Palestrina

Born: 1525

Died: 1594

Giovanni Palestrina

Palestrina is acknowledged as the greatest composer of the Catholic Church and one of the finest masters of classical polyphonic writing.

Beginning as a boy chorister in Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, Palestrina’s first job was as organist at the Cathedral in Palestrina. In 1551 he was back in Rome as maestro di cappella of the Julian Chapel, having married and produced two sons in the meantime. After dedicating a book of Masses (the first of over 100) to Pope Julian III, Palestrina was rewarded with a place in the papal choir – without having to take the usual audition. This caused some annoyance to his fellow choristers as he was said not to have a good voice. Shortly afterwards under the new Pope, Paul V, he was dismissed on the grounds that he was a married man. After a string of appointments, he found himself back in the Julian Chapel, as maestro under Pope Gregory XIII, where he remained until his death.

In 1580 the plague took Palestrina’s wife and sons and, in despair, he took the first steps to enter the priesthood. He was persuaded to do otherwise by the wealthy widow of a furrier and, combining music with his new wife’s business and a new-found talent for real estate, prospered. Palestrina is acknowledged as the greatest composer of the Catholic Church and one of the finest masters of classical polyphonic writing. He is still held up as a model for students. He was working for the Vatican at the time of the Counter-Reformation when the Roman Church was doing all in its power to strike back at the Protestant movement. This called for music which avoided elaborate contrapuntal settings (these tended to obscure the words) and Palestrina knew exactly what was wanted – an ethereal cloud of sound to fill St Peter’s.

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