Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina

Giovanni Palestrina

The rather wonderfully named Italian composer Giovanni Pierliugi de Palestrina was one of the finest and most groundbreaking composers of the Renaissance period.  Born in Palestrina, near Rome (hence his name) in either 1525 or 1526, he lived until his late 60s – no mean feat in the 16th century – and wrote some heavenly music during his long lifetime.

  • Although he's by no means remembered as being in the A-list of composers, Palestrina was a hugely influential musician whose works had a sizeable impact on the late Renaissance period of classical music.
  • The young Palestrina apparently used to sing on the streets of Rome, where he sold produce from his parents' farm.  One day, so legend has it, the choirmaster of Santa Maria Maggiore heard him – and immediately offered to teach him music.
  • In the mid-16th century, Palestrina was appointed a member of the Papal Chapel, as a reward for his many compositions for the Catholic Church.  This was a controversial move: the Pope at the time turned a blind eye to the fact that Palestrina was not in Holy Orders, and waived the rule that he must take a rather taxing entrance exam.  
  • That, coupled with the fact that many existing members of the Papal Choir thought Palestrina's voice wasn't nearly as good as theirs, led to quite a storm of protest. A subsequent Pope adopted a more stringent approach and Palestrina was asked to leave the choir permanently, with only a small pension. The glorious Missa Papae Marcelli is Palestrina's most famous and most beautiful mass, still regularly sung in Catholic churches the world over.
  • The range of Palestrina's musical output was staggering: as well as masses, he composed secular madrigals, hymns, and a set of rather wonderful motets.

Did You Know?
Gregorio Allegri, composer of the popular choral work Miserere, was taught music by Palestrina.