(excerpts from the book, Bach, Beethoven and the Boys by David Barber)
It might confuse you to learn that Palestrina is not a person but a place. The composer was actually named Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. At various times he was also known as Joannes Petrus-Aloysius Praenestinus, Joannes Praenestinus, Giovanni da Penestrina, Geo Pietro Luigi da Pallestrina, Gianetti Palestina, Gianetto del Palestino, Gio Petralosis Prenestrino and Gianetto Palestrina. Under the circumstances, Palestrina seems the least trouble.
He was born around 1525 to Santo and his wife Palme Pierluigi, in a little house in the Via Cecconi in the tiny village of Palestrina, outside Rome. When his paternal grandmother died she left him a mattress and some kitchen utensils. But since he was only two years old at the time they wouldn't have been much use to him.
Gianetto (as he was called then) was a happy, playful child who became an altar boy and sang in the local choir. When he was twelve he went to Rome to a choir school, where he was taught elementary composition and how to make spitballs. When he was 20 he got his first job as an organist back in his hometown. He married a girl named Lucrezia Gori, whose father had just died and left her some money (she also inherited a house, a vineyard, some meadows and a chestnut-colored donkey). Not long after, Giovanni Maria del Monte, the bishop of Palestrina, became Pope Julius III and moved to Rome. Julius showed his appreciation of local talent by appointing Palestrina director of St. Peter's choir. For this he was paid six scudi every month. This would mean more if we knew how much a scudo was worth, but we don't. Palestrina was later made a singer in that pontifical choir, even though he didn't have a very good voice (he was a tenor). His pay went up to ten scudi a month.
Julius died in 1555 and was replaced by Pope Marcellus II, who reigned for a grand total of three weeks. He died suddenly when he ate something that didn't agree with him. Marcellus II would hardly be worth mentioning except that Palestrina dedicated his Missa Papae Marcelli to him, thereby single-handedly saving the future of music forever. Well, that's what his biographer Giuseppe Baini says, and who are we to disagree with him?
It seems that church music at the time had gotten a little too racy and the new pope, Paul IV, called for it to be cleaned up. Composers had been using bawdy songs as the basis for their church music. Worst of all, no one could understand the words.
The story goes that some of the stuffier cardinals wanted to abolish polyphony altogether and get back to the basics with Gregorian chant. Palestrina showed that some of this music could be quite respectable. Evidently the cardinals fell for it.
Palestrina was by no means your typical artsy, head-in-the-clouds musician. He was a pretty shrewd businessman who sold barrels of sacramental wine to the church to make extra money. He wasn't very good at saving, though. When his son Angelo died suddenly, Palestrina had to borrow money to repay the bride's dowry, which he'd already spent.