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Giuseppe Baini
Memorie storico-critiche
della vita e delle opere di
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina

(Rome: Società tipografica, 1828)

Giuseppe Baini, Memorie storico-critiche della vita e delle opere di Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina

Following the rise of the Baroque style in the 17th century, the strict vocal polyphony of Palestrina and his contemporaries went out of fashion. Most church music of any ambition was equipped with independent parts for keyboard or other instruments, and it often featured virtuosic solo singing and other techniques borrowed from opera. A few churches, however, strove to retain the old style (or stile antico, in Italian), and the Sistine Chapel Choir was the most prominent of these. By the 19th century, the Choir was widely admired as the last surviving link to the otherwise lost “purity” of a bygone age. Its mystique owed less to the quality of its performances than to its history, the extraordinary art and architecture of the Chapel, and some colorful and frequently repeated stories. For example, the score of the most celebrated piece in its repertoire, Gregorio Allegri’s “Miserere,” was said to be kept secret under penalty of excommunication, but in 1770 the 14-year-old Mozart circumvented the ban by notating it from memory. (The Choir was a living fossil in another respect; it employed castrati until 1913, a century after they had vanished from opera houses and most other churches.)

Giuseppe Baini (1775–1844) joined the Choir in 1795, and served as its director from 1819 until his death. He was also in charge of the Choir’s archives, a position that facilitated his historical research. In 1828 he published the Memorie storico-critiche della vita e delle opera di Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, the first biography of a Renaissance composer. (It was followed in 1834 by Carl von Winterfeld’s biography of Giovanni Gabrieli.) Baini portrayed Palestrina as a heroic figure who saved Catholic church music from being banned in the Counter-Reformation, and as the apex of music history: Palestrina’s predecessors were preoccupied with unnaturally complex counterpoint, Baini argued, and his successors were decadent and suspiciously secular. Although the book is one-sided and not always historically reliable, it brought to light a wealth of new information and helped foster increased interest in the music of the Renaissance.

Franz Sales Kandler translated the Memorie storico-critiche into German, but he died before it could be published. Raphael George Kiesewetter edited his work for publication, which took place in 1834. More Germans than Italians were interested in Palestrina, so the translation was probably more influential than the original. The German edition differs from the Italian in more than just language; hundreds of biographical footnotes were removed from the main text and placed in an appendix.

The full text of another copy of Volume 1 and Volume 2 of this book is available online.

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