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Johann Sebastian Bach and Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina

Johann Sebastian Bach and Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina


The two composers I will be discussing are: Johann Sebastian Bach, and Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. Their pieces: Jesu, meine Freude, 1723 and Missa Papae Marcelli: Gloria, 1567. I chose these pieces because they are both sacred pieces, which allows a more accurate comparison between the styles of the two composers.


 Johann Sebastian Bach:

Johann Sebastian Bach was born on March 21st, 1685, in Germany. Specifically, in Eisenach. He was the last (known) child to his mother, as well, he was the eighth chid in his family. His first name originates due to it being a common family name, his middle name, from his main godparent: Sebastian Nagel. (Williams P. F., 2007)

At the time Bach was born, his father, Johann Ambrosius Bach, had been the director of the municipal music in Eisenach for fourteen years (Williams P. F., 2007, p. 9)  (Williams P. , 2016). Bach’s father was often praised as an effective musical director. This already gives Bach a very strong musical background.

Through Bach’s life, he learned many compositional techniques over his travels and through listening to other composers. He managed to take the styles that he’d heard played and mix them with his own to create music that was incredibly versatile. (Williams P. F., 2007)

Bach passed away on July 28th, 1750, the same year as the end of the Baroque period. His death essentially marking the end of it.

 Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina:

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina was born on February 3rd, 1525, in Italy. He was taken to Rome as a child, where he had listed as a choirboy, and eventually became the organist of the principal church in St. Agapito. After a year, he became what was known as maestro di cappella, at the Julian Chapel. Palestrina published a book of masses and had shown it to Pope Julius III. The Pope had received I so well that Palestrina was appointed the musical director of the Julian Chapel. (Palestrina, n.d.)

Palestrina also kept positions that were like the one he kept in the Julian Chapel in other churches in Rome for around a decade. After this decade, Palestrina returned to the Julian Chapel to his same position. (Palestrina, n.d.)

1570-1580 Was a tough time for Palestrina, as he began to lose many family members: His brother, his two sons, and his wife. All lost through instances of the plague. He later remarried to a wealthy woman, where he could compose until his death, on February 2nd, 1594. (Palestrina, n.d.) (Giovanni Pierluigi Da Palestrina, n.d.)


 Bach and the Baroque:

Johann Sebastian Bach had composed entirely in the Baroque period, ranging from about 1600-1750. His lifespan was perfectly within this period. A note on the musical styles of the period is that the harpsichord was a very large part of the music composed, likewise a strong cello. The custom was to use what is known as basso continuo. Which is essentially a strong bass line. Cellos were often used for this, hence the strong cello use. The baroque period also introduced time signatures along with keys (major and minor). The Baroque period had some movements within it with the Council of Trent having decided that all of the arts should have religious themes. The Baroque period itself is also a very grand period, where the arts, and architecture all had a sense of grandeur to it, which also influenced the musical styles of the period. (The Baroque Period, n.d.)

 Palestrina and the Renaissance:

Giovanni Pierluigi Da Palestrina was a composer in the Renaissance period, which ranged from about 1400-1600. Since Palestrina grew up with the Church as a part of the choir, he learned to write music for the masses and for the different settings, considering the rule of the Church, Palestrina had to maintain a similar style as to that which was established already by the Church. The period saw the development of instrumental music, which originally started out as individual sections being played alone, but slowly expanded into more combined sections, which eventually leads down the line to the orchestral ensembles we see in the Baroque period. (Estrella, 2018)

Compositional Styles:


Having grown up in the baroque period, Bach’s compositional style lies very much so in using the full orchestra, or a chamber sized ensemble, utilizing mainly the harpsichord as a keyboard instrument to settle with the strings. Bach is rather known for utilization of the harpsichord. Bach is known to use a combination of styles in his compositions, some include French or Italian compositional styles. He also has used the styles of other composers like Georg Böhm. Bach had gained these styles through simply listening and to the music of or learning from other famous composers during his travels. (Williams P. , 2016) Like previously mentioned, the baroque period has a strong use of basso continuo, a strong bassline. Listening to Jesu, meine Freude, 1723, a cello is audible behind the vocals and grows louder as the piece goes on, eventually also providing a sixteenth spiccato phrase which brings fourth an energy into the piece. Time signatures were also brought into pieces, while listening to Jesu, meine Freude, 1723, a notable time signature does not seem present, but bar lines are (which are also new to the Baroque period). Bach had also both studied and performed Palestrina’s Missa Sine nomine while he was writing his Mass in B Minor. This provides some room to say that Bach had learned from Palestrina and adapted his style for his sacred music. (Palestrina, n.d.)


Palestrina, having been composing from the renaissance period, developed a compositional style reflecting that. Most of his music lied in the style of Sacred music as he had grown up in the Church choir. This influenced his writing as he was to keep the music he had written similar in nature to that of what was already defined in the Church for mass settings. Listening to Missa Papae Marcelli: Gloria, 1567, the first thing to note is the nod to plainchant, where it starts as just a solo voice and then moves expands into the rest of the choral group (of approximately 6 people). Palestrina often used polyphony in his masses, it is said that his polyphonic treatment of sacred texts was to prove to the Council of Trent that banning polyphony for these sacred texts was not needed. (Palestrina, n.d.)

Musical Analysis:

Jesu, meine Freude, 1723 (00:00 – 01:26)

00:00-01:10 Largo
01:10-01:30 Moderato
Rhythmic Grouping: Free rhythm
Conjunct/Disjunct Conjunct (all time sections)
Melodic Contour
00:00-00:06 Down
00:06-00:20 Up
00:20-00:29 Down
00:29-00:43 Up
00:43-00:50 Constant
00:50-01:00 Up
01:00-01:10 Down
01:10-01:20 Constant
01:20-01:26 Down
Register Lead vocals are in a high register, while the accompaniment is at a lower register. (Applies to all sections of the song)
Range Wide
Number of Instruments 5 Voices, Cello
Instrument Groupings 5-piece choir, Cello
Technical Aspects No specific playing styles.
Acoustic/Synthetic Acoustic
Maj, Min, Atonal, Modal? Minor
Monophonic, Homophonic, Polyphonic? Polyphonic
Volume Variable: from p-f
Volume Level
00:00-00:20 mf
00:20-00:40 mf  f
00:40-01:00 mm
01:00-01:30 mf  p  f
Volume Relation Female vocalist is mostly at the top of the mix, so she can always be heard carrying the melody over the other vocalists.
Variation Rate Overall, through the piece, the changes in dynamics are gradual, taking roughly 2-3 seconds to go from mf – f. Though there are times where it can go from p – f within a single second.
Interpretation Overall, the piece carries a tone of dread and mourning. Gives the listener the image of a funeral/funeral procession.


Missa Papae Marcelli: Gloria 1567 (00:00 – 01:30)

Tempo: Largo
Rhythmic Grouping: Free rhythm
Conjunct/Disjunct Conjunct (all time sections)
Melodic Contour Harder to specifically pinpoint in this mass. Overall it remains more constant and doesn’t move as much.
Register Mid-High
Range Wide
Number of Instruments Choral Ensemble
Instrument Groupings Choir
Technical Aspects The piece seems to feel similar to that of a plainchant, whereas there isn’t an offset in the entrances and
Acoustic/Synthetic Acoustic
Maj, Min, Atonal, Modal? Modal
Monophonic, Homophonic, Polyphonic? Monophonic
Volume Ranging from mp-f
Volume Level
00:00-00:07 mp
00:07-00:12 mp  mf
00:12-00:26 mf  f


f  mm
00:32-00:42 mm  f
00:42-01:10 f
01:10-01:23 mp
01:23-01:30 mp  f
Volume Relation All voices maintain a similar volume overall and complement each other throughout the piece
Variation Rate Variation rate is gradual, taking decent amounts of time to both crescendo and decrescendo.
Interpretation Overall, the piece carries a joyous tone as it is sacred, and giving praise to God.

Comparison of Styles:

Bach uses a combination of many styles established by other composers, and even styles used in other countries. Bach also remains true to the roots of the music from the Baroque period, maintaining the rigid structure it had defined, along with sacred music also maintains this style, so while the music does have the feeling of it being sacred, it also presents that chamber feel. As well, in his sacred music, Bach uses an orchestra to compliment the vocals, while Giovanni doesn’t. Of course, this is also due to the periods that they wrote in. Bach for baroque, and Giovanni for renaissance. Using the orchestra was a big part of the Baroque period, especially since it was at this point where major and minor keys were established. These keys made writing for instruments other than voices possible. Palestrina only used vocals in his pieces. This stemmed from his childhood, being a part of the choir for masses, which influenced his compositional styles to maintain a similar style as to that of what the Church wanted.


In summary, though the periods of both Bach and Palestrina may be drastically different, along with the movements and events occurring in them, their musical styles do share some common ground, indicating that not all of what was in the Renaissance period was lost when moving over into the Baroque period. In fact, a lot was added onto the music from the age as well. The transition from Renaissance to Baroque was an important one in defining a large characteristic in the music we hear today, theory wise.


  • Bach, J. S. (1723). Jesu, meine Freude, BWV 227 [Recorded by S. B. Ensemble].
  • Estrella, E. (2018, March 26). Music Forms and Styles of the Renaissance. Retrieved from ThoughtCo:
  • Giovanni Pierluigi Da Palestrina. (n.d.). Retrieved from Naxos:
  • Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. (2004). In Encyclopedia of World Biography (pp. 70-72).
  • Palestrina. (n.d.). Retrieved from 8notes:
  • Palestrina, G. P. (1567). Missa Papae Marcelli: Gloria [Recorded by O. Camerata].
  • The Baroque Period. (n.d.). Retrieved from LumenLearning:
  • Williams, P. (2016). Bach: A Musical Biography. Cambridge University Press.
  • Williams, P. F. (2007). J.S. Bach: a life in music. Cambridge University Press.

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