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Giovanni Pierluigi di Palestrina

ew sounds rang through the old cathedrals: Lutheran chorales and Reformed Psalm-singing proclaimed the Protestants’ conviction that congregations should participate in worship as fully as possible. Yet simultaneously, composers faithful to Rome labored to craft gloriously intricate music through which they hoped to offer praise worthy of a God of infinite majesty. Of these latter, none was more famous, nor perhaps more masterful, than Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. 

“Palestrina” isn’t his last name, but a place name; the great composer is remembered by the city in which he was born around 1525. However, he spent most of his life employed as chorister, organist, composer, and music director in Rome, helping to shape the Catholic response to the Protestant Reformation. That theological conflict was necessarily a musical one as well, for Christian theology has always been sounded out in song. 

Describing the quality of a piece of music in words is a wonderful entrance to musical listening because it presses us to listen closely, make associations, and clarify perceptions.

Following the directions of the Council of Trent (often called the Catholic Counter-Reformation, but also a clear culmination of reform efforts within Catholicism), Catholic composers began to purify church music of influences from popular folk tunes and to prioritize clear presentation of liturgical texts. However, they continued to write for trained musicians rather than common churchgoers, preserving their emphasis on God’s (and the church’s) transcendent separateness. No one fulfilled these goals as fully or prolifically as Palestrina, who composed 104 masses, 70 hymns, and over 385 works in other genres of liturgical music, before his death in 1594