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The Life and Work of Palestrina

In: Film and Music

Submitted By flowerlover
Words 887
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Intro to Music Lit
November 22, 2010

Perhaps the most important composer of sacred music in the Renaissance period was Giovanni Palestrina. Palestrina’s works include over 100 mass settings (six books were published in his lifetime and seven more after his death), more than 250 motets, around 200 madrigals, 68 offertories, 65 hymns, and 35 magnificat settings. Palestrina is often said to be the greatest composer of liturgical music of all time, and has been called the Prince of Music, primarily because of his 29 motets on the words from Canticle of Canticles. Palestrina was a great composer and had a lasting impression on the development of sacred compositions both in his time and long after his death. Giovanni Pierluigi Da Palestrina was born in Palestrina, Italy, around the year 1525. Palestrina’s early history is virtually unknown. Some sources say he sang in the streets of Rome and offered products of his parent’s farm, others say he was a choirboy at St. Peter’s. The earliest known occupation of Palestrina was organist and choirmaster in his native city beginning in 1544. In 1551, he became maestro at the Capella Giulia. His first publication, a collection of masses, was published in 1554, the year before he went to the church of St. John Lateran to fill the position of maestro di capella. While there, he wrote many lamentations and magnificats, and also the famous “Improperia.” Their performance by the papal choir on Good Friday was ordered by Paul IV, and they have remained in its repertoire for Holy Week ever since. Palestrina left St. John Lateran in 1560 for financial reasons, and accepted a post at St. Maria Maggiore the next year, which he held until 1566. Between 1567 and 1571, he was in the employ of Cardinal Ippolito d’Este, and also taught at the Seminario Romano, where two of his sons became students. In 1571, he returned to the Capella Giulia in Rome, and remained there as maestro for the rest of his life. Sometime between 1572 and 1580, he lost his wife, two sons, and a brother to the plague and thought of becoming a priest. He renounced his vows, however, to remarry in 1581. He died in Rome on February 2, 1594. Palestrina’s music was different from that of many of his colleagues. His music is often considered to be perfect sacred music—the text was easy to understand, the melodies were beautiful and balanced, each piece had a variety of colors, and the music had an overall pleasing sound. It was a purer, more restrained style of music, in keeping with the Council of Trent. A good exhibition of those characteristics is the Kyrie from the Pope Marcellus Mass, with its pure lines of text set clearly against the voices of the choir. Palestrina was a very diverse composer, writing many types of music, but is probably most famous for his masses. Most masses fall under the parody category, in which a composer uses his own existing material or that of another composer as a starting point for a new composition. Many masses derive from the work of Palestrina and other composers of the time. Another category of masses is demonstrated by the nine works for Mantua—the Gloria and Credo sections are arranged so that plainsong and polyphony alternate throughout the piece. Finally, there is the small group of free style masses, which are composed of entirely new material. Missa Brevis is an example of a free style mass. Palestrina’s motets display nearly as much diversity as his masses. The motets occasionally reflect the shape of the liturgical text, though very few are based on plainsong. Many of them paraphrase the chant with an artistry that is as successful as that of the masses. Such motets include: “Cum Ortus Fuerit” and “Accipit Jesus Calicem.” Palestrina is depicted holding a copy of the latter in a portrait that is now displayed in the Vatican. His madrigals are generally considered to be of less interest than the sacred music, but they show a keen sense for pictorial and pastoral elements. Palestrina is remembered for his early exploitation of the narrative sonnet in madrigal form, notably “Vestiva i colli,” which is frequently reprinted and imitated. Palestrina was a much-respected composer. An example of this respect was shown when two years before his death, the new Pope increased his pension, and fellow composers paid him the great compliment of writing sixteen songs of the vesper psalms to his praise. Another illustration of Palestrina’s importance is that counterpoint in the “style of Palestrina” was studied and included in examination requirements of academies and universities. Such requirements could be said to be an honor to Palestrina, but they also unfortunately set in stone a style that Palestrina had used with great flexibility. Palestrina, unlike other musicians, didn’t have to be rediscovered after his time. There was always a Palestrinian tradition, mainly because he supplied the need for ‘perfect’ sacred music, as well as a well-regulated formal system to be used by a new composer in presenting himself to the musical world. In his day, Palestrina was a senior figure who, utilizing the dominant style of his time, created works notable for their spiritual qualities and technical mastery.

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