Palestrina was a highly proficient and acclaimed composer of the Italian Renaissance who produced a large body of sacred music. He is best-known as the 16th Century representative of the Roman School of Musical Composition. Palestrina’s works are seen as the pinnacle of Renaissance polyphony.
Giovanni was born around 1525 in the town of Palestrina, near Rome. He first visited Rome in 1537, where he is listed as a chorister at the Santa Maria Maggiore basilica. Palestrina spent most of his career in that city. His music was greatly influenced by the Northern European style of polyphony of the highly renowned Netherlandish composers Guillaume Dufay and Josquin des Prez. Until the arrival of Palestrina, Italy had yet to produce musicians of comparable skills or fame.
Palestrina’s first published compositions—a book of Masses—made such a favorable impression on Pope Julius III that in 1551, he appointed Palestrina as “Maestro di Cappella” of the Cappella Giulia. During the following decade Palestrina held many positions quite similar to his position at the Julian Chapel at other chapels and churches in Rome, most prominently the Saint John Lateran (a position previously held by Orlando di Lasso) and St. Mary Major. In 1571, Palestrina returned to the Julian Chapel and remained there for the rest of his life.
The decade of the 1570s was very difficult and burdensome for Palestrina as he lost his brother, two of his sons, and his wife due to outbreaks of the plague. During this time, Palestrina even considered becoming a Priest but he remarried to a wealthy widow. As a result of this marriage, Palestrina became financially independent which allowed him to later compose prolifically and magnificently until his death.
Palestrina left hundreds of compositions including 105 masses, 68 offertories, about 140 madrigals, over 300 motets, 72 hymns, 35 magnificats, 11 litanies, and four or five sets of lamentations. The “Gloria” melody from one of Palestrina’s magnificat is still universally used in the resurrection hymn tune, “Victory” The Strife is O’er. Palestrina’s masses show how his compositional style refined over time. His “Missa Sine Nomine” seems to have been exceptionally enticing to Johann Sebastian Bach who studied and performed it whilst writing his now famous Mass in B minor.
Most of Palestrina’s masses appeared in thirteen volumes all printed between 1554 and 1601—the last seven however, published after his death. One of the trademarks of Palestrina’s music is that dissonances are typically consigned to the “weak” beats in a measure allowing for a smoother and more consonant type of polyphony which is now considered to be definitive of Late Renaissance music, giving Palestrina his position as Europe’s leading composer along with Orlando di Lasso in the wake of Josquin des Prez.
Palestrina died in Rome of pleurisy in 1594. Palestrina was buried on the same day he died, in a plain coffin with a lead plate on which was inscribed Libera me Domine. A five-part psalm for three choirs was sung at the funeral. Palestrina’s funeral was held at St. Peter’s, and he was buried beneath the floor of the Basilica.
To this day , the “Palestrina Style” serves as a basis for college Renaissance counterpoint classes, mostly thanks to definitive effort of the 18th century composer and theorist, Johann Joseph Fux, who created a book known as “Gradus ad Parnassum” set about cataloging and classifying Palestrina’s style and techniques as instructional tools for students of composition.