessandro Gardano, his second volume of motetti. It was in this volume that he included four motetti written by his three sons. It was dedicated to one of the most persistent of his friends, the Cardinal Ippolito d'Este, who died that same year.

Inferior, on the whole, to its predecessors, was the third volume of motetti, which he printed in 1575, with a dedication to Alfonso II, Duke of Ferrara, and cousin to his lost friend the Cardinal Ippolito. There are, however, certain brilliant exceptions to the low level of the book; notably the motetti for eight voices, which are finer than any he had yet written for the same number of singers, and include the well-known and magnificent compositions "Surge illuminare Jerusalem" and "Hodie Christus natus est."

In this year, 1575, the year of the Jubilee, an incident occurred which must have made one of the brightest passages in the cloudy life of Palestrina. Fifteen hundred singers from his native town, belonging to the two confraternities of the Crucifix and the Sacrament, came to Rome. They had divided themselves into three choruses. Priests, laymen, boys and ladies went to form their companies; and they made a solemn entry into the city, singing the music of their townsman, with its great creator conducting it at their head.

In the following year, Gregory XIII commissioned Palestrina to revise the "Graduale" and the "Antifonario" of the Latin Church. This was a work of great and somewhat thankless labor. It involved little more than compilation and rearrangement, and on it all the finer qualities of his genius were thrown away. Uncongenial as it was, Palestrina, with unwavering devotion to his art, and to the Church to which he had so absolutely devoted both himself and it, undertook the task. Well aware of its extent, he called to his aid his favorite pupil, Guidetti, and intrusted to him the correction of the "Antifonario." Guidetti carried this part of the work through under the supervision of his master, and it was published at Rome in 1582 under the title "Directorium Chori." The "Graduale," which Palestrina had reserved to himself, he never completed. There is a limit to the perseverance of the most persevering; and the most loving of churchmen and the most faithful of artists fell back here. He seems to have finished a first instalment, but the rest he left less than half done, and the whole was found after his death among his abandoned manuscripts.

The loss of his patron Ippolito d'Este was to some extent made up to Palestrina by the kindness of Giacomo Buoncampagni, nephew (or son) of Gregory XIII, who came to Rome in 1580, to receive nobility at the hands of his relative. He was a great lover of music, and proceeded at once to organize a series of concerts, under the direction of Palestrina. To him Palestrina dedicated a volume of twenty-six madrigals for five voices. Eight of these were composed upon Petrarch's "Canzoni" to the Virgin Mary; the rest were set to miscellaneous sacred words. The publication of these was followed by that of another volume of motetti for four voices only. Several editions of both works are extant. The madrigals call for no comment; but the volume of motetti is unusually beautiful. They were probably composed in the year of their publication, during the first force of his grief for the loss of Lucrezia; and to this the intensity of their pathos and the choice of the words to which they are written may be ascribed, some of which may well have represented to himself the heart-broken composer mourning by the banks of the Tiber for the lost wife whom he had loved so long.

Upon these, in 1562, followed the fourth in the series of masses for four and five voices, a volume by no means remarkable, save that it was written and dedicated to Gregory at his own request. Palestrina seems to have been aware of its inferiority, and to have resolved to present the Pontiff with something more worthy of them both. He accordingly conceived the idea of composing a series of motetti to words chosen from the Song of Solomon. The execution of these, with the doubtful exception of the Great Mass, was the happiest effort of his genius. In them all his critics and biographers unite to say that he surpassed himself. Flushed with the glorious sense of his success, he carried the book, when completed, in person to Gregory, and laid it at the foot of his chair. It was printed by Gardano in 1584, and so great was its renown that in less than sixty years from the date of its composition it had passed through ten fresh editions at the hands of various publishers.

Palestrina had now arrived at the last decade of his life. In it we can trace no diminution of his industry, no relaxation in the fiber or fire of his genius. In 1584 he published and dedicated to Andrea Battori, nephew of Stephen, King of Poland, who had been created a cardinal, his fifth volume of motetti for five voices. It is a volume of unequal merit, but it contains one or two of the rarest examples of the master. Baini, his biographer, admired these so extravagantly as to say that in writing them Palestrina must have made up his mind to consider himself the simple amanuensis of God.

Palestrina had intended to dedicate the last-mentioned volume to the Pope; but the arrival of Battore, and his kindness to him, made him change his mind. In order, however, to atone for such a diversion of homage, he sent to Gregory three masses for six voices. Of these the first were founded on the subjects of his motets "Viri Galilaei" and "Dum complerentur." They had all the beauties of the earlier works, with the result of the maturity of the author's genius and experience superadded. The third, "Te Deum laudamus," Baini state to be rather heavy, partly owing, perhaps, to the "character of the key" in which it is written, but more, probably, from too servile an adherence to theform of an old Ambrosian hymn on which it is founded.

About this time we notice traces of a popular desire to get hold of the lighter pieces of Palestrina. Francesco Landoni possessed himself, for instance, of copies of the two madrigals "Vestiva I colli," and "Così le chiome mie," which Vincenzo Galilei had arranged for the lute. He printed them in a miscellaneous volume, entitled "Spoglia Amorosa," through Scoto of Venice, in 1585. Gardano of Rome, too, published a collection of madrigals by sundry composers, under the name of "Dolci Affeti." Among these was one of Palestrina's, and two or three other stray pieces of his were published in like manner about the same time.

In April, 1585, Gregory died, and was succeeded by Sixtus V. Palestrina made somewhat too much haste to pay his homage to the new Pontiff. A motetto and a mass which he sent to him were so hurriedly composed that on the performance of the mass on Trinity Sunday, Sixtus commented unfavorably. These regrettable productions would have been well lost to sight but for the reckless brutality of Igino, who, looking only to what money they would fetch, published them after his father's death with a bold-faced inscription to Clement VIII. Palestrina atoned for his misdeed by writing forthwith the beautiful mass, "Assumpta est Maria in Cœlum." This masterpiece he had just time to get printed off without date or publisher's name—there was no time to make written copies of it—before the Feast of the Assumption. It was performed before Sixtus in Santa Maria Maggiore on that day (August 15). The delight of the Pontiff was unbounded; but his good will took a form which led to the last unpleasant occurrence in Palestrina's life.

It will be remembered that Palestrina had for many years held the position of composer to the Apostolic Chapel. The Pope now conceived the idea of investing him with the title and duties of maestro. He commissioned Antonio Boccapadule, the actual maestro, to bring about the change. At first sight this seems a strange selection of an agent; for it was Boccapadule who of all others would have to suffer by his own success. It is of course possible that a promise of some higher preferment may have purchased his assistance. Be that as it may, he seems to have set to work with a will. Taking Tomasso Benigni, one of the junior singers, into his confidence, he employed him to sound his brethren. Benigni in a short time announced that there was a respectable number of the college who favored the Pope's views. The event proved that Benigni either misled his employer, or was himself purposefully deceived by those to whom he spoke, or else that he augured too freely from one or two stray expressions of half good will. In any case, his report was so encouraging that Boccapadule called a meeting of the college, at which he broached the subject. He was astonished to find an opposition so strong, and expressed with so much warmth, that he not only desisted, but to shield himself he disingenuously laid the whole responsibility of his overtures upon Palestrina. The singers probably knew better than either to believe or to pretend to disbelieve him. But they gave vent to their displeasure by imposing a fine upon the unfortunate Benigni.

At a subsequent meeting Boccapadule, remorseful that his emissary should be made a scapegoat, begged him off, telling his comrades that they had not possessed themselves of the true story. Benigni was accordingly excused his fine; but the Pope, who had become highly incensed at the independent action of his choir, was not appeased by their clemency. He immediately struck off the list of singers four of the more prominent members of the opposition. Two of those he subsequently restored; but the other two remained permanent victims to their expression of a jealousy the vitality of which was a disgrace, not only to themselves, but to the whole body to which they belonged. Palestrina, in order to show a generous content with his old position of compositore to the choir, immediately dowered it with three new masses, two for five voices and another for six; and so drew honor upon himself by an act of courtesy to those by whom a well deserved honor had been so churlishly denied to him. This was characteristic of the master, as we may easily understand.

In the same year, 1586, he paid to Cesare Colonna, Prince of Palestrina, the homage of a dedication. It was of his second volume of madrigals for four voices. Some of the are the best of his secular works. No so is his contribution to a volume of sonnets by Zuccarini, written in honor of the marriage of Francesco d' Medci and Bianaca Cappelo and put to music by different composers. Whether or not he set himself deliberately to write down to the level of the poetoaster's words, as Baini suggests, or whether, as was natural, they only failed to inspire him, it is not worth while to inquire. The fact is sufficient that Zuccarini and the occasion got all that they deserved but no more.

From this time to his death the materials for his biography resolved themselves into a catalogue of publications and dedications, among which, however, are several of his greatest works—his setting of the "Lamentations of Jeremiah," a notable Magnificat, and the "Stabat Mater," both for eight voices, the "Offertoria totius anni," the "Hymni totius anni," and the masses "Aeterna Christi munera" and "Iste Confessor." With these and numerous other works the aged master busily employed himself in his last years.

But at the beginning of 1594 the end of this indefatigable life was at hand. In January of that year he issued his last publication. It was a collection of thirty "Madrigali spirituali," for five voices, in honor of the Virgin, dedicated to the young Grand Duchess of Tuscany, wife of Ferdinand de' Medici. Of this volume Baini says that it is in the true style of his motetti on the Song of Solomon; and Dr. Burney exhoes the praises of his Italian biographer. He had also begun to print his seventh volume of masses to be dedicated to Clement VIII, the last of the Popes who befriended him. But while the work was still in the press he was seized with a pleurisy, against the acuteness of which his constitution had no power to contend, and the malady rapidly wore away his physical vitality.

He took to his bed on January 26, and died on February 2. When he felt his end approaching he sent for Filippo Neri, his friend, admirer, counselor, and confessor many years, and for Igino, the sole and wretched inheritor of his name. As the saint and the scapegoat stood by his bed, he said simply to the latter, "My son, I leave behind me many of my works still unpublished; but thanks to the generosity of my benefactors, the Abbot of Baume, the Cardinal Aldobrandini, and Ferdinand the Frand Duke of Tuscany, I leave with them money enough to get them printed. I charge you to see this done with all speed, to the glory of the Most High God, and for the worship of His holy temple." He then dismissed him with a blessing which he had not merited, and spent the remaining twenty-four hours of his life in the company of the saintly Neri. It was in his arms that he breathed his last, true, even upon the brink of death, to that sympathy with piety and purity which had drawn him during half a century to devote to their illustration and furtherance all the beauties of his fancy and all the resources of his learning.

Palestrina lived before the day of biographies and interviews, and barely a tradition remains to us of the man in his habit as he lived. But his character is written in his music in unmistakable terms. His works proclaim him a man of exquisite tenderness and of childlike simplicity. In the time of Palestrina the Church of Rome was the chief patron painting and music, and painters and musicians alike were summoned to devote their principal energies to her glorification; but it is only necessary to compare, let us say, the works of Palestrina and Perugino to realize the difference between work done for the glory of God and work done for the glory of man. Even if we knew nothing whatever of the men it would be impossible not to recognize the fact that Palestrina was working with his heart and Perugino with his head. Both had the same mastery of technique, but the one wrote with an overflowing enthusiasm born of love to God and man, and the other painted for the purpose of making money and of exhibiting his own executive ability to the best advantage.

In the history of music Palestrina represents the culmination of the polyphonic school of vocal music. He wrote no instrumental music, no music for a solo voice. He had not a touch of that revolutionary impulse which drives men upon new paths. He worked only with existing materials, but he brought music as he knew it to the highest conceivable point of perfection. As his powers developed he found the secret of the true balance between science and expression. In Palestrina we first find the melodious suavity which has since become typical of Italian music.

From a modern point of view Palestrina worked within very narrow limits, but within those limits his command of expression was extraordinary. Such discords as he employed are of the mildest description, and are always carefully prepared, but the effect that they make is extraordinary. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that no more poignantly pathetic setting of the "Stabat Mater" than Palestrina's has ever been written, yet the harmonies employed are almost childlike in their simplicity. It is the perfect proportion of part to whole that is one of the secrets of Palestrina's power, and the perfect adjustment of means to end.

Nothing is more difficult than to describe music and the impressions produced by music in terms of plain prose, and the music of Palestrina in particular is of so delicate a fiber that it is almost impossible to find words in which to paint its distinctive charm. The prevailing note of it is its intense spirituality. Not a touch of earth degrades its celestial rapture. It voices the highest and purest mysticism of the Catholic faith as it never has been voiced before or since. Palestrina seems to view the mysteries of the Christian religion through a golden haze. Its external aspects were nothing to him, its inner meaning everything. The gross materialism of a later day, which emphasizes the physical side of Christ's passion, would have been inexpressibly repugnant to him could he have conceived it. His music is inextricably bound up with the words to which it is allied and the acts of adoration which it illustrates. Apart from the services of the Church it loses its essential meaning, but in its proper sphere it still stands as the exemplar of ultimate perfection.