A graduate of the École de Musique Vincen-d’Indy, Christopher Jackson pursued his studies at the Conservatoire de Musique in Montréal and then at the Académie d’Orgue of St. Maximin in France. He has [...]
They spoke about it
Palestrina’s celebrated church songs are a sheer spiritual revelation, ineffably moving, captivating those who hear them…
– Richard Wagner
In the world of music, the name of Palestrina is infused with legend. Firstly, it evokes the Offices of the Sistine Chapel. But while his works were indeed performed there, Palestrina was in fact employed for only four months at the famous Vatican chapel. Moreover, though he is widely touted for his role as “saviour of sacred music”, which was seen to be in danger of disappearing in the wake of the liturgical reforms demanded by the Council of Trent, in fact, the church Cardinals who advised on the music of the service never intended to banish Church polyphony and did not change their minds after hearing one of Palestrina’s masses, as myth would have it. This legendary reputation resulted from scholarly critics, particularly in the last century, who misinterpreted certain historical facts of the so-called “Cecilian Movement” (concerned with reform of Catholic church music) in their desire to portray Palestrina as the greatest composer of the Renaissance and the paradigm of perfection in sacred music.
Our era has revised the historical perspective and sees Palestrina’s works in a more accurate light. And while he may not be the most original or daring composer of the Renaissance, Palestrina ranks among his contemporaries as a composer with astonishing polyphonic skill. As a great classical master, Palestrina is well-placed among those who took the techniques of their time to unsurpassed heights.
As near as can be deduced, Giovanni Pierluigi was born in early February of 1525 or 1526 at Palestrina, a small town in the Sabine mountains near Rome. His early musical training was as a choirboy at Santa Maria Maggiore, under the direction of Robin Mallapert and Firmin LeBel where he sang works by many composers including Josquin des Prés, Jean Mouton, Pierre de LaRue, Antoine Brumel and Costanzo Festa, quickly absorbing their contrapuntal intricacies. In 1544, Palestrina was appointed organist at the cathedral of Sant’ Agapit in his native town. Three years later he married Lucrezia Gori who bore him three sons. In 1550, the Bishop of Palestrina became Pope Julius III, and soon after brought the young organist to Rome, appointing him “children’s master” at the Julian Chapel. This position had been instituted by Julius II in 1513 to train Italian musician at a time when the Sistine Chapel was largely represented by singers and composers from Flanders, France and Spain. Three years later, in 1554, Palestrina dedicated his first book of masses to his patron and that same year he published his first book of madrigals. In January 1555, Palestrina became a singer in the Sistine Chapel even though he was married (a relaxing of the rule which obliged his members to be single men) and the fact that he did not possess a strong voice. But Julius III died soon after and his successor, Marcelllus II, reigned for only three weeks, followed by the more severe Pope Paul IV who insisted on the dismissal of the three married musicians in the Sistine choir. So Palestrina was to sing beneath Michælangelo’s frescœs for less than four months. After his stint at the Sistine Chapel, Palestrina became mæstro di cappella at St. John Lateran, but left this position in 1560 following a disagreement with the chapter over financial matters. He then secured a post at Santa Maria Maggiore, and also taught singing at the Roman Seminary which was founded in 1563 after the Council of Trent, also supplying the Sistine Chapel. During this period he directed Cardinal Hippolyte d’Este concerts at Tivoli, gaining an ever-growing reputation. Palestrina composed ceaselessly, and as part of his output of masses, motets, music for the Offices, and madrigals was published regularly in Rome and in Venice. In 1567 the Emperor Maximilian II offered him work at his Chapel in Vienna, but Palestrina demanded too high wages and the post went to Philippe de Monte. A year later, Palestrina formed an association the Duke of Mantua, an amateur musician, overseeing and advising on his compositions. In 1571, Palestrina returned to the Julian Chapel where he remained until his death 23 years later. Over the ensuing ten years he would see the death of two of his sons and his wife, victims of the plague. Around 1580, Palestrina considered becoming a priest but relinquished the idea and instead married Virginia Dormuli, the wealthy widow of a fur merchant. He ran his wife’s prosperous business and made substantial profit buying land and leasing properties. Revered during his lifetime as the world’s foremost musician, Palestrina died on February 2, 1594, at the age of approximately 68 years. He was given an elaborate funeral and his coffin was followed by a “multitude of people, including all the Roman musicians”. It was placed at the Capella Nuova at St. Peter’s. Palestrina trained many students who, in the following century, established the tradition of the Roman school. His name came to be synonymous with perfection in polyphonic writing and the model for teaching counterpoint. He left 104 masses, some 40 of which were published in six books during his lifetime; 250 motets, more than half of them published in seven books; as well as 68 offertories, 35 Magnificats, 140 madrigals and his setting to music of the Song of Solomon. In 1562, near the end of its reforms, the Council of Trent dealt with the music of the service. The advising Cardinals recommended purifying the polyphony so the words would be clearer to the congregation and abandoning the use of secular melodies in the composition of masses, as was common practice among the Franco-Flemish masters. Palestrina’s art — simple yet wonderfully constructed — responded naturally to these demands. In both his life and his music, Palestrina became one of the most important symbols of the Roman Catholic Church.
Tomás Luis de Victoria, the greatest composer of the Spanish sixteenth-century “Golden Age” of polyphonic music, was born in Avila in 1548 and in about 1558 became a choirboy in Avila Cathedral, where he received his earliest musical training. When his voice broke he was sent to the Collegium Germanicum at Rome where he was enrolled as a student in 1565. He was to spend the next twenty years in Rome and he occupied a number of posts there of which the most important were at S. Maria di Monserrato, the Collegium Germanicum, the Roman Seminary (where he succeeded Palestrina as Mæstro di Cappella in 1571) and S. Appolinare. In 1575 he took holy orders and three years later was admitted to chaplaincy at S. Girolamo della Carita. Around 1587 he left Italy and in that year took up an appointment as chaplain to the dowager Empress Maria at the Royal Convent for Barefoot Clarist Nuns, where he acted as mæstro to the choir of priests and boys. Victoria’s musical output was relatively small compared with other major Renaissance composers such as Palestrina (who published five times as much music) and Lassus (who published even more), and he published no secular music. The music he did publish, however, generally shows a very high level of inspiration and musical craftsmanship and it is clear, from the constant revisions he made to successive editions of his works that appeared during his lifetime and from some of his comments in prefaces to his works, that he adopted a highly critical attitude to what he wrote. In the dedication to Pope Gregory XIII of his 1581 volume of Hymni totius anni, he speaks of music being an art to which he was instinctively drawn, and to the perfection of which he had devoted long years of study, with the help and encouragement of others of critical judgement. Victoria’s style shows the influence of earlier masters in the Spanish school and also that of his long stay in Rome, where it is likely that he had considerable contact with Palestrina. From 1566 to 1571, during the period when Victoria was studying at the Collegium Germanicum, Palestrina’s sons, Angelo and Rudolfo, were students at the neighbouring Roman Seminary. It is suggested that this may have resulted in Victoria having direct contacts with the older Roman master, at that time acting as Mæstro di cappella of the Roman Seminary, even before Victoria took over that post from him in 1571. Be that as it may, Victoria certainly shares with Palestrina a liking for smooth conjoint melodic lines and carefully worked double counterpoint but his music contains (even after making allowances for changing conventions about the use of musica ficta) more accidentals and a subtle use of harmonic colouration which sets it apart from that of any or his near contemporaries and gives it that quality of passionate intensity for which it is so justly renowned.
© Marcel de Hêtre, François Filiatrault Translation: Ann Rajan, Marcel de Hêtre