It can be difficult to separate myth from reality in the life of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. He was one of the most highly acclaimed musicians of the sixteenth century, but was not the "Savior of Church Music." He did write a tremendous number of musical works, refining the very musical style of his time.
He did not single-handedly transmit The Way to Write Spiritual Music, but apparently he was a diligent and reasonably pious family man, hard-nosed in his business dealings and savvy in manipulating professional contacts. He was not a priest, though he once considered Holy Orders after losing a wife and two sons to the plague. The balance and elegant moderation of his music may derive more from conservative melodic and harmonic style than from divine mediation. But centuries after his death, Palestrina's music is still actively serving devotional needs across the world, and echoes of his first biographer's awe still cling to his name. Palestrina's life is generally well documented: He spent all of his career around Rome, working in churches with good archival records. His exact birth date remains unknown, but his age at death is given in a famous eulogy. Whether he was born in Rome or in the provincial town of Palestrina, "Gianetto" received his first musical training in Rome as choir boy at Santa Maria Maggiore by 1537. In 1544, he accepted a post as organist for the Cathedral of Palestrina. While there, he married Lucrezia Gori and met the future Pope Julius III (whom Palestrina honored with the dedication of his First Book of Masses). He returned to Rome in 1551, serving as Master of the Boys for the Vatican's Capella Giulia and then, at Pope Julius' instigation, singing in the Sistine Chapel. Fired by a later Pope because of his marital status, he quickly became choirmaster for Saint John Lateran (a job previously held by Lasso). The 1560s were a time of great professional development for Palestrina: He served the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, the Seminario Romano and the wealthy Cardinal Ippolito d'Este, published four more books of music, and turned down an offer to become chapelmaster for the Holy Roman Emperor. His last professional appointment was a long tenure (1571-1594) as master of the Capella Giulia in St. Peter's. In addition, he performed freelance work for at least 12 other Roman churches and institutions, managed his second wife's fur business, and invested in Roman real estate. Palestrina marketed his immense compositional output in nearly 30 published collections during his lifetime; many more of his roughly 700 works survive in manuscripts. He is best known for the 104 masses, though he composed in every other liturgical genre of his day, as well as nearly 100 madrigals. The polished reserve of his style helped fuel the myth first published in 1607 that his Pope Marcellus Mass was written to save polyphony from banishment in the church; the German theorist Fux enthroned his style for centuries to come in his 1725 Gradus ad parnassum.