Classical Music: Palestrina

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Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina was born in the town of Palestrina, in what is now Italy, on the 3rd of February, on either the third of February in the year 1525, or on the second of February in the year 1526. Palestrina was influenced largely in his early musical development by Guillaume Dufay and Josquin des Prez, the leading composers of the first and second Franco-Flemish schools of composition, respectively. He began his musical career as a singer in Rome in 1537, and spent most of his life in Rome. Palestrina was the first Italian composer of any real note, and he can be said to have founded the Roman school of music composition. Palestrina survived three bouts of the Black Death, but his brother died in the year 1572, two of his sons died in the year 1575, and his wife died in the year 1580, in those outbreaks of the bubonic plague. Although he considered becoming a member of the clergy, eventually he remarried a wealthy widow, which was to give him the financial freedom to devote the rest of his life wholly to composing music, and died on the second of February in the year 1594.

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina

Palestrina’s compositions are noted for their mature use of Renaissance polyphony, and he was to go on to influence the rest of the composers of the era who used the prima prattica (also called stile antico) method of composition. Palestrina left an enormous body of work: a hundred and five masses; sixty-eight offertories; a minimum of a hundred and forty madrigals; more than three hundred motets; at least seventy-two hymns; thirty-five magnificats; eleven litanies; and four or five sets of lamentations are known to have survived. His works drew the interest of composers such as Johann Sebastian Bach (Palestrina’s Missa Sine Nomine was the inspiration for the B Minor Mass of Johann Sebastian Bach) for hundreds of years after his death, and he is considered one of the finest composers of the Italian Renaissance. His fame continued until the rise of the Classical period, when he fell into relative obscurity; his reputation was resurrected in the early nineteenth century by music scholars, and continues to this day, where his techniques, codified in the book Gradus ad Parnassum by the eighteenth-century composer Johann Joseph Fux, serve as a modern study for musicological studies of the Renaissance. Palestrina’s works are regularly performed and recorded today.

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