Friday, February 2, 2024

Today, on the Christian History Almanac, we remember the “savior of church music,” Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina.

It is the 2nd of February 2024. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac, brought to you by 1517 at; I’m Dan van Voorhis.


Spend any time in a church, and it will become apparent that some of the most important and controversial issues will surround the place of music. Too new? Too old? Too loud? Not loud enough?

And this is 1. No surprise, given humans’ propensity to both enjoy music and complain about it. 2. It is interesting that what we know about church music, historically, is relatively little compared to other fields in church history.

We know the early church sang, but without recordings nor a standardized method of recording melodies in print, we can only guess. In the 4th century, Ambrose introduced instruments and antiphonal singing in the West (borrowing from Basil in the Eastern church). By the time of Pope Gregory in the 6th century, the music apparently got out of hand, and plainsong (literally plain singing- one line of melody) would be the prescribed music in the West. By the time of the Renaissance, the trouble makers were back at it- polyphony (multiple melody lines sung on top of it) was all the rage, and ornate “contemporary” styles were threatening the sanctity of worship (or some argued). Rumor had it that the Council of Trent in the Post-Reformation Catholic Church was going to ban music or at least restore the old plain song.

And, according to the story, in came the “savior of church music,” the man Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, perhaps born on the 2nd of February in 1526 (we know he definitely died on the 2nd of February in 1594). His proper name is Giovanni Pierluigi- he was from Palestrina in Italy. As a young boy, he was sent to Rome to sing in the boy's choir and study music. By 1544, he was back home in Palestrina, where he served as the choirmaster for the church that was attended by the local bishop. In 1550, that bishop would become Pope Julius III, and he would invite Palestrina to become the choirmaster responsible for the music at St. Peter’s Basilica. This was curious because he was married, and traditionally, the choirmaster was ordained and thus not allowed to marry. This wasn’t a problem until the Pope died and the new Pope Marcellus was coronated. But Pope Marcellus would die 22 days into his term and be replaced by the even more stern Pope Paul IV, who dismissed Palestrina from his role.

[Palestrina would write his Mass for Pope Marcellus- a piece that would be played at every subsequent Papal coronation and is considered one of his best works.]

He gained renown as an organist and composer. His first book of masses was published before he was 30.

He would move to be a choirmaster at St. John’s Lateran and then Santa Maria Maggiore, as well as a teacher at the new Roman Seminary.

It was during the last sessions of the Council of Trent that the Catholic Church turned to questions regarding the liturgy. There were some who believed that the “music was becoming too attractive,” that is, ornate and difficult to follow. There were calls for banishing music from the service and making plainsong the only permitted form of church music.

Enter Palestrina. His music was elegant, simple, and sonorous. Despite being written for choirs with many parts the words were discernible. “In the style of Palestrina” became the watchword for appropriate baroque church music. In 1725, Johann Joseph Fux codified the Palestinian style in his textbook “Gradus Ad Parnassum,” the book used to teach Mozart, Beethoven, and Hayden, among others. Palestrina didn’t just mythically “save” church music but established the primary model for all instrumental music in the future.

Palestrina would be invited back to the Julian choir at St. Peter’s Basilica in 1571 and would turn down offers from the Emperor and other nobility to become a court choir master and spent the last decades of his life producing an astonishing 105 masses and more than 250 motets. Sometimes called the “Prince of Music” or the “Father of Modern Church Music,” Palestrina died in 1594, also on the 2nd of February. Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, perhaps born on this, but certainly died on the 2nd of February in 1525, was 68 years old.


The last word for today is from the daily lectionary, from Psalm 147, and the Scottish Metrical Psalter.

1  Praise ye the Lord; for it is good

        praise to our God to sing:

     For it is pleasant, and to praise

        it is a comely thing.

  2  God doth build up Jerusalem;

        and he it is alone

     That the dispersed of Israel

        doth gather into one.

  3  Those that are broken in their heart,

        and grievèd in their minds,

     He healeth, and their painful wounds

        he tenderly up-binds.

  4  He counts the number of the stars;

        he names them ev'ry one.

  5  Great is our Lord, and of great pow'r;

        his wisdom search can none.


This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 2nd of February 2024, brought to you by 1517 at

The show is produced by a man who reminds you that if the music is getting too loud, you’re getting too old; he is Christopher Gillespie.

The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis da San Bernardino.

You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.

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