Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (c.1525 – 1594)
It is rarely disputed that the greatest Catholic composer of all time was Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. He was born in the town of Palestrina, near Rome around 1525, and became a chorister at the Saint Mary Major basilica early in his career. He was to spend most of his life in the Eternal City.
Palestrina came of age as a musician under the influence of the northern European style of polyphony, which owed its dominance in Italy primarily to two influential Netherlandish composers, Guillaume Dufay and Josquin des Prez. Italy itself had yet to produce anyone of comparable fame or skill in polyphony.
His first published compositions, a book of Masses, made such a favourable impression on Pope Julius III (previously the Bishop of Palestrina) that he appointed Palestrina musical director of the chapter of canons at St. Peter’s Basilica.
Palestrina held other prominent positions in Rome, most notably at St. John Lateran, (a post previously held by Lassus) and at St. Mary Major. He later returned to St. Peter’s and remained there for the rest of his life. After losing two of his sons and his wife to the plague, he considered becoming a priest, but instead he remarried, to a wealthy widow. This finally gave him financial independence (he was not well paid as choirmaster) and he was able to compose prolifically until his death in 1594.
Palestrina left hundreds of compositions, including 105 masses, 68 offertories, at least 140 madrigals and more than 300 motets. In addition, there are at least 72 hymns, 35 Magnificats, 11 litanies, and four or five sets of lamentations – an incredible body of work that earned him the title of the ‘Prince’ of Composers. It is important to note that Palestrina was given special mention by Pope St. Pius X in his 1903 document Tra la Sollecitudini as the exemplar of the Roman School of Polyphony – which has 1st place after Gregorian Chant as the preferred musical form for the sacred liturgy.
To listen to some of Palestrina’s Polyphonic Masses and access sheet music along with midi files, click on a link below…
William Byrd (c.1540 – 1623)
William Byrd studied music principally under the great English composer Thomas Tallis. Byrd went on to become the most distinguished and prolific composer of his time in England – often being called the ‘English Palestrina’.
Byrd lived and worked amidst the tumultuous times of the English reformation. It is remarkable that in spite of Byrd working in the Royal Chapel, he kept his Catholic Faith under harrowing conditions during the reigns of Queen Elizabeth and James I. In his last will and testament he prays:
“…that I may live and die a true and perfect member of the Holy Catholic Church without which I believe there is no salvation for me.”
There can be no doubt that Byrd’s beautiful Masses for three, four and five voices were sung in the secret ‘recusant’ Catholic chapels at a time when Catholic sacred music was banned in England under penalty of imprisonment!
To listen to Byrd’s Masses for 3, 4 & 5 Voices and access sheet music along with midi files, click on a link below…
Tomás Luis de Victoria (c.1548 – 1611)
Tomás Luis de Victoria was the most famous composer in 16th-century Spain, and was one of the most important composers of the Counter-Reformation, along with Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina and Orlando de Lassus – he is sometimes known as the ‘Spanish Palestrina’.
Victoria was not only a composer, an accomplished organist, and a singer, but was also a Catholic priest. His sacred compositions are often understood as reflecting the mysticism and spirituality of St. Teresa of Avila – who was in Avila during the same time period as Victoria and knew him from his youth.
Philip II of Spain sent Victoria to prepare for Holy Orders in Rome where he most likely studied with Palestrina. Whilst in Rome he assisted St. Philip Neri as a chaplain. He also became chaplain to the pious dowager empress Maria – widow of the former Holy Roman emperor Maximilian II. Maria was to enter the Royal Convent in Madrid, Spain and Victoria also returned to Spain becoming the Chaplain (and organist) to the convent. St. Teresa was also connected to the Royal Convent being its patroness.
Victoria’s works include 21 masses and 44 motets that are among the finest of the period. He also wrote psalm settings, hymns, several Magnificats, four offices for the dead, and music for Holy Week services, including two Passions, the Improperia, and the Lamentations of Jeremiah. His final work was his Requiem in memory of the empress Maria.
To listen to Victoria’s Missa O Quam Gloriosum and access sheet music along with midi files, click on the link below…
Thomas Tallis (c.1505 – 1585)
Thomas Tallis was one of the most important English composers of sacred music before William Byrd. His style encompassed the simple Reformation service music and the great European polyphonic schools. He served in the Royal Chapel under Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary Tudor, and Elizabeth I.
Although the Catholic Mass was previously supressed in England, it was restored with the ascent of the Catholic Mary Tudor to the throne in 1553. The following year Mary married Phillip II of Spain and the country was once again under Catholic rule. Phillip also ascended the Spanish throne in 1556 but tragically when Queen Mary died in 1558 leaving no heir – the English throne passed to the illegitimate daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn – the Protestant Elizabeth I.
Under Elizabeth the Mass was again suppressed along with all Catholic sacred music. Tallis, who had written (amongst others) a Mass to mark the arrival of Phillip II of Spain to England was now on Elizabeth’s payroll. He was henceforth required to write music for the new English services, but like his student and collaborator William Byrd – Tallis remained a ‘recusant’ Catholic. He may have been allowed this indulgence due to his indispensable talent.
Elizabeth granted Tallis and Byrd a monopoly for printing music and music paper in England – the first instance of letters of patent issued for that purpose. The first publication under their license was a collection of 34 motets, 17 by Tallis and 17 by Byrd.
Tallis’ Latin works modestly include a 4-part mass, a 5-part mass, a 7-part mass, and two settings of the Magnificat. He also made two settings of the Lamentations of Jeremiah, the first of which is among his most-celebrated works. Among his Latin pieces two in particular are often cited as demonstrations of Tallis’s supreme mastery of the art of counterpoint – the 7-part Miserere nostri, an extraordinary feat of canonic writing, and the famous 40-part Spem in Alium, considered a unique monument in English music.
To listen to Tallis’ Mass for 4 Voices and access sheet music along with midi files, click on the link below…
Orlando de Lassus (c.1532 – 1594)
Orlando de Lassus was a Netherlandish composer who became one of the three most famous and influential composers in Europe at the end of the 16th century – the other two being Palestrina and Victoria.
By the time Lassus was 21 he was appointed to the prestigious post of choirmaster of the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome. However, he stayed there for only one year and was in fact replaced by Palestrina.
Upon leaving Rome, Lassus was taken into the employ of the Duke of Bavaria, Albert V – a leader in the German counter reformation. Lassus settled down in Munich where he stayed for the rest of his life.
Lassus received outstanding honours in his lifetime including a knighthood from Pope Gregory XIII and being raised to the class of nobility by the Holy Roman emperor Maximilian II.
Lassus’ productivity as a composer was unsurpassed, writing over 2,000 works in all of the Latin, French, Italian and German vocal genres known in his time. Almost 60 of his polyphonic Masses have survived complete.
To listen to Lassus’ Missa Octavi Toni and access sheet music along with midi files, click on the link below…