Palestrina Publishes the Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Palestrina’s composition contributed to the decision to retain art music for Catholic rites and the general acceptance of polyphonic sacred music in the Counter-Reformation.

Summary of Event

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, known in his lifetime by the town of his supposed birth, received his musical training in Rome. Aside from his initial employment in Palestrina, virtually his entire career was spent in Rome. Pope Marcellus Mass (Palestrina) Music;Catholicism and Palestrina, Giovanni Pierluigi da Marcellus II Pius IV Gregory XIII Marcellus II Kerle, Jacobus de Lasso, Orlando di Pius IV Borromeo, Carlo Vitelli, Vietellozzo Ruffo, Vincenzo Gregory XIII Palestrina, Giovanni Pierluigi da

Palestrina held varying positions at several of Rome’s major churches, including Santa Maria Maggiore, San Giovanni in Laterano, and the Vatican Basilica of San Pietro, where he led the important Cappella Giulia and served in the Capella Sistina. He also did much supplemental freelance work for such patrons as the Este family and the Gonzaga duke of Mantua. Financial differences prevented him from accepting a post at the Habsburg court of Vienna in 1568. Problems of low pay, declining health, and family deaths plagued him. After his first wife’s demise in 1580, he briefly planned to enter the priesthood, but instead he married a wealthy widow, renewing his musical productivity amid new prosperity. By the time of his death, in February, 1594, he was perhaps the most revered composer in Europe.

Palestrina was a devout and dedicated adherent of the Catholic Counter-Reformation. This is not to say that he ignored the secular market. Even though he expressed regret for setting profane words to music, he published three books of Italian madrigals between 1555 and 1586, plus a volume of “spiritual madrigals” in 1594; individual items also appeared in anthologies. Despite their conservative style, Palestrina’s madrigals were an important contribution to sixteenth century musical history.

Nevertheless, Palestrina was primarily a composer of Latin liturgical music for use in the Roman rite. He published five collections of motets and four other volumes of short sacred works. Of his mass settings (ultimately totaling 104), seven books were published in his lifetime and six more after his death. In both categories, individual works also appeared in anthologies, while reprintings of his own publications preserved Palestrina’s fame for generations.

The most famous of Palestrina’s settings of the Mass Ordinary is that known as the Missa Papae Marcelli (Pope Marcellus Mass), which appeared in his Missarum liber secundus Missarum liber secundus (Palestrina) (1567; second book of masses). Composed in the early 1560’s for six vocal parts, the mass’s style falls between the elaborate contrapuntalism of some of his more elaborately polyphonic masses and the spectacular antiphonal effects of those for opposing choirs. It is notable for its essentially homophonic, chordal clarity, as well as a magnificently lucid projection of the sacral words. (As one tribute to its popularity, if a left-handed one, some two decades after Palestrina’s death one of his pupils, Francesco Soriano, adapted this mass to the more spacious scoring of twelve voices in two choirs.)

In a publication of 1607, musician and theorist Agostino Agazzari claimed that this mass setting “saved” polyphonic music for the Church at the culmination of the Council of Trent Trent, Council of (1545-1563);music and (1545-1563). Music;Council of Trent In their redefinition of Roman Catholic Christianity, the council fathers expressed age-old clerical concerns that the growing complexities and intellectualism of polyphonic music obscured the words they were supposed to convey. They also deplored the use of popular song tunes as germinal or allusive material in mass settings—Palestrina himself was not free of that practice. Such concerns were heightened at a time when new Protestant musical movements were emphasizing maximum verbal clarity, as well as a shift from Latin to vernacular languages and increased congregational participation.

Agazzari’s claim was elaborated in 1828 by Palestrina’s first modern biographer, Giuseppe Baini. Baini asserted that, at a crucial point when the council was considering the abolition of polyphonic music and a return to plainchant, Palestrina was commissioned to compose a demonstration piece to prove that polyphonic music could indeed be “pure” and straightforwardly functional. The demonstration was a success, the story has it, and polyphony was “saved” for the Church. The name given this mass was a tribute to the earlier Pope Marcellus, whose pioneering commitment to reform was cut short by death only twenty-two days after his election, but who had urged his musicians (Palestrina then among them) to reduce florid elements in favor of projecting the words. Agazzari’s claim and Baini’s account achieved wide acceptance, and they were ultimately embodied in an opera, the lavishly idolatrous and hopelessly fictionalized Palestrina (pr. 1917), by Hans Pfitzner (1869-1949).

Though this legend still survives in some writing, modern scholarship has deflated it. The truth is more complicated but does not entirely omit Palestrina’s role. Between September, 1562, and November, 1563, sessions of the council discussed abuses and “scandalous noises” corrupting liturgical celebration, ranging from misconduct by those attending rites to the artistic excesses of musicians. One faction advocated the abolition of any kind of newly composed music, while opponents insisted that the beauties and power of polyphonic music should never be abandoned.

Some advocates sponsored musical demonstrations. One cardinal had German composer Jacobus de Kerle (1531?-1591) compose a set of prayers for the council in an austere polyphonic style. Other composers, such as Orlando di Lasso (1532-1594) in Munich, are said to have written demonstration mass settings of “purified” character. Such efforts perhaps influenced the decision made in December, 1563, that Latin must remain the liturgical language and that music would be retained by the Church if properly purified of all profane elements.

Reform-minded Pope Pius IV issued a decree in August, 1564, designed to implement the council’s decisions. A commission was created and charged with liturgical reform. Among its members was the great Cardinal Carlo Borromeo, who joined Cardinal Vitellozzo Vitelli in championing the retention of polyphonic music. Borromeo commissioned the music-director of his own Milan cathedral, Vincenzo Ruffo (1508-1587), to compose a mass setting that would demonstrate the feasibility of clarity and verbal comprehensibility. This seems to have been one of some three masses that were performed by the pontifical choir on April 28, 1565, at the residence of Vitelli, with very positive results.

It has been suggested that one or more of Palestrina’s masses was included in this performance (specifically the Pope Marcellus Mass, according to Baini), but there is no explicit evidence on that point. One contemporary quoted Palestrina himself as claiming that masses he had composed overcame Pius IV’s doubts about the viability of polyphonic music, but without detail or corroboration. On stylistic bases, Knud Jeppesen has argued that the Pope Marcellus Mass “can be assigned to the years 1562-1563, and that it was indeed written in connection with the Council of Trent.” It need not have been the only influential mass setting, however, nor was Palestrina the only composer active in vindicating music for the Church.

Palestrina’s employer at the conclusion of the council was not the pope but the Seminario Romano, run by the new Jesuit order (founded 1534). The Jesuits Jesuits were enthusiastic supporters of the reform movement, liturgical and otherwise. Palestrina was deeply involved in more ways than one. Pope Gregory XIII commissioned Palestrina and another musician to revise the chant repertoire, a task that became controversial and was brought to fulfillment by others after his death. Above all, however, Palestrina’s Latin liturgical music became a prime model for lucid, seamless webbing of voice parts in the last, glorious phase of polyphonic writing.


Palestrina and his disciples temporarily continued the “Roman” school of sober, refined, and gorgeously proportioned a cappella polyphony. The years after his death, however, saw the gradual replacement of High Renaissance polyphonic compositions with the new musical language of monodic homophony, tonality, and the integration of instruments into choral writing. Nevertheless, Palestrina did play a role in preserving art music in the Roman Catholic Church. His reputation as a contrapuntal master long survived him, preserved in textbooks and tradition, even while his music was studied less for performance than for instruction. Labeled Prince of Music or Father of Music, he was almost the sole composer before Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) and George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) still considered worthy of notice. The revival at the beginning of the twenty-first century of earlier musical literature redefined him to be among the supreme figures of his time. His music is beloved by choral singers, and the Pope Marcellus Mass is by far the most popular of his masses, whether or not it was part of the pontifical choir’s historic performance in 1565.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fellerer, G. K. “Church Music and the Council of Trent.” Musical Quarterly 39 (1953): 576-594. Discussion of the interaction between Church doctrine and liturgical composition.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jeppesen, Knud. The Style of Palestrina and the Dissonance. Introduction by Edward J. Dent. Corr. ed. New York: Dover, 1970. This work, examining the distinctive style of Palestrina and its evolution, provides evidence for dating the composition of the Pope Marcellus Mass to the final years of the Council of Trent.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Leichentritt, Hugo. “The Reform of Trent and Its Effect on Music.” Musical Quarterly 30 (1944): 319-328. Looks at the importance placed upon music by the reformers of the Trent Council, and the practical effects of the council upon contemporary Church composers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lockwood, Lewis, et al. “Palestrina.” In The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, edited by Stanley Sadie. 2d ed. Vol. 18. New York: Macmillan & Grove, 2001. This basic overview essay includes biographical information about Palestrina, as well as an evaluation of his career and a bibliography of further reading.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Owens, Jessie Ann. Composers at Work: The Craft of Musical Composition, 1450-1600. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. Interesting exploration of compositional methods, with a section on Palestrina himself.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Palestrina, Giovanni Pierluigi da. Missa Papae Marcelli. Edited by Lewis Lockwood. New York: Norton, 1975. Useful edition, with invaluable background material, source texts, and analytical essays by Lockwood and Knud Jeppesen.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pyne, ZoË Kendrick. Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina: His Life and Times. London: Lane-Bodley Head, 1922. Dated but still useful short biography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Reese, Gustave. Music in the Renaissance. 2d rev. ed. New York: Norton, 1959. Magisterial classic, with sections on the Council of Trent, Palestrina, and his contemporaries or followers.

1545-1563: Council of Trent

1575: Tallis and Byrd Publish Cantiones Sacrae

1588-1602: Rise of the English Madrigal

1590’s: Birth of Opera

Oct. 31, 1597: John Dowland Publishes Ayres

Categories: History