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Giovanni
Pierluigi da Palestrina

            This paper will explore the life and accomplishments of Giovanni
Pierluigi da Palestrina, the first native Italian musician of the 16th
century to master polyphonic techniques and prolifically develop sacred church
music. Thus, earning his title “The
Savior of Church Music”. The reader will be introduced to his biography,
followed by the main historical period and events that have influenced his
works. Then, my area of interest will investigate the publication history of
Palestrina’s music and the development of music printing press in 16th
century Rome and Venice. This will answer the question to whether Palestrina
aspired
to attain international distinction during his lifetime since he received a posthumous
status as the savior of polyphony. Subsequently, I will discuss how Palestrina’s
musical style conveys his renowned ‘Palestrina
Style’, Prima Pratica and Stile Antico.
Finally, readers will delve into the analysis of the main piece chosen, Agnus Dei of Missa Papae Marcelli, accompanied by the historical framework
through which Palestrina earned his title “The
Savior of Church Music”.

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Giovanni
Pierluigi da Palestrina was born on February 1525 in the town of Palestrina of
the Sabine Hills, Rome. He was first trained at the age of 12, at the Basilica
di Santa Maria Maggiore in 1537.  From
1544 to 1551, he worked as an organist and caretaker of the choirboys at the
cathedral of St. Agapito. In 1551, he was appointed Maestro di Capella of the St. Peter’s Basilica and remained in this
humble and conservative setting for seven years. In 1547, Palestrina married
Lucrezia Gori and had three sons together. Consequently, from 1560 to 1571, he
had held positions as maestro at different locations, including his hometown
the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, St. John Latern Church and Seminario Romano
of the Villa d’Este, Tivoli. However, he was not satisfied with his employment
during that period and documents showed that he became a freelancer for some
time. His reputation had spread during the 1570s, where Emperor Maximillian II
and the Duke of Ferrara had exalted and glorified his work. Nonetheless,
Palestrina continued to face hardships during his life when his two sons, wife
and brother had died between 1572 and 1580, due to the spread of the plague
epidemic. Palestrina had also fallen ill, which delayed his work on masses
commissioned by the Duke of Mantua. He seriously considered becoming a priest
after his wife’s death. After eight months of his wife’s passing, however, he remarried
a wealthy widower, Virginia Dormoli, whose husband had connections and
investments in the fur and leather trade. Being able to find security and satisfaction,
Palestrina was able to publish and exercise his artistic and prolific power of
composition, and compose up to more than 300 pieces, which include masses,
motets, madrigals, offertories, hymns etc. Yet, one of the most important
events in Palestrina’s life occurred c.1564, when he earned the title “The Savior of Church Music” as a result
of one of his most prolific masses, the “Missa Papae Marcelli” mass. He died of
pleurisy, in Rome, 1594 and was buried beneath St. Peter’s Basilica.

During
the Middle Ages until early Renaissance, the Roman Catholic Church, hand in
hand with the various monarchies, held the apex of power in Europe. On All
Saint’s Day, November 1st 1517, Martin Luther raised the “95 Theses” and so, Protestantism
was born in Europe.  The Protestant
Reformation was initiated in an attempt to expose and reform the systemic
corruption of the Church’s hierarchy and control of indulgences. Nonetheless,
this movement brought forth reformation music, which consists of new types of
religious music. However, the Catholic Roman Church considered the Protestant
doctrines as a form of heresy and felt the need to respond to the movement. Thus,
the Catholic Church established “The Council of Trent”, a general council comprising
of theological experts convened to discuss and debate church related practices
and orders, from 1545 till 1564, in the city Trento, North Italy. They proposed
and mandated imperative and harsher decrees regarding sacramental practices,
religious orders, and the role of prayer in music. This period was known as the
“Catholic Revival” or the “Counter-Reformation”. A legend circulated that The
Council of Trent threatened to ban polyphony altogether in the church, due to
the rise of secular music and music that disrupted the devotion and meaning of
prayer. With Protestantism, Lutheran and Calvinist churches introduced different
styles of music, and required all the congregation to take part in church
services. The musical types were Chorales;
simple metrical tunes with rhyming verses, Contrafacta;
secular tunes given religious words, Psalters;
Anglican chants based on the “Book of Psalms”, and other polyphonic chorale
settings where composers placed the chorale tune in the tenor with a
free-flowing accompaniment of three or four voices, and developed each phrase
of the chorale imitatively.  This type of
music did not conform to the Church’s requirements, and the use of music was
objectionable since secular songs were provided with religious lyrics and
masses were based on drinking and love making. The imitation in polyphony
obscured the mass, thus, interfering with the listener’s devotion and prayer. In
addition, the participation of an untrained congregation would not produce
spiritually powerful chants as those performed by trained professionals. The
Council of Trent assembled at the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore to debate the
ban of polyphonic sacred music, and so Palestrina presented one of his most
renowned masses, the “Missa Papae
Marcelli” mass. Nonetheless, Palestrina had faced many difficulties in
publishing his 1st edition of masses in the music printing markets
of Rome and Venice.

My
area of interest consists of investigating Palestrina’s publication history of
music and comparing the Roman and Venetian music printing presses during his
time. The Cinquecento was a period
when the concept of fame was crucial for authors and patrons alike. The book
industry played an important role in not only disseminating composer’s music,
but also in establishing their reputation, in what is called the ‘publish or
perish’ syndrome. Palestrina’s publication history is complex, since the
composer not only used Roman printers for his first editions, but also employed
Venetian ones. Publication firms in Rome and Venice differed dramatically in
the way they financed and marketed their publications.  Music printers in Rome and Venice did publish
similar musical repertories, by issuing Italian madrigals, motets, liturgical
chants and other publications that include lute, keyboard music, and chansons.
However, Venetian presses primarily published Italian madrigals and a
subordinate amount of sacred music books to large marketplaces, since madrigals
were the most commercially viable music genre throughout Renaissance Italy. In
contrast, Roman publishers had limited distribution outlets. They were
accounted for predominantly distributing sacred prints, since an important
outlet for Roman music printers was the church, and most of their output were
commissioned sacred editions.  The
prominence of the madrigals of Venetian presses had impacted Palestrina’s
publications. From 1554 to 1571, Palestrina issued Italian madrigals from the
Venetian press and few sacred music books from Roman presses. However, in the
1570s, Roman music printing came to a halt. Palestrina’s sacred music books
were more expensive to produce than madrigal and motet books because they had
to be issued as large portfolio choir books. Palestrina’s early editions of
sacred music books were scarce because of their lack of marketability and cost.
A composer’s decision as to where his music was printed heavily impacted his
publication record. If Italian composers wanted to achieve the widest
circulation possible, they had to publish in Venice. However, Palestrina
deliberately decided not to exploit the Venetian publication market, but
remained devoted to local Roman printers. Documents reveal that before 1580,
Palestrina issued his madrigal editions from Venetian presses for the purpose
of securing his position and employment rather than for seeking fame outside
his Roman circle. Nearly all Palestrina’s first editions were dedicated to his
employers such as the Duke Ferrara, Emperor Maximillian II and so on.
Nonetheless, during Palestrina’s 40 year career in Cappella Giulia or Cappella
Sistina, he dedicated an individual piece to each of the 6 reigning popes:
Julius III, Sixtus V, Marcellus II, Gregory XIV, Clement VIII
and Gregory XIII. His works include 104 securely attributed masses, greater in
quantity alone than that of any composer of his age. In addition, more than 300
motets, 35 Magnificat settings, 68 offertories, 11 litanies, at least 72 hymns
and four or five sets of Lamentations can be added to his sacred music. He also
composed more than 140 spiritual and secular madrigals combined.

Another
essential strand has been Palestrina’s place in musical pedagogy, where from
the early 17th century his name became indelibly associated with the
ideal of the stile antico – the
strict style of diatonic counterpoint that became a widely accepted model for teaching.
Palestrina’s musical style consists of the Prima
Pratica or first practice, as seen in his sacred Renaissance vocal music
with its smooth texture, and its careful approaching and leaving of
dissonances. He used a variety of techniques, including cantus firmus, parody,
paraphrase, and free composition in his masses. Palestrina’s form gives each
phrase of text its own musical motive, and each phrase overlaps with the next.
He created unity by repeating motives and cadences on important notes in the mode.
Palestrina’s counterpoint is smooth and mostly consonant, with dissonances
restricted to suspensions, passing notes, and cambiatas. The voices move
independently within a regular harmonic rhythm, and different combinations of
voices create a great variety of sonorities. The ‘Palestrina style’ serves as a
basis for Renaissance counterpoint teachings, due to the efforts of
the 18th-century composer and theorist Johann Joseph Fux. According to
Fux, Palestrina had established and followed these basic guidelines: 1) “The
flow of music is dynamic, not rigid or static.” 2) “Melody should contain few
leaps between notes”. 3) “If a leap occurs, it must be small and immediately
countered by stepwise motion in the opposite direction.” 4) “Dissonances are to
be confined to passing notes and weak beats. If one falls on a strong beat, it
is to be immediately resolved.”

The
musical piece of interest is Agnus Dei
of the Missa Papae Marcelli (Pope
Marcellus Mass). A legend circulated that The Council of Trent wanted to
ban the use of polyphony altogether in church and return to Gregorian chant.
Palestrina presented one of his best masses, Missa Papae Marcelli. Missa
Papae Marcelli satisfied the Catholic Church’s requirements; whereby
Palestrina’s melodies move mostly by step in smooth, flexible arches. Leaps are
filled in with stepwise motion in the opposite direction, and chromaticism is
avoided.  Also, the liturgy, the words
being coherently and clearly sung, conformed to the Church’s mandates. It was
written for a 6 part choir- Alto, Soprano, two Tenors, and two Basses; which
was a typical setting for an all-male church during that period. The order of
the Mass, with its Ordinary prayers, consists of Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus/Benedictus, and Agnus Dei. The last
part, Agnus Dei (“Lamb of God, Who
takes away the sins of the world”), is sung 3 times with different phrases for
the conclusion. The Agnus Dei
movement consists of 6 to 7 voices, a
capppella, where voices melodically shift between high and low range. The
rhythm is a slow simple quadruple meter and has a weak pulse. It consists of
full consonant harmony, and the expression of the mass focuses on the clarity
of prayers. Its form is through-composed, with short ideas and phrases
exchanged between chanters. It has a monophonic opening, then free flowing
homorhythmic, followed by polyphony. There is frequent change in the density of
voices and careful control of dissonances and imitative
counterpoint. The mass was composed in honor of Pope Marcellus II, one of the
three directors of Council of Trent. Pope Pius IV upon hearing Palestrina’s
music, made Palestrina, by Papal Brief, the model for future generations of
Catholic composers of sacred music.

In
conclusion, Palestrina’s title and reputation have echoed over the past four
centuries and prominently left their mark on sacred Catholic Church music. Since,
he was able to construct a polyphonic setting, in such a way that he balanced
the polyphonic and harmonic elements, to preserve the audible clarity of words that
eloquently emphasize prayer. Recounting Palestrina’s publication history, this paper
has compared and contrasted the Roman and Venetian music presses, and their effect
on the reputation of the composer. Palestrina’s posthumous status as the savior
of polyphony may lead one to believe that he was as equally renowned during his
lifetime. However, all of these factors not only demonstrate that Palestrina had
only gained his celebrated and prominent reputation after his death, but also
show that he did not aspire to seek or achieve international fame during his
lifetime.

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