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26 June, 2013
Among the Great Masters of Music: Scenes in the Lives of Famous Musicians
Palestrina
by Walter Rowlands


Some twenty miles from Rome, the insignificant but picturesquely situated town of Palestrina, lies on the hillside. The Praeneste of antiquity, it was once an important colony of Rome, many of whose wealthy ones resorted thither in summer, for the sake of its bracing atmosphere, which Horace extolled. Excavations here have yielded a rich harvest, and the Eternal City holds among its ancient treasures few of more interest or value than those recovered from the soil of Palestrina.

Some twenty miles from Rome, the insignificant but picturesquely situated town of Palestrina, lies on the hillside. The Praeneste of antiquity, it was once an important colony of Rome, many of whose wealthy ones resorted thither in summer, for the sake of its bracing atmosphere, which Horace extolled. Excavations here have yielded a rich harvest, and the Eternal City holds among its ancient treasures few of more interest or value than those recovered from the soil of Palestrina.



Here, probably in 1524, was born Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, who received his last name from that of his native town. His parents were of humble station in life, but, beyond this fact, we know little that is reliable about his youth or early education. In 1540 he went to Rome, and became a pupil at the music school of Claudio Goudimel, a French composer, who turned Protestant, and perished in the massacre of St. Bartholomew's Day. Palestrina appears to have returned to his birthplace when he was about twenty years old, and to have been made organist and director of music in the cathedral. He married in 1546, and had several sons, but in 1551 was again in Rome, where he held the position of teacher of the boy singers in the Capella Giulia, in the Vatican. While holding this office, he composed a set of masses, which he dedicated to Julius III., and which were issued in 1554. Before that time, Flemish composers had supplied all the music of the Church, and these masses are the first important work by an Italian musician. The Pope recognised their value by appointing Palestrina one of the singers of the papal choir, which was against the rules of the Church, married singers being debarred. Nor was the composer's voice such as entitled him to a place in this splendid body of singers, and he conscientiously hesitated before accepting the position. He did not, however, hold it long, for Julius III. died within a few months, and his successor, Marcellus II., lived but twenty-three days after becoming Pope. Paul IV., who succeeded Marcellus, was a reformer, and dismissed Palestrina from the choir, which was a severe blow to the poor composer. But in October of the same year (1555) he was made director of the music at the Lateran Church, where he remained for over five years. During this time he produced several important works, among them being his volume of Improperia ("the Reproaches"), an eight-voiced "Crux Fidelis," and the set of "Lamentations" for four voices. These compositions gave him fame as the leader of a new school, the pure school of Italian church-music. In 1561 the composer became director of music at the Church of St. Maria Maggiore, where he remained ten years, during which period the event took place which gave him his greatest fame.

For years church music had been lacking in that dignity which should be its main characteristic, and this fault was largely due to the Flemish composers, who thought most of displaying their technical skill. They frequently selected some well-known secular tune around which to weave their counterpoint, many masses, for instance, having been written on the old Provencal song of "L' Homme Armé." Some of the melodies chosen as the basis for masses were nothing but drinking songs. At that time the tenor generally sang the melody, and, as in order to show on what foundation their work rested, the Flemings retained the original words in his part, it was not uncommon to hear the tenors singing some bacchanalian verses, while the rest of the choir were intoning the sacred words of a "Gloria" or an "Agnus Dei." These abuses lasted for an incredibly long time, but finally, in 1562, the cardinals were brought together for the purification of all churchly matters, and the Council of Trent took note of the evil. All were agreed upon abolishing secular words from the mass, and some even urged the banishment of counterpoint itself, and a return to the plain song or chant, but fortunately this sweeping reform met with a vigorous protest from others. At last the whole matter was referred to a committee of eight cardinals, who wisely sought the aid of an equal number of the papal singers, and the outcome of their debate was a commission given Palestrina to write a mass, which should employ counterpoint without irreverence, and prove that religion and music might be blended into one.

The composer, in response to this signal mark of confidence, wrote three masses, which he submitted in 1565. The third one was the celebrated "Mass of Pope Marcellus," of which the Pope ordered a special performance by the choir of the Apostolical Chapel. The rendition was followed by the complete acceptance of Palestrina's work.

A new office, that of "Composer to the Pontifical Choir," was created for him, and in 1571 he became leader of the choir of St. Peter's. Although highly honoured and rewarded with many offices, Palestrina received no great pecuniary recompense for his labours. His life was blessed, however, with the love of a devoted wife, and the friendship of many true admirers, especially Cardinal Carlo Borromeo and Filippo Neri, the founder of oratorio, both of whom were afterward canonised.

Palestrina died in 1594, and lies buried in St. Peter's, where his works are still performed. To the end of his life he never ceased to produce, and left behind him over ninety masses, one hundred and seventy-nine motettes, forty-five sets of hymns for the entire year, and an immense quantity of other compositions. No composer, it is said, has ever existed at once so prolific and so sustainedly powerful. Both the man and his work deserve our regard. Elson says: "If ever the Catholic Church desires to canonise a musical composer, it will find devoutness, humility, and many other saintly characteristics in Palestrina."

Palestrina, in reverend age, discoursing on his art to some pupils or friends, has been painted by Ferdinand Heilbuth (1826-1889), an artist who, born in Germany of Jewish parents, gained his greatest successes in France. He painted three classes of pictures, - those in which celebrated personages of other times are the central attraction, as in "Palestrina;" others which portray aged ecclesiastics of the Roman Church, conversing with the orphan boys of some religious foundation, or the like; and lastly, charming transcripts from field or wood, in whose foreground he placed some fair dame in fashionable attire.

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