All eyes were directed to the young musician, for the very existence of his art was at stake. The motto of his first mass, “Illumina oculos meos,” shows the pious enthusiasm with which he undertook his labors. Instead of one, he composed three six-part masses. The third of these excited such admiration that the pope exclaimed in raptures, “It is John who gives us here in this earthly Jerusalem a foretaste of that new song which the holy Apostle John realized in the heavenly Jerusalem in his prophetic trance.” This is now known as the “mass of Pope Marcel,” in honor of a former patron of Palestrina.
A new pope, Paul IV., on ascending the pontifical throne, carried his desire of reforming abuses to fanaticism. He insisted on all the papal choristers being clerical. Palestrina had married early in life a Roman lady, of whom all we know is that her name was Lucretia. Four children had blessed the union, and the composer’s domestic happiness became a bar to his temporal preferment. With two others he was dismissed from the chapel because he was a layman, and a trifling pension allowed him. Two months afterward, though, he was appointed chapel-master of St. John Lateran. His works now succeeded each other rapidly, and different collections of his masses were dedicated to the crowned heads of Europe. In 1571 he was appointed chapel-master of the Vatican, and Pope Gregory XIII. gave special charge of the reform of sacred music to Palestrina.
The death of the composer’s wife, whom he idolized, in 1580, was a blow from which he never recovered. In his latter days he was afflicted with great poverty, for the positions he held were always more honorable than lucrative. Mental depression and physical weakness burdened the last few years of his pious and gentle life, and he died after a lingering and severe illness. The register of the pontifical chapel contains this entry: “February 2, 1594. This morning died the most excellent musician, Signor Giovanni Palestrina, our dear companion and maestro di capella of St. Peter’s church, whither his funeral was attended not only by all the musicians of Rome, but by an infinite concourse of people, when his own ‘Libera me, Domine’ was sung by the whole college.”
Such are the simple and meagre records of the life of the composer, who carved and laid the foundation of the superstructure of Italian music; who, viewed in connection with his times and their limitations, must be regarded as one of the great creative minds in his art; who shares with Sebastian Bach the glory of having built an imperishable base for the labors of his successors.