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Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina

1525 - 1594

An Italian Renaissance composer of sacred music and the best-known 16th-century representative of the Roman School of musical composition. He had a lasting influence on the development of church music, and his work has often been seen as the culmination of Renaissance polyphony.

(b. Palestrina, February 3, 1525; d. Rome, February 2, 1594)

Italian composer. He was one of the out-A standing masters of the second half of the 16th century, a prolific composer of masses and motets whose music demonstrated both a remarkable technical refinement and an uplifting spirituality. He received his training at one of Rome's principal churches, Santa Maria Maggiore, and at 19 began a seven-year tenure as organist at the church of San Agapito in his hometown. He married during that time; there were three children. In 1551 he returned to Rome, where he spent the rest of his life, occupying a succession of positions at prestigious churches: St. Peter's, San Giovanni in Laterano, and Santa Maria Maggiore. Palestrina published his first book of masses in 1554, offering the dedication to Pope Julius III; the following January the pope took the unusual step of appointing him to the Sistine Chapel (his personal chapel) even though he was married.

Palestrina presenting a musical work to Pope Julius III

Palestrina remained there during the brief three-week reign of Julius's successor, Pope Marcellus II, in April 1555, but was booted out (along with two other married singers) by the newly enthroned Paul IV in September. From then to 1560, Palestrina served as maestro di cappella of San Giovanni in Laterano; he subsequently worked at Santa Maria Maggiore (1561-66), served as maestro di cappella at the Seminario Romano, and in 1571 returned to St. Peter's, where he remained to the end of his life.

During the 1570s, Palestrina lost his brother and two of his sons to a plague then rampant in Rome. In 1580, after the death of his wife, he considered joining the priesthood, but instead the next year married the well-to-do widow of a Roman fur merchant. For the last 13 years of his life he took a lively interest in the fur business and was well enough off financially to invest in real estate and become something of an entrepreneur.

Palestrina composed, according to the latest count, 104 masses (almost half of which were published during his lifetime), more than 300 motets and smaller church compositions, and more than 140 madrigals (including two books of spiritual madrigals). He also produced four or five settings of the Lamentations of Jeremiah, including a splendid set published in 1588, as well as about 70 hymns, 68 offertories, and 35 settings of the Magnificat.

Just as Josquin towered over his time some eight decades earlier, Palestrina stood out as the leading musician of the Counter-Reformation. To a degree, his liturgical settings reflect the directives of the Council of Trent (1545-63), which urged that the music be less intricate and mannered so that the words of the liturgy could be clearly understood.

In his mass settings, including his most famous one, the Missa Papae Marcelli, written to commemorate the reign of Marcellus II, Palestrina accomplished this without sacrificing beauty of sound. Indeed, by paring back the counterpoint, limiting the amount of dissonance, and imposing his own strict rules on the succession of intervals to assure smoothness of melodic flow and sweetness of harmony—the essence of what would come to be known as "the Palestrina style"—he produced what many regard as the most beautiful sonority ever achieved in vocal music.

"The most frivolous and gallant words are set to exactly the same music as those of the Bible..."

Hector Berlioz on the music of Palestrina

Key Works

Missa Papae Marcelli

This Mass, published in 1567, takes its name from Pope Marcellus II, who held the Papacy for just three weeks in 1555. It used to be written in a variety of different ways; some were settings of borrowed musical material, while others were entirely freely composed. His madrigals include both secular and sacred songs.

Missa Papae Marcelli

This Mass, published in 1567, takes its name from Pope Marcellus II, who held the Papacy for just three weeks in 1555. It used to be written in a variety of different ways; some were settings of borrowed musical material, while others were entirely freely composed. His madrigals include both secular and sacred songs.

Missa Brevis

The origin of the name Missa brevis (short Mass) for one of Palestrina’s finest mass settings is unclear. It was published in 1570. After a contrapuntal Kyrie, the Gloria opens with all four parts in homophony before the parts begin to weave an imitative texture, sometimes working in pairs or trios. The new section at “Qui tollis peccata mundi” brings the parts together in a chordal texture. In the Benedictus, the three voices that open the movement are rejoined by the bass at “Osanna in excelsis”. The second part of the Agnus Dei divides the upper part, to give a five-part texture.

Missa L'homme Arme


Palestrina wrote two Mass settings based on the melody “L’homme arme”, a popular song that provided the foundation for at least 40 Masses in the 15th and 16th centuries. The five-part setting dates from 1570, and the four-part Mass from 1582.

Missa Benedictus Es 

The probable model for this six-part Mass is a motet by Josquin Desprez (1520). The Kyrie opens with a rising scalic motive that passes from voice to voice. After the first words of the Gloria are intoned, the choir enters part by part, building a contrapuntal texture. At a new section, “Qui tollis peccata mundi”,

the movement becomes more reserved and penitential and closes with a relatively simple Amen. The lengthy Credo text ends with a much more elaborate and boldly dissonant “Amen”. In the Sanctus-Benedictus, the highest voice opens with long held notes, while the lower parts move in steady, but more active, lines. The concluding Agnus Dei is a gentle, lyrical prayer for atonement.

Madrigal - Io Son Ferito, Ahi Lasso

This five-part secular madrigal of 1561 (“Alas, I am wounded”),

shows Palestrina’s skilful but understated text setting, for example, in the use of long note values to evoke the agony of parting. The scoring is varied throughout this work, which ends with long held notes in the upper and middle parts, while the others parts work the cadence around them.

Motets for 5 voices

Music score for Palestrina's Missa Papae Marcelli.

Facade of St John Lateran, Rome, where Palestrina was musical director

 Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina

First Book of Madrigals

Missa Nigra sum

[00,01~] 01. Plainchant - Nigra sum 
[00,31~] 02. Lheritier - Motet Nigra sum 

[06,39~] 03. Kyrie 
[11,20~] 04. Gloria 
[17,47~] 05. Credo 
[28,14~] 06. Sanctus et Benedictus
[36,28~] 07. Agnus Dei 1 et 2

Missa Sicut lilium inter spinas

1. Palestrina - Motet - Sicut Lilium inter spinas

Missa Sicut lilium inter spinas
2. Kyrie
3. Gloria
[14,35~] 4. Credo
[23,37~] 5. Sanctus et Benedictus
6. Agnus Dei

 Il primo libro de madrigali a cinque voci

From IL PRIMO LIBRO DE MADRIGALI A CINQUE VOCI [26 Spiritual Madrigals for 5 voices] (1581) Text by Francesco Petrarca

Stanze sopra le Vergine
I. Vergine bella, che di sol vestita - 0:01
II. Vergine saggia, e del bel numer'una - 2:54
III. Vergine pura, d;ogni part'intiera - 6:28
IV. Vergine santa, d'ogni gratia piena - 9:47
V. Vergine sol'al monda senza esempio - 13:18
VI. Vergine chiara e stabile in eterno - 17:13
VII. Vergine, quante lagrim'ho gia sparte - 21:29
VIII. Vergine, tal e terra e post'ha in doglia - 24:49

Missa pro defunctis

Missa pro defunctis a 5 voci (1554)

0:00 - I. Introitus. Requiem aeternam
2:20 - II. Kyrie
7:03 - III. Offertorium. Domine Jesu Christe
12:02 - IV. Sanctus - Benedictus
16:08 - VI. Agnus Dei

Lamentationes Ieremiae prophetae

1. Feria V in Coena Domini, lectio 1. Incipit Lamentatione Ieremiae prophetae
2. Feria V in Coena Domini, lectio 2. Vau. Et egressus est a filia Sion
3. Feria V in Coena Domini, lectio 3. Iod. Manum suam misit hostis
4. Feria VI in Parasceve, lectio 1. De Lamentatione Ieremiae prophetae
5. Feria VI in Parasceve, lectio 2. Matribus suis dixerunt
6. Feria VI in Parasceve, lectio 3. Aleph. Ego vir videns paupertatem meam
7. Sabbato Sancto, lectio 1. De Lamentatione Ieremiae prophetae
8. Sabbato Sancto, lectio 2. Aleph. Quomodo obscuratum est aurum
9. Sabbato Sancto, lectio 3. Incipit oratio Ieremiae prophetae

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