French school of the second half of the 19th century
Oil on mahogany panel
65.5 x 51 cm
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina was born in Palestrina (Italy) in 1525, the city from which he takes the name. It was at the master's degree in Sainte-Marie-Majeure that he received his first music lessons.
From 1544 to 1551, he was organist and singing master of the cathedral of his birthplace. When his bishop becomes pope, the composer is called to Rome and becomes master of the chapel there, then a member of the pontifical heart. But, only a year later, the Pope died. His successor, Marcel II (who was only to reign for three weeks) demands that the singers of the papal chapel never write madrigals (plays on a secular subject) and that they never be married. Unfortunately for him, Palestrina fulfills all of these unwanted conditions. He therefore resigned and took over the management of the masters of Saint-Jean-de-Latran in 1555, for five years, after which he headed that of Sainte-Marie-Majeure.
The musician also teaches during this time on different occasions. In 1570, he agreed to resume his post as chapel master (at the Capella Giulia), but with a higher remuneration. Palestrina is tasked, after a few years, with amending the Gregorian repertoire, "distorted by centuries of abusive interpretations and clumsy copies". Unfortunately, due to the lack of original manuscripts, the attempt at reform collapsed after years of unsuccessful work.
Faced with criticism from the Protestant Reformers who denounce the corruption of the Church, the Catholic clergy reacted by bringing the Counter-Reformation back into line. This is not without consequences for religious music. At the Council of Trent (1543-1563) voices were raised against the complications to which the counterpoint had resulted. We are calling for a clearer understanding of the lyrics, or even a return to the simplicity of plainsong. How to save polyphony? By proving that it is not incompatible with the intelligibility of the text. This is what Palestrina achieves with a more homophone, airy and harmonious writing. The interpretation of his songs without instruments by the hearts of the Sistine Chapel is considered a model, hence the expression a cappella.
The composer suffered in turn the death of his wife, two sons and three brothers, in epidemics caused by wars. It was then that he obtained papal authorization to join the orders, but barely a year later he remarried a wealthy widow. Then came a period of ease during which he regularly published his works and enjoyed an excellent reputation. Always during these years of ease, he founded an organization for the defense of the professional interests of musicians. The composer wanted to return to his hometown, but he died suddenly before he could see Palestrina again on February 2, 1594.
While the masterpieces of his predecessors will be forgotten, Palestrina will continue to be interpreted and more and more appreciated for the calm serenity of his compositions, their vocal fullness which does not exclude the smoothness, the remarkable balance that he knows how to settle between words and counterpoint.
He becomes the very embodiment of a style that he has, in fact, only continued with genius. So much so that, until the end of the 19th century, he was considered by romantic artists as the father of Western religious music.
The subject of the composer Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina was treated at the Salon from the 1840s with no less than seven paintings, two watercolors and two engravings by artists such as Alcide Boichard (1844), Henri Baron (1847), Gustave Boulanger and Ferdinand Heilbuth (1857), Dominique-Antoine Magaud (1861), Hugues Merle (1861) or even Auguste de Pinelli (1863).