Chapter 8

Chapter 8: Sacred Music in the Era of the Reformation

Composer Biographies

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina

Born: c.1525, Palestrina, Italy

Died: February 2, 1594, Rome, Italy

Italian composer. Leading composer of the late Renaissance. Rose to prominence in the realm of sacred music.

Did Palestrina save church music? According to a legend repeated by various authors, and even made into an operatic plot in the early part of the twentieth century, he did! According to this myth, the members of the Council of Trent were poised to ban polyphonic music in the church. It was only after hearing a piece by Palestrina (often said to be the Pope Marcellus Mass) that they relented. While the story is not true, it reflects a real aspect of Palestrina's life: his commitment to sacred music and his keen interest in satisfying the desires of sixteenth-century church leaders. His Pope Marcellus Mass is justifiably held up as the perfect example of Counter-Reformation style.

Palestrina's career likewise reflects his commitment to the music of the church. He was born in the small town of Palestrina (outside of Rome) and received his early training and spent the great majority of his career in various churches in Rome, including the pope's chapel. His music was universally recognized as a model of clarity and balance, and theorists of the time constantly pointed to his pieces to illustrate their points. While he did write some secular madrigals, later in his life he renounced them (saying that he "blushed and grieved" over them) and began writing "spiritual madrigals"—pieces in the lighter style of the madrigal without the taint of a secular text.

We can hear all these elements when we listen to Palestrina's music. All the melodies within the contrapuntal web he creates are beautiful, balanced, and comfortable for the singer. The text is easy to understand, and each syllable almost always receives the proper stress and length. Finally, the overall sound is always pleasing and varied. Palestrina treats the various combinations of high and low voices in the same way that orchestral composers treat the instruments, allowing us to hear a wide variety of colors within a single piece. Palestrina's music is often considered "perfect" sacred music, and it is no surprise that his contemporaries often called him "The Prince of Music."


  • Sacred music, including 104 masses, more than 250 motets, some 200 liturgical pieces (psalms, Magnificats, hymns, etc.), and 50 spiritual madrigals.
  • Secular music, including nearly 100 madrigals

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Musical Examples

Click on the songs to listen:

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  • A Spiritual Biography
    The biographical entry on Palestrina from The Catholic Encyclopedia. This article wonderfully illustrates the place that his music has held within the Catholic Church and also explains the Council of Trent's views on sacred music.
  • A Musical Biography
    A biography from The Grove Concise Dictionary of Music. Includes a portrait of the composer and a brief bibliography for further study.
  • Palestrina's Roman Context
    The Music Room of the Library of Congress Exhibition Rome Reborn: The Vatican Library & Renaissance Culture. This site contains a great deal of information about the pope's chapel and includes a number of interesting images, including the opening page of Palestrina's Pope Marcellus Mass.
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