Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594)

       [Portrait from]

       [Portrait from]

Palestrina was born in 1525 or 26 in the small town outside Rome which gave him his name. He spent most of his life in Rome – first of all as a choirboy in the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, from the mid-1530s to the early 1540s. He returned to his native town in 1544 as a music teacher and organist in the San Agapito cathedral. The bishop he served under became Pope Julius III in 1550, and with his help Palestrina joined the Cappella Giulia, whose choir sang in the services at St Peter’s in Rome, until 1555. Then for a short while he joined the choir of the Sistine Chapel. He had dedicated his first book of Masses to Julius in 1554; he was married by then, and his appointment to the papal chapel clearly showed his distinction, as it violated the strict rule of celibacy in the choir – he was nonetheless appointed by the Pope himself.   

He was greatly dependent on this particular Pope’s patronage; when Julius died, the celibacy rule was reaffirmed by Paul IV, and Palestrina had to move to St John Lateran as chapelmaster, where Lassus had served two years before him. He stayed there only five years, moved back to Santa Maria Maggiore for another five years, and spent the last years of his life mainly at the Cappella Giulia.

Palestrina never took holy orders, though he once came close, taking minor vows after losing two sons in the plagues of the late 1570s, and his wife in 1580. But he remarried in 1581; his new wife, Virginia Dormoli, who was the widow of a papal fur merchant, owned a family business of furs and wine. Palestrina helped her to manage it, which may surprise those who know him for the purity of his sacred music; but his practical side in no way detracted from his spirituality, which was shown, if by nothing else, by the intensity of the inspiration he found in holy texts. He composed 104 ordinaries of the Mass, over 300 motets, nearly 80 hymns, and nearly 70 offertories; he also set the Magnificat 35 times, and the Lamentations of Jeremiah six times. Not for nothing did his 19th century biographer Baini refer to him as amanuensis Dei, as if he simply wrote down what God dictated.

Baini also put about the legend that Palestrina saved polyphonic music for the church when it was about to be banned, a story which also takes centre stage in Pfitzner’s 1917 opera Palestrina. The legend is almost certainly false – at least there is no evidence for it. What Palestrina did do was to show that the Counter-Reformation desires of the Church could be met. The Council of Trent in 1562 and 63 had called for two changes – to remove the secular influences that had invaded the setting of the Mass since the early 1400s, and to make the texts clear to the listener. Complex polyphony could make the Latin words hard to make out. And there were too many Masses which, however seemly to our ears, were based on melodies from songs about love.  “Susanne un jour” was a case in point, a poem about Susanna and the Elders; although the main point of the biblical story is her chastity, it is a mildly racy tale, and a “Susanne un jour” Mass was not what the Cardinals wanted.

There was a Commission of Cardinals, which last met in 1562-3, and the choir of the Sistine Chapel was asked to perform some Masses “to test whether the words could be understood, as their Eminences desire”. Palestrina’s Pope Marcellus Mass, composed in 1562, may or may not have been one of those they heard, but it is one of his most frequently performed and recorded works, and has always been regarded (as indeed was most of his music of the time) as responsive to the Church’s demands. In the legend it was this work that convinced the Cardinals – you actually hear strains from it in Pfitzner’s opera. (Marcellus’ reign as Pope in 1555 was cut short by his death after only 21 days.)

Palestrina came to be regarded as the great master of the polyphonic style, whose compositions have remained models for the study of 16th century counterpoint ever since – studied for example by composers from Bach to Bruckner. His music has stayed in the consciousness of composers for more than four centuries, the very embodiment of sanctity and devotion. He died in 1594, and was buried with great ceremony, his coffin bearing his name and the words princeps musicae, prince of music. Victoria among others took part in his funeral procession. Palestrina was interred first in the Cappella Nuova, but his body was moved to the crypt of the Sistine Chapel, where it can no longer be found.

His family home in the town of his birth has been restored and the Palestrina Foundation can be visited there. You can make a virtual visit and find more information about Palestrina and the Foundation on

Further reading

Cametti, A.  (1994) Palestrina, Facsimile ed., Rome: Fondazione Pierluigi da Palestrina.

Harris, C. (2002) Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina: A guide to research, London/New York: Routledge