Palestrina's First Book of Madrigals for Four Voices

The First Book of madrigals for four voices was, chronologically speaking, the second work Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina published. It was printed in 1555 in Rome by the publishers and printers Valerio and Luigi Dorico. On the title page the composer refers to himself as “Cantore nella Capella di N[ostro] S[ignore]”, a title which in Rome at that time represented the highest position to which a musician might aspire. Pierluigi’s appointment as cantore pontificio officially took place on 13 January 1555 following the explicit wishes of Pope Giulio III, his benefactor. “absque ulo [sic] examine […] et absque consensus cantorum…”: the pontiff had thus imposed this decisions upon the Collegio dei cantor, disregarding the rules set down by the constitutions of the chapel and overriding the norms which he himself had established in the Motu proprio of 5 August 1553. The precise date of publication of this work is unknown, but the information on the title page, as well as a series of events which took place in the first half of that year, alow us to restrict the period.

On 30 July 1555, Palestrina was fired from the papal chapel on orders from Paul IV, ex-Cardinal Giovanni Pietro Garafa, who had become pope on 23 May following the deaths of Giulio III and his short-lived successor Marcello II Cervini. The pontiff, in a series of inspections aimed at correcting tic practices of the clergy and the institutions, disapproved of the presence of married singers in the chapel, since it broke the fundamental rule of celibacy which was a requirement of their participating legitimately in the liturgical rites even as readers of sacred texts. Paul IV, determined to apply rigorously the regulations of the papal chapel, issued at that time a Motu proprio by means of which be ordered the dismissal from the chapel of all cantor “uxorati”. The brief duration of Palestrina’s appointment as cantor pontificio thus allows us to limit the date of publication of his primo Libro di Madrigali to between 13 January and 30 July 1555. Nonetheless, we cannot establish whether Pierluigi was able to publish the madrigals in this period, or if the collection was instead issued later, after his dismissal. The work is dedicated to Bernardo Acciaioli, a Florentine banker residing in Rome, who, considering his economic position, certainly had a hand in the publication of the collection. In the dedication the cardinal of Capri is also cited: the reference o Rodolfo Pio, son of Lionello II and nephew of Alberto, an important figure in the Roman Curia both for his political activities and for those which he exercised as an educated man of culture and patron of the arts. The printed edition consists of four part-books, i.e., Canto, Alto, Tenore and Basso. Of the first edition only an incomplete Canto part-book is extant.


The work was moderately successful, as evidenced by the numerous reprints which were published in Venice over a period of fifty years (1555-1605). Eight different editions are currently known. Excluding the one from 1570 (Venice, Girolamo Scotto), mentioned by Baini, but now lost. The reprints are generally correct, in particular the first two (1568 and 1574) the printing of which was overseen by Claudio Merulo da Correggio. Merulo was musically active not only as a composer and organist but also as a printer and publisher, and his qualifications as a musician were perhaps a guarantee of superior quality in regard to other publishers in the revision and correction of music printing. The first six editions contain 21 madrigals, of which two are bipartite and the last (the Sestina) in six parts. Calculating the various parts, there is a total of 28 pieces; the number becomes 29 beginning with the anonymous texts might be the work of Pierluigi himself, especially nr. XXII (XXIII after 1594) Quai rime fur si chiare, an elegy to François Roussel, one of the composer’s predecessors as maestro of the Capella Giulia (from February 1548 to February 1550).

The poetic texts chosen by Pierluigi in his first madrigal collection do not, as a whole, greatly diverge from those selected by his contemporaries. The subject matter, based on the usual love themes, is not explicit and sensual enough to justify his famous repentance in the dedication to Gregory XIII or the Motettorum Quinque Vocibus Liber Quartus (Rome: Alessandro Gardano, 1584). This repentance, which Einstein called an act of pure hypocrisy is in reality more formal and opportunistic than sincere and disinterested, since two years later his Secondo Libro de’Madrigali a quatro voci appeared (Venice: heirs of G. Scotto, 1586), dedicated to Giulio Cesare Colonna, prince of Palestrina. Moreover, in the period between the publication of the two books of madrigals, works of his appeared in numerous madrigal anthologies. From a musical point of view this Primo Libro, a product of his youth, continues in the direction begun by Arcadelt and Festa “Roman” musicians who influenced Pierluigi’s artistic training in this genre. The madrigals seem to be a bit old-fashioned both stylistically and technically when compared to the harmonic, notational and expressive experimentation already present in contemporary works. Nonetheless, stylistic elements typical of Palestrina were evident – elements already admired by his contemporaries, as the many reprints demonstrate.

Giuliana Gialdroni 
Translation: Candance Smith

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