Palestrina's vast output of masses, motets and other sacred has provided the core of the church music repertory for four centuries. Generations of music students from the eighteenth century right up to the present day, have been taught counterpoint using his compositions as a basis. This remarkable man reached legendary status in the nineteenth century, when he was seen as the father of church music and stories of angels dictating his music to him were in common circulation.
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina was born in 1525 or 1526 in the hill-town of Palestrina near Rome, from where he took his name. As a child, he was a chorister in Rome and learnt much of his art from the musicians working in the great holy city. His first job was as organist and choirmaster back in his home-town, where he met the Bishop of Palestrina. This connection was to prove very useful to the composer, for when the Bishop was elected Pope, he took Palestrina to Rome with him and procured for him a very important job in the papal church of St. Peters. As well as serving as maestro di capella in the Capella Giulia of St. Peters, Palestrina also sang in the choir of the Sistine Chapel, even though married men were not normally permitted to serve there. Pope Julius IIIs influence was so great that Palestrina did not have to take the usual entrance examination. The pope clearly recognised Palestrinas extraordinary talents both as a composer and singer, but he also had something of a reputation for favouritism: as a gesture of gratitude to the fifteen-year-old who looked after his pet monkey, Julius made him a cardinal!
After Julius IIIs death, Palestrina never again enjoyed such a degree of favour from a pope. Indeed, when Paul IV became pope in 1555, he threw the composer out of the Sistine Chapel because he had decided to enforce the celibacy law that had been previously waived for Palestrina. Although times were never quite so easy for Palestrina again, he was by no means destitute. By this time, his reputation had spread across Italy and beyond, and he received numerous offers to leave Rome and work for rich patrons elsewhere. In 1568, Palestrina was offered a job by the court of Emperor Maximilian II in Vienna, but the deal fell through when the salary that Palestrina demanded was judged to be too high.
Music printing was a relatively recent invention in Palestrinas time, and he took advantage of the burgeoning market for published music by having more than half his own works published. His first book of masses, the first such volume to be printed by an Italian composer, is a mark both of how significant Palestrina was, and how much the Italian music scene was dominated by foreigners. In Rome and in Venice, the most important jobs were frequently held by Flemish and French composers, and the Italian composers of the time assimilated some of their techniques of composition. After his dismissal from the papal chapel, Palestrina published a large amount of his own music, to supplement the salaries he received from playing the organ in other Roman churches, and teaching music to students at the Seminary.
In 1571, he returned to his job at the Capella Giulia in St. Peters and was to remain there for the rest of his life, despite the job offers that continued to flood in his direction. The following ten years were a time of great personal tragedy for Palestrina, as a plague epidemic in Rome killed off his wife, his brother and two of his sons. After his wifes death, Palestrina made plans to become a priest, but instead remarried a rich merchants widow, thus freeing himself from financial hardship for life. When he died in 1594, he had even begun to think of returning to his native town, which would have created a perfect symmetry in his career, but his plans never came to fruition.
It was during these final years at St. Peters that Palestrina produced several great collections of sacred music, of which the Offertoria of 1593 was the last. In 1577, he had been asked to revise the chants used in the church, a very prestigious job that formed part of a series of liturgical reforms undertaken in the light of the Counter-Reformation. Other reforms included a revised set of texts for the mass including offertories. Palestrinas four large collections of liturgical music produced during his last decade used these new texts. They can be compared to the collections of English-language music written by Elizabethan composers when they had to provide music for the new services of the Book of Common Prayer.
The Offertoria is a collection of pieces to be sung at the offertory of the mass: the moment during the service when offerings both of bread and wine for the Eucharist, and of money for charity, were presented by the people. A specific offertory text for each Sunday of the year exists, and these are the texts set by Palestrina. Many of them come from the Psalms, and their words reflect on the theme of that Sundays worship. Even now, the moment of the offertory during the service in all Christian worship is accompanied by music: in the Anglican tradition, a hymn is often sung at this point. Palestrinas Offertoria was an unprecedented collection: no other composer had produced a complete set of offertories for the whole church year.
The Offertoria is regarded by many as one of Palestrinas greatest achievements. The combination of five voices is used throughout because of the richness and variety of texture that can be achieved. Unlike much of his music, these pieces are not based on plainchant melodies, but stem entirely from Palestrinas imagination. Less well-known than his hundred mass settings, they are nevertheless among his most beautifully crafted music.
(c) Helen Deeming