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Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina: Your Pop Quiz Cheat Sheet

Mordents Magazine presents some fun facts about celebrated Renaissance composer Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina – on his brief stint as a winemaker, poor singing, and post-plague contemplations of the priesthood.
“Today’s Special” (2007) by Linda Apple. Source:
  • Although he was “popularly” referred to as Palestrina (the name of his birth town), he always signed himself with his given name – Giovanni Petraloysio.
  • His earliest contact with music is reminiscent of fairy tales.
    As a boy, he used to sell products from his family farm on the streets of Rome and grace said streets with his songs.
    The choir master of Santa Maria Maggiore once heard him sing, and was so impressed that he offered to teach him music.
  • Palestrina was very picky – he resigned from a prominent position with St. John Lateran (a position which was previously assigned to Lassus) because he wasn’t satisfied with his food and with accommodation conditions that were offered for his choir boys.
    Furthermore, when the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian II offered him a place as imperial choirmaster in Vienna, he declined the offer because the terms of the job weren’t good enough. 
palestrine and pope julius III
Palestrina and Pope Julius in 1554. Source:
  • He was dismissed from the Papal Chapel:
    Firstly, even being appointed was controversial because he wasn’t in the Holy Orders  (a requirement to join the group), but the Pope appointed him because of his musical contribution to the Catholic church. It is said that numerous members weren’t happy with this decision because, by their standards, Palestrina wasn’t a very good singer. So, when the new Pope came, Palestrina was quickly dismissed with the explanation that he can’t continue to be member of Pope’s Choir because he was married. 
  • The composer married twice during his lifetime. His first marriage was to Lucrezia Gori, and they had two sons, Rodolfo and Angelo. His wife inherited a vineyard after her father died, so Palestrina sold sacramental wine to the church to make extra money.
  • He almost became a priest when his brother, wife, and two sons who died of the plague in the 1570s. But, he changed his mind, and a year after his wife died he remarried. 
  • His second wife, a wealthy widow, financed him, so he didn’t have to worry about money while creating music. He wasn’t a lazy man, he engaged in business to some extent: investing in real estate. He also took over her dead husband’s fur and ermine business, a fairly successful endeavor – they supplied ermine to the Papal court. 
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The composer’s statue, located at piazza regina Margherita in his hometown of Palestrina. Source:
  • He owned four houses, which he rented out to tenants.
  • “The Prince of Music” is how his contemporaries called him, because his music was “perfect”, sacred music. 
  • Giuseppe Verdi called him “the real king of sacred music, and the Eternal Father of Italian music.” 
  • Palestrina became known as “The Savior of Music” – allegedly, his Pope Marcellus Mass is the composition that prevented the Council of Trent from banning polyphonic music in church. However, that story is not true. (But his work is justifiably held as the perfect example of reformation style!)
  • His compositions became a permanent part of the repertoire of the Sistine Chapel, a most unusual practice at that time.