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Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina

Although he wrote a considerable number of secular madrigals, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina was primarily a composer of sacred music.  He was extraordinarily prolific, writing at least 104 masses, over 300 motets, and many other religious works.  Unlike almost any other composer, Palestrina has enjoyed steadfast respect.  Writing in 1607, Agostino Agazzari called him “the savior of church music.”  Almost 100 years after his death, Angelo Berardi described him as “the prince and father of music.”  And after the publication of Johann Joseph Fux’s enormously influential textbook Gradus ad Parnassum (1725), Palestrina’s music became the primary model for composition students in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Even today, composition students are almost always taught how to write in the style of Palestrina.

Youth and Early Employment

Hardly any concrete information about the early years of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina is available.  Even his true name is uncertain: contemporaries often referred to him as Prenestino, and he himself usually signed his name as Giovanni Preloysio.  His place of birth was probably the town of Palestrina but may have been Rome, and he was almost certainly born in 1525 or 1526.  Palestrina's first known musical education took place in Rome, at the renowned church of Santa Maria Maggiore.  He is recorded as having been there in 1537, but it is not known when he arrived or how long he stayed.

His first job was at the church of San Agapito in Palestrina.  He served as organist there from 1544 to 1551 and married a local girl, Lucrezia Gori, on June 12, 1547.  They were married for thirty-three years and had three sons.

Return to Rome

In 1551, Palestrina was called back to Rome to serve as singing master at the Capella Giulia, which sang at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.  This meant that he was responsible for the musical education of the boys in the choir, not that he actually composed any works for them to sing.  In 1553, however, he seems to have been promoted to maestro di capella, and in the following year the first evidence of his composing activities appears in the form of a published book of masses, dedicated to Pope Julius III.

Pope Julius III had once been bishop of Palestrina, and so there may have been some exercise of personal influence when Palestrina, in January 1555, became a singer in the choir of the Sistine Chapel.  He apparently received this prestigious position despite being married and not having been approved by the other singers.  However, he did not retain the job for long.  Pope Julius III died on March 23, his successor Marcellus II died three weeks later, and the year's third pope, Paul IV, insisted that the ban on married singers in the Sistine Chapel be upheld.  Accordingly, Palestrina was dismissed with a small pension in September.

On October 1, 1555, Palestrina received his next appointment, as maestro di capella at San Giovanni Laterano in Rome.  He stayed only until 1560, when an argument over pay led him to resign.  In 1561, he took the equivalent post at Santa Maria Maggiore, where he had sung as a young boy, and subsequently stayed there for about five years.  His first published book of motets (1563) dates from these years.  He also worked for Cardinal Ippolito II d'Este in the summer of 1564, coordinating the music at the Cardinal's villa in Tivoli.

After leaving Santa Maria Maggiore in 1566, Palestrina found employment at the Seminario Romano, a newly established seminary where his sons were also educated.  He stayed there until 1571 and reentered the service of Cardinal Ippolito II d'Este for most of this time. 

In 1568 two noteworthy events in Palestrina’s life took place.  The first was the offer of a prestigious position: the Emperor Maximilian II in Vienna wanted Palestrina as his maestro di capella.  The job offer, however, came to nothing, as the two parties were unable to agree on a salary.  The second event was Palestrina’s making the acquaintance of Guglielmo Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua.  The two began a respectful correspondence and Palestrina wrote several masses for the ducal chapel; these letters are the only extant ones written by Palestrina.  The composer also continued publishing masses and motets during this period.

Capella Giulia

Palestrina became maestro di capella at the Capella Giulia again in 1571, where he remained for the rest of his life.  Although he had finally found stable employment and was becoming increasingly famous, his life cannot have been a happy one during the 1570s.  There were frequent outbreaks of the plague in Rome, and Palestrina lost his brother Silla in 1572 and his sons Rodolfo and Angelo in 1572 and 1575, respectively.  Palestrina's wife Lucrezia also died of the plague in 1580.  Palestrina took the first steps toward entering the priesthood after her death but in 1581 decided to remarry.  His new wife was Virgina Dormoli, a wealthy widow.  

In his years at the Capella Giulia, Palestrina did not devote himself entirely to that institution; he also wrote works for several other Roman churches and religious institutions to supplement his income.  Moreover, three times he considered transferring to other institutions: in 1575 to Santa Maria Maggiore, in 1583 to the ducal court at Mantua, and in 1593 to the cathedral at Palestrina.  After 1581, he published many more works than he had previously, probably because he could finally afford to do so.  In addition, he helped his second wife run her business. 

Palestrina died on February 2, 1594.



Fenlon, Iain: ‘Gonzaga, Guglielmo’,  Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 6 April 2006), <>

Lockwood, Lewis, Noel O’Regan, and Jessie Ann Owens: ‘Palestrina [Prenestino, etc.], Giovanni Pierluigi da [‘Gianetto’]’, Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 15 March 2006), <>

Marvin, Clara.  Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina: A Guide to Research.  Composer Resource Manuals 56.  New York: Routledge Press, 2002.