Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina



Martin Luther famously condemned the Catholic Church, and what we call Protestantism resulted. This process, the ‘Reformation’, led to much bloodshed. The Catholic Church, to resist the Protestants and their Reformation, got together at a giant meeting that went on for years (from 1545 to 1563), called the Council of Trent. One of things they discussed was music. Many felt that the polyphonic music of the Catholic Church had become too complicated. The individual voices swirled around so much that no one could hear the words.

At around this point, the composer Palestrina wrote a mass, the Missa Papae Marcelli (‘Missa’ is ‘Mass’ in Italian): it was polyphonic and every bit as beautiful as the earlier church music, but it was simpler – so the words could be heard. It was possible to have beautiful church music that the congregation could still understand! Some said he had ‘saved Catholic music’. Modern scholars doubt that the Council of Trent discussions had anything to do with it, but Palestrina’s music certainly went on to inspire generations of Catholic composers.

Palestrina was born near Rome and worked there for most of his life. He was a master of musical technique. The Pope was so impressed that he made him a musical director at the Vatican. Palestrina wrote over 100 masses and a vast amount of other music. His wife died of the plague (as did his brother and two of his sons) but he remarried; his second wife was wealthy and her financial support allowed him to compose many more works until his own death.

Palestrina’s music, all for voices, sounds smooth and contains few surprises. The legend that he had ‘saved music’ grew. In time, he was almost worshipped for the perfection of his writing. It is strange that so traditional a man came to be seen as a kind of romantic hero! But he did write music that is still regularly enjoyed today. Bach and Beethoven admired him. He was honoured with a burial in St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, though no one knows anymore precisely where his grave is located.

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, courtesy of Benjamin Chai

Play Music!

Play Music!

Choose a Palestrina track to listen to…

Hodie Christus natus est

This motet for eight voices is about Christmas! Can you hear ‘Noel, Noel’ being sung? The themes seem to cascade cheerfully through each voice part.

Performers: Oxford Schola Cantorum

Taken from Naxos 8.558060

Missa Papae Marcelli: Kyrie

This is the first section – Kyrie – of the mass which some claimed to have ‘saved church music’ – it showed how polyphony (where several independent lines of music happen at the same time) didn’t have to obscure the text being sung. So the words were clear, and that would have pleased the Catholic authorities.

Performers: Oxford Camerata; Jeremy Summerly

Taken from Naxos 8.553238

Adoramus te Christe (‘We adore Thee, Christ’) (arr. L. Stokowski for orchestra)

The sound of these instruments is not the sound of Palestrina’s time! The music is Palestrina’s but it was ‘arranged’ by Leopold Stokowski 500 years later for modern instruments. In this arrangement or in its original form, it is a solemn piece.

Performers: Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra; José Serebrier

Taken from Naxos 8.572050

Do You Know?

Do You Know?

See if you can answer the questions below!

 Palestrina wrote music for which Church?

a. Protestant
b. Roman Catholic
c. Russian Orthodox

 One particular mass by Palestrina became very famous. Which was it?

a. Missa Papae Marcelli
b. Missa Brevis
c. Missa Goal

 Palestrina was eventually quite well off – how?

a. High salary
b. Family inheritance
c. Wealthy wife

 Palestrina was born where?

a. Rome
b. Palestrina
c. Perugia

 As well as religious music, Palestrina wrote what?

a. String quartets
b. Piano concertos
c. Madrigals

Key Facts...

Key Facts…
  1. Palestrina’s name was taken from the town called Palestrina, where he was born.
  2. The story that Palestrina had ‘saved’ the art of polyphonic music inspired a later German composer, Hans Pfitzner, to write an opera in the 20th century called Palestrina, in which the composer is depicted as a hero.
  3. Palestrina got the top musical job in Italy, Master of the Julian Chapel at the Vatican, when he was only 26.
  4. Apparently the young Palestrina used to sing as he sold produce from his parents’ farm on the streets of Rome; he was spotted by a choirmaster, who offered to teach him.
  5. Pope Julius III employed Palestrina to compose for the papal chapel in Rome but unfortunately the next Pope, Paul IV, had stricter rules: he said that a married man wasn’t allowed to serve in the papal choir and got rid of him.

Play More Music!

Play More Music!

Here is more music to listen to. Click the + to see tracks and information about each work!


Missa Papae Marcelli

This is the most famous of Palestrina’s 100+ mass settings. It is written for six voices and was published in 1567. As Catholics argued about how to counter Protestantism, some said polyphonic music, where individual vocal lines happen all at the same time, had become too complicated for the words to be understood. In this beautiful, lucid mass, Palestrina showed that polyphony and intelligibility could be combined.

Performers: Oxford Camerata; Jeremy Summerly

Taken from Naxos 8.553238

Missa Aeterna Christi Munera

A mass in Palestrina’s day was often based on a well-known hymn or song. Here he takes part of a plainsong hymn called ‘Aeterna Christi Munera’ (‘Eternal gifts of Christ the King’) and creates an attractive four-part mass with smooth, singable lines and simple harmonies. This Mass was published in 1590.

Performers: Oxford Camerata; Jeremy Summerly

Taken from Naxos 8.553238

Other Religious Works

Motet: Afferentur Regi virgines post eam (‘Virgins shall be brought after to the king’)

This is a late motet by Palestrina, published in 1593 – the year before he died. Listen to how the first voice section comes in alone, then the next one joins in, then the next… building to a gentle, fluid swirl of sound.

Performers: Palestrina Ensemble Munich; Venanz Schubert

Taken from Naxos 8.573096-97

Motet: Si ignoras te (‘If thou dost not know’)

The words for this motet come from the ‘Song of Solomon’ in the Old Testament. It is a verse full of adoring words; the five voice parts come in one after another with ‘Si ignoras te’ and blend gently together.

Performers: Oxford Camerata; Jeremy Summerly

Taken from Naxos 8.550843

Motet: Peccantem me quotidie (‘Sinning daily’)

This motet for five voices is a setting of part of the Office of the Dead. The work is mature Palestrina, dating from 1572, and is suitably sombre for a text about the fear of death. There is a pleading quality here, as the motet ends with the words (in Latin) ‘Have mercy upon me, O God, and save me’.

Performers: San Petronio Cappella Musicale Soloists; Sergio Vartolo

Taken from Naxos 8.553314

Motet: Sicut cervus (‘Like as the deer desireth’)

This four-voice motet dates from around 1584 and also takes its text from the Office of the Dead. Note how Palestrina has the music at the opening gradually rise in pitch, like the opening of a flower, as the text describes the soul longing for God.

Performers: San Petronio Cappella Musicale Soloists; Sergio Vartolo

Taken from Naxos 8.553314

Motet: Super flumina Babylonis (‘By the rivers of Babylon’)

This is a four-voice setting of words describing the exile of the Hebrews beside the River Babylon in a strange land. At the words ‘illic sedimus’ (‘there we sat and wept’; 0:42), the voices come together and sing as one for a short time – the texture is more block-like, which is called ‘homophonic’, as opposed to Palestrina’s usual ‘polyphonic’ texture where the voices sing their independent lines at different times. The music, fairly dramatic and varied for Palestrina, suits the sadness of the Hebrew exile.

Performers: San Petronio Cappella Musicale Soloists; Sergio Vartolo

Taken from Naxos 8.553314