To learn something of the life and
labors of Palestrina, one of the earliest as well as one of the
greatest musicians, we must go way back in the world's history. And
even then we may not be able to discover all the events of his life as
some of the records have been lost. But we have the main facts, and
know that Palestrina's name will be revered for all time as the man who
strove to make sacred music the expression of lofty and spiritual
Upon a hoary spur of the Apennines
stands the crumbling town of Palestrina. It is very old now; it was old
when Rome was young. Couple hundred years ago Palestrina was dominated
by the great castle of its lords, the proud Colonnas. Naturally the
town was much more important in those days than it is to-day.
At that time there lived in Palestrina a
Sante Pierluigi and
his wife Maria, who seem to have been an honest couple, and not
poor, since the will of Sante's mother has lately been found, in which
bequeathed a house in Palestrina to her two sons. Besides this she left
behind a fine store of bed linen, mattresses and cooking utensils.
Gismondi also had a little property.
To this pair was born, probably in 1526,
a boy whom they
Pierluigi, which means John Peter Louis. This boy, from a tiniest
loved beauty of sight and sound. And this is not at all surprising, for
child surrounded from infancy by the natural loveliness and glory of
Palestrina, would unconsciously breathe in a sense of beauty and
It was soon discovered the boy had a
voice, and his
mother is said to
sold some land she owned to provide for her son's musical training.
From the rocky heights on which their
town was built, the people of
Palestrina could look across the Campagna—the great plain between—and
the walls and towers of Rome. At the time of our story, Saint Peter's
withstood the sack of the city, which happened a dozen years before,
Bramante's vast basilica had already begun to rise. The artistic life
Rome was still at high tide, for Raphael had passed away but twenty
before, and Michael Angelo was at work on his Last Judgment.
Though painting and sculpture
flourished, music did not keep pace with
advance in other arts. The leading musicians were Belgian, Spanish or
French, and their music did not match the great achievements attained
the kindred art of the time—architecture, sculpture and painting. There
was needed a new impetus, a vital force. Its rise began when the
youth John Peter Louis descended from the heights of Palestrina to the
banks of the Tiber.
It is said that Tomasso Crinello was the
boy's master; whether this is
or not, he was surely trained in the Netherland manner of composition.
The youth, whom we shall now call
Palestrina, as he is known by the
of his birthplace, returned from Rome at the age of eighteen to his
town, in 1544, as a practising musician, and took a post at the
of Saint Agapitus. Here he engaged himself for life, to be present
day at mass and vespers, and to teach singing to the canons and
Thus he spent the early years of his young manhood directing the daily
services and drumming the rudiments of music into the heads of the
choristers. It may have been dry and wearisome labor; but afterward,
Palestrina began to reform the music of the church, it must have been
great advantage to him to know so absolutely the liturgy, not only of
Peter's and Saint John Lateran, but also that in the simple cathedral
his own small hill-town.
Young Palestrina, living his simple,
busy life in his home town, never
dreamed he was destined to become a great musician. He married in 1548,
when he was about twenty-two. If he had wished to secure one of the
musical appointments in Rome, it was a very unwise thing for him to
for single singers were preferred in nine cases out of ten. Palestrina
not seem to realize this danger to a brilliant career, and took his
Lucrezia, for pure love. She seems to have been a person after his own
heart, besides having a comfortable dowry of her own. They had a happy
union, which lasted for more than thirty years.
Although he had agreed to remain for
life at the cathedral church of
Agapitus, it seems that such contracts could be broken without peril.
after seven years of service, he once more turned his steps toward the
He returned to Rome as a recognized
musician. In 1551 he became master
the Capella Giulia, at the modest salary of six scudi a month,
like ten dollars. But the young chapel master seemed satisfied. Hardly
three years after his arrival had elapsed, when he had written and
a book containing five masses, which he dedicated to Pope Julius III.
act pleased the pontiff, who, in January, 1555, appointed Palestrina
the singers of the Sistine Chapel, with an increased salary.
It seems however, that the Sistine
singers resented the appointment of
new member, and complained about it. Several changes in the Papal chair
occurred at this time, and when Paul IV, as Pope, came into power, he
at once with reforms. Finding that Palestrina and two other singers
married men, he put all three out, though granting an annuity of six
a month for each.
The loss of this post was a great
humiliation, which Palestrina found
hard to endure. He fell ill at this time, and the outlook was dark
with a wife and three little children to provide for.
But the clouds soon lifted. Within a few
weeks after this unfortunate
event, the rejected singer of the Sistine Chapel was created Chapel
of Saint John Lateran, the splendid basilica, where the young Orlandus
Lassus had so recently directed the music. As Palestrina could still
his six scudi pension, increased with the added salary of the new
he was able to establish his family in a pretty villa on the Coelian
where he could be near his work at the Lateran, but far enough removed
the turmoil of the city to obtain the quiet he desired, and where he
in tranquillity for the next five years.
Palestrina spent forty-four years of his
life in Rome. All the eleven
who reigned during this long period honored Palestrina as a great
Marcellus II spent a part of his three weeks' reign in showing kindness
to the young Chapel master, which the composer returned by naming for
pontiff a famous work, "Mass of Pope Marcellus." Pius IV, who was in
when the mass was performed, praised it eloquently, saying John Peter
of Palestrina was a new John, bringing down to the church militant the
harmonies of that "new song" which John the Apostle heard in the Holy
The musician-pope, Gregory XIII, to whom Palestrina dedicated his
motets, entrusted him with the sacred task of revising the ancient
Pope Sixtus V greatly praised his beautiful mass, "Assumpta est Maria"
promoted him to higher honors.
With this encouragement and patronage,
Palestrina labored five years at
the Lateran, ten years at Santa Maria Maggiore and twenty three at
Peter's. At the last named it was his second term, of course, but it
continued from 1571 to his death. He was happy in his work, in his home
in his friends. He also saved quite a little money and was able to give
daughter-in-law, in 1577, 1300 scudi; he is known indeed, to have
land, vineyards and houses in and about Rome.
All was not a life of sunshine for
Palestrina, for he suffered many
domestic sorrows. His three promising sons died one after another. They
were talented young men, who might have followed in the footsteps of
distinguished father. In 1580 his wife died also. Yet neither poignant
sorrow, worldly glory nor ascetic piety blighted his homely affections.
the Jubilee of Pope Gregory XIII, in 1575, when 1500 pilgrims from the
town of Palestrina descended the hills on the way to Rome, it was their
old townsman, Giovanni Pierluigi, who led their songs, as they entered
the Eternal City, their maidens clad in white robes, and their young
bearing olive branches.
It is said of Palestrina that he became
the "savior of church music,"
time when it had almost been decided to banish all music from the
except the chant, because so many secular subjects had been set to
and used in church. Things had come to a very difficult pass, until at
the fathers turned to Palestrina, desiring him to compose a mass in
sacred words should be heard throughout. Palestrina, deeply realizing
his responsibility, wrote not only one but three, which, on being
pleased greatly by their piety, meekness, and beautiful spirit. Feeling
more sure of himself, Palestrina continued to compose masses, until he
had created ninety-three in all. He also wrote many motets on the Song
Solomon, his Stabat Mater, which was edited two hundred and fifty years
later by Richard Wagner, and his lamentations, which were composed at
request of Sixtus V.
Palestrina's end came February 2, 1594.
He died in Rome, a devout
Christian, and on his coffin were engraved the simple but splendid
"Prince of Music."