'Palestrina’s historical reputation resembles that of no other composer in the history of music.’ So thunders Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Unfortunately for him, it’s true. As anyone who has ever taken a music exam knows, there has never been a more worshipped composer, nor a more studied one. It is less certain that there has never been a more influential composer – Beethoven and Wagner spring to mind, but even their style has never been dissected to within an inch of its life and held up as a perfect model for an entire period of musical history as Palestrina’s has. Nor did the most persuasive organisation on earth – the Catholic church – try to embalm the styles of Beethoven and Wagner and preserve them unaltered for future generations.

The end result of all this special pleading has been for recent generations to treat Palestrina’s music with suspicion. We do not like to be told what to admire, and it is part of our training to want to think outside the box of pedagogical certainties. Perhaps this is the place to say that in 40 years of performing little other than Renaissance polyphony myself, I have found Palestrina’s music to be consistently the best there is. If one needs a comparison it should be with JS Bach: both composers had such perfect techniques that their achievement and expression never dips below a certain level. You can’t say that about either Lassus or Handel. And to those who object that Palestrina’s style is too pristine to be expressive, where Bach was able to turn his counterpoint to many different ends, so Palestrina was capable of almost anything.

The myth of Palestrina is based on two misconceptions: that his style was born perfect, hardly varying from the first note to the last that he wrote; and that he was the ‘saviour of church music’. The ‘saviour’ story runs that Palestrina’s friend Marcello Cervini degli Spannochi, who became Pope Marcellus II, had for a long time been interested in reforming some of the church’s more out-of-date practices. One of his targets was the kind of polyphony which rambled on for pages without cadence, and in which the words were inaudible. It is said that he asked Palestrina to write a mass-setting which would show that concise music, which respected the words, could also be a great work of art. It is a nice irony that although the movements of the resulting Missa Papae Marcelli which have the most text, the Gloria and the Credo, were certainly set in a relatively syllabic (one note per syllable) way – and might have helped convince the Cardinals that polyphony could be retained in worship – the other movements were not. It is also typical of the kind of romanticising which Palestrina’s reputation underwent after his death that Hans Pfitzner, in his opera Palestrina (1917), used a motif from the Kyrie for the angels to dictate to the depressed composer – just the kind of music that was not wanted.

This romanticising has also affected our view of Palestrina’s compositional technique. It’s true that he had one of the most assured and consistent methods of composition in the history of Western music, but that is different from saying that it never developed. That’s just what writers about music were saying for centuries, however. In the great battle that followed Monteverdi’s invention of what came to be known as the ‘modern style’ (stile moderno), traditionalists clung ever more passionately to Palestrina’s version of the ‘old style’ (stile antico). By 1725, in Johann Fux’s enormously influential treatise Gradus ad Parnassum he was referred to as ‘the celebrated light of music… to whom I owe everything I know of this art and whose memory I shall never cease to cherish’. When I recently gave a lecture in the Tchaikovsky Conservatory of Music in Moscow on Palestrina, showing a copy of the most recent Western book on the subject – HK Andrews’s An Introduction to the Technique of Palestrina (1958) – the students said that more recent examples of this kind of book, but in Russian, were already on their reading list. No one else from the Renaissance period has come anywhere near to this kind of adulation.

Why Palestrina? The circumstantial answer is that his closeness to Rome throughout his life meant that the Catholic church, when under attack from the Reformation, could easily turn to him as a reliable and culturally familiar subject. Strangely, this put him in a unique position since he was more or less alone in the whole of Italy as a reputable composer of Italian birth. Every other composer of note working in Italy was either Flemish or Spanish. It wasn’t until the turn of the 17th century that so many native Italians found their voices and followed Monteverdi’s lead. Ironically in this context, Palestrina’s music was essentially the product of a Flemish training; nonetheless he was perfectly placed to represent a traditional Catholic style to the Cardinals. He spoke their language.

The musical answer is that by the middle of the 16th century, when he was about 40 and the Council of Trent was in full swing, Palestrina was already the master of everything that was useful in the musical language of his day. By careful study of a variety of writers, and an unswerving determination to build up a musical lexicon from the knowledge he had acquired, he was rapidly coming to represent a whole school of writing – in fact two whole schools, since there were few Flemish composers left in Italy who could rival him (Lassus was in Munich). Just as Bach had done when he copied out and reworked Vivaldi’s concerto for four violins, so Palestrina took Josquin’s motet Benedicta es and turned it into a parody mass: a more durable and up-to-date language was created out of the old one. And so Palestrina’s strength was in collecting and polishing, not as an innovator in the mould of Monteverdi.

No one has fully charted the way he did this, nor explained how he arrived so early at the idiom which would be so talked about for the next 450 years. The problem is that his music is difficult to date, and that’s especially true of his masses, which in their parody form give the best clue as to where he learnt his trade.

However it was achieved, by the middle of the century he had become fluent in all the essential techniques of Flemish composition, including imitation, canon and effective word setting, able to produce a large body of compositions in the assured idiom which underlay all the subsequent styles. His secular madrigals, an aspect of his work that has been almost completely ignored, follow the language of his sacred music and add little to the overall picture. But with the influence of the Counter-Reformation and, perhaps, his friend the future Pope Marcellus, his style slowly changed towards that desired idiom of shorter phrases and clearer word-setting.

In practice this meant a less contrapuntal method, and a more chordal one. Once again he showed no signs of sweating over the minutiae – the new music seemed to come seemlessly and wholly formed from what preceded it; but if there was a pivotal work it does seem to have been the Missa Papae Marcelli. I know of no other piece by Palestrina which includes the three prevailing methods of composition side by side: no-hurry imitative polyphony in the Kyrie, Sanctus and Agnus I; new-style chordal music in the Gloria and Credo; and the mathematical Agnus II. Like Tallis in very similar circumstances elsewhere, everything Palestrina wrote here sounds mature and focussed.

One of the pleasures in his writing is his ability to write engaging happy music. Many composers find it easier to set penitential texts than joyful ones: the language of affective dissonance comes readily to hand. It is much more difficult to sustain interest, for example, through a text of praise like a Magnificat or Psalm 150. But through carefully controlled sonority (the spacing of the voices in the final cadences, for instance) and an unusually clear polyphonic texture more generally, Palestrina keeps the listener fascinated. The classic example of this is the six-voice Tu es Petrus, with its ever more compelling shout at ‘claves regni caelorum’ (the keys of heaven). Another is the Magnificat Primi Toni for double choir, a work fully in the later homophonic style, indeed consisting almost entirely of chords, begging the question: how can a series of undecorated common chords be so interesting?

And even when he did turn to darker words, he tended to avoid the more obvious affective devices: wrenching dissonances and artfully placed chromaticisms. Palestrina preferred to maintain a luminous sound with his choir, through which the words could express themselves naturally. The mood in a piece like Tribulationes civitatum slowly builds as the complaint gains in intensity, nothing is forced. Furthermore, as a believing Catholic he always seemed to be looking for the positive side to a dark situation. Thus his ineffable Stabat mater ends not with the heavy spirit which has characterised most of its length, but in a blaze of glory.

Here, as in the Magnificat Primi Toni, and in countless other later works, the listener might well ask how a series of undecorated common chords can be so interesting. The answer is that in fact Palestrina didn’t need all that Flemish learning on which he relied in his youth – the codified style – but like every artist of genius could turn the simplest things to the greatest effect. In the end his music came to be the embodiment of simplicity – even though for generations it has been made to sound so reverend and involved.

Peter Phillips