Renaissance Music V: Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594)

All visits to Rome trace (at least in part) the career of Giovanni Palestrina, who at times was employed at Santa Maria Maggiore, the Vatican, and San Giovanni in Laterano. Palestrina is also arguably the most important composer in history, even if the most celebrated story about him turns out not to be true. No composer was more revered or studies by other composers. Bach’s titanic B Minor Mass (which will get an entry all to itself later on), for example, reflects his careful study of Palestrina. In sum, Palestrina’s music is the embodiment of the Renaissance ideal.

In Palestrina’s music, Renaissance polyphony reaches its zenith, utilizing a somewhat reduced counterpoint to create the luminous harmonies that would so inspire Bach a century plus later. Reducing his use of counterpoint also enabled Palestrina to limit dissonance. Palestrina’s rules of composition, especially regarding the succession of intervals, produced a gorgeous harmony known as “the Palestrina style”—arguably, the most beautiful sonority ever achieved in vocal music. Led by the Catholic Church in full Counter-Reformation zeal, composers sought to codify Palestrina’s style, creating rules that would govern composition for more than 200 years:

  1. The flow of music should be dynamic, not rigid or static.
  2. Melody should contain few leaps between notes.
  3. If a leap occurs, it must be small and immediately countered by stepwise motion in the opposite direction.
  4. Dissonances are to be confined to suspensions, passing notes and weak beats. If one falls on a strong beat (in a suspension) it must be immediately resolved.

These rules would hold sway over Western music at least until Ludwig van Beethoven’s final years.  And while Beethoven would go off to explore soundscapes that only he could imagine, Palestrina’s rules continued to provide the grounding structure of musical composition until Richard Wagner intentionally and purposefully shattered them in his Ring cycle of operas in 1874. 

Palestrina’s magnum opus is the Missa Papae Marcelli.  Even if the Church was unwilling to hand over responsibility for singing to the congregation as Protestants had, Church leaders wanted the word of God to be clearly articulated.  Polyphony, as practiced in the high Renaissance, involved overlapping voices making many of the words totally unrecognizable.  According to legend, a panel of cardinals at the Council of Trent threatened to put an end to beautiful music forever.  But music had a savior: because Palestrina’s music was so beautiful, not even these draconian cardinals would dream of banning it.  For this, Palestrina earned both the sobriquet “The Prince of Music” and everlasting glory. Unlike most composers, who saw their fortunes ebb and wane both during and after their lifetimes (even Mozart went out of fashion for a while)—the legend of Palestrina endured, as did his rules of composition.

Despite the indelible image of Palestrina composing music so beautiful as to persuade the Church to preserve polyphony, that story is, sadly, apocryphal.  Here is the entry from Wikipedia: “According to this tale, it was composed in order to persuade the Council of Trent that a draconian ban on the polyphonic treatment of text in sacred music (as opposed, that is, to a more directly intelligible homophonic treatment) was unnecessary. However, more recent scholarship shows that this mass was in fact composed before the cardinals convened to discuss the ban (possibly as much as 10 years before). Historical data indicates that the Council of Trent, as an official body, never actually banned any church music and failed to make any ruling or official statement on the subject.” 

Regardless of the truth, here is Palestrina’s Missa, in all of its glory, sung by the incomparable Tallis Scholars. In it, we can hear three distinct styles of music. First, we get all of the power and the glory of High Renaissance polyphony (Kyrie, Sanctus, Agnus I). Second, Palestrina presents a newer form of composition, which seems to incorporate the Church’s movement towards shorter phrases and clearer word-setting. Palestrina adopts this style during arguably the highlight of the mass (Gloria) and the most important (Credo). Third, a proto-Baroque style appears to emerge during the Agnus II, in which counterpoint predominates. Palestrina. Genius. Bringer of Light.

Palestrina, Missa Papae Marcelli:

One thought on “Renaissance Music V: Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594)

  1. My music theory class in college used Harmony and Voice Leading by Aldwell and Schachter. I just looked and it contains not a single musical example from Palestrina, and instead gives credit for many of the rules to Bach. I feel as if I have been robbed of the truth for most of my life.


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