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Palestrina: The Savior of Western Music?

Updated on March 28, 2013

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina

Portrait of Italian Renaissance Composer Palestrina
Portrait of Italian Renaissance Composer Palestrina | Source


Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525/1526-1594) was an Italian Renaissance composer who was primarily known for writing masses and motets. He spent most of his life working for the Catholic church although towards the end of his life he was able to publish a lot of his own music (largely thanks to marrying his second wife, a wealthy widow). During his time Palestrina's music was highly regarded, and his legend grew considerably once he died.

Palestrina had a tremendous impact on the history and development of music. However, a large part of Palestrina's musical accomplishments are overshadowed by a story about him and the Catholic Church.

After Palestrina's death, rumors began to circulate that he was responsible for saving polyphonic music from condemnation by the Council of Trent. As a result, history often refers to Palestrina as being the savior of polyphony, or the savior of church music, or even the savior of Western music. To understand how he obtained this reputation some background information is needed first.

Musical Background

There are some musical definitions that are important to understanding the significance of Palestrina's legend. These definitions are:

Tonal Harmony - the simultaneous use of pitches to form chords and chord progressions that have a tonal center.

Homophony - a group of musical voices that mostly move together rhythmically.

Polyphony - a group of musical voices that mostly move independently of each other rhythmically.

In the history of Western music, broadly speaking, tonal harmony, arose from homophony, which arose from polyphony. It is possible to conclude from this statement that the foundations of tonal harmony ultimately arose from polyphony.

The theory behind tonal harmony is still used widely today and is the basis of most of the harmonies people hear today. The use of tonal harmony is not just limited to using harmony in classical music, but it includes using harmony in Jazz, Latin, and Rock music amongst many others.

The Council of Trent

Portrait depicting a meeting with the Council of Trent
Portrait depicting a meeting with the Council of Trent | Source

Historical Background

It is also important to understand the events that were occurring during Palestrina's life and the major historical event that was effecting Palestrina's life was the Reformation of the Church.

In 1545 members of the Catholic church began to meet in the northern Italian town of Trento. The purpose of the these meetings was to discuss the Protestant reformation that had been underway since the earlier part of the 16th century, and to plan a counter-reformation to slow Protestant growth. However, these meetings, which continued until 1563, included the discussion of a large variety of topics related to the Church, and this happened to include church music.

In regards to church music there were members of the Catholic Church at the Council of Trent that wanted to do away with polyphony, the primary musical compositional style of Renaissance church music and refer back to writing chant.

Note: Chant is setting church music to melodies where everybody sings the same musical part, in short there are no harmonic implications or possibilities.

The primary reason the Church wanted to do away with polyphony was due to the fact that the text in the music was difficult to understand with all of the rhythmically independent voices.

The Legend

During the long Council of Trent sessions Palestrina worked primarily as a choir master or organist in Rome. While in Rome he spent time working at the Julian Chapel at St. Peter's, at St. John Lateran's, and at Santa Maria Maggiore's.

During Palestrina's time in Rome it's believed some of the attendees at the Council of Trent (when they were not in session) mentioned to Palestrina that the Church was planning on condemning polyphony because it made it difficult to understand the sacred texts in polyphonic music. In response to this Palestrina argued that it was not the fault of polyphony that the sacred texts were not being understood, but rather it was the fault of composers. To prove his point he wrote the Missa Papae Marcelli (The Pope Marcellus Mass).

At some point Palestrina had the Pope Marcellus Mass performed for certain members of the Council of Trent. It was this performance that convinced the Council not to condemn polyphony but to have composers write music in the new style Palestrina created (this new style incorporated a lot of what history would later called homophony).

Questions? And How the Legend Spread

Despite what was said in the legend surrounding Palestrina, the only written statement from the Council of Trent regarding Church music is the following:

"Let them keep way from the churches compositions in which there is an intermingling of the lascivious or impure, whether by instrument or by voice."

This is a very open ended statement by the Church and it basically allowed the bishops to regulate how Church music was going to be written in their region. With no specific mention of Palestrina by the Council of Trent it cannot be determined whether or not they heard the Pope Marcellus Mass, and thus it could not have convinced them not to condemn polyphony.

The Pope Marcellus Mass also wasn't published until 1567, four years after the Council of Trent meetings concluded. It was published as a part of Palestrina's second book of masses, so it is possible that he may have written the mass earlier and shelved it until he finished writing the rest of the masses that would go into that publication. This would allow the writing of the mass to time up with the final years the Council was meeting, but it is still highly unlikely he finished writing the mass while the Council was in session. Due to the Pope Marcellus Mass being published four years after the Council of Trent it is more likely that the Mass was written after the Council concluded session, and thus could not have had an impact on the Council's decision to not abolish polyphony.

If it is assumed that Council did not hear the mass than, the story regarding Palestrina saving polyphony would most likely be an exaggerated story. The earliest known claim to the Palestrina legend was written in a treatise by Agostino Agazzari in 1607. Agazzari asserts in the treatise that Palestrina was the person responsible for saving polyphonic music from condemnation. Agazzari's treatise was also influential in spreading the legend as his treatise was published in Italy and Germany, allowing it to spread from there.

The legend of Palestrina continued to spread through time being reinforced most notably by 19th century Catholic Priest Giuseppi Baini who wrote a highly influential book on Palestrina's life and music. Today it is widely believed Baini's account on Palestrina and the Council of Trent is highly exaggerated, although it is still very important in convincing people in modern times that the legend was true. To this day no concrete evidence has been found to suggest that Palestrina was directly responsible for saving polyphony.

What most likely happened was Palestrina heard that the Catholic Church wanted new music to be written where the text could be understood, so he wrote the Pope Marcellus Mass to demonstrate this could still be done while using multiple different musical voices.

A sculpture of Palestrina
A sculpture of Palestrina | Source

Palestrina's Legacy

Although it is most likely that Palestrina was not directly responsible for stopping a proposed ban on polyphony, he still had a considerable impact on the history of music. It is unfortunate that Palestrina's musical accomplishments have been overshadowed by the legend surrounding him and the Council of Trent.

The Pope Marcellus Mass ushered in a new style of writing music, called the Palestrina Style which incorporated homophony in its sound. The use of homophony was a big innovation for writing music, and Palestrina was one of this style's earliest champions.

The Palestrina Style was widely taught and written about after his death, with one of the most notable books being written by Johann Joseph Fux which was called Gradus ad Parnassum (a very influential book in musical pedagogy and counterpoint). Today Palestrina's style of writing music is still taught in many college level music courses and his music is widely used as the basis for learning 16th century counterpoint.

It is for the above mentioned reasons that Palestrina went down in history as the first composer in classical music's history to be continuously preserved and maintained since the time he died. Other composers before Palestrina had to be rediscovered by musical historians, but Palestrina's musical legacy has continued on to this day for over 400 years.


A History of Western Music - Burkholder

Palestrina - Pope Marcellus Mass - Lewis Lockwood

Other Articles About The History of Classical Music

Below are some other articles I have written about the history and development of classical music.

Philippe de Vitry and the Ars Nova

This article explores the Ars Nova movement in 14th century France that was presumably started by Philippe de Vitry. The Ars Nova movement would see the development of modern rhythmic notation and have a tremendous impact on the way music is notated today.

The Beginning of Modern Music: Leonin and Perotin

Leonin and Perotin were two of the earliest composers to have their compositions documented. These two composers would help establish polyphony as a preferred style of composition, and they provided a strong starting point for the beginning documentation of the history of Western music.

The Early History of the Symphony: Origins and Evolving Structure

This article explores the early days of the symphony in classical music. It's rise from being a short orchestral overture to becoming the pinnacle of instrumental music has made it one of the most popular genres of classical music listened to today.


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    • Frances Metcalfe profile image

      Frances Metcalfe 

      3 years ago from The Limousin, France

      Exactly the type of article I like to read, very informative, telling me facts I don't know. Have the Miss Papa Marcellus, clear and beautiful like a mountain tarn. I think of him as the sweeter Stradivarius sound to Tallis's Guarnarius more gutteral tone.


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