Palestrina was born in Palestrina, a town near Rome, then part of the Papal States.
He spent most of his career in Rome. Documents suggest he first visited the city in 1537, when he is listed as a chorister at Santa Maria Maggiore basilica. He studied with Robin Mallapert and Firmin Lebel.
It was rumored Palestrina studied under Claude Goudimel; the story originated in the nineteenth century, but according to recent study, Goudimel was never in Rome.
From 1544 to 1551 Palestrina was organist of the principal church of his native city (St Agapito), and in the last year became maestro di cappella
at the Cappella Giulia, the papal choir at St. Peter's Basilica. His first published compositions, a book of masses made so favorable an impression with Pope Julius III (previously the Bishop of Palestrina), that he was appointed musical director of the Julian Chapel. In addition, this was the first book of masses by a native composer: in the Italian states of his day, most composers of sacred music were from Netherlands, France, Portugal or Spain. In fact his book of masses was actually modeled on one by Morales, and the woodcut in the front is an almost exact copy of the one from the book by the Spaniard.
Palestrina held positions similar to his Julian Chapel appointment at other chapels and churches in Rome during the next decade (notably St John in Lateran, 1555 -1560, and St Maria Maggiore, 1561 -1566). In 1571 he returned to the Julian Chapel, and remained at St Peter's for the rest of his life. The decade of the 1570s was difficult for him personally; he lost his brother, two of his sons, and his wife in three separate outbreaks of the plague (1572, 1575, and 1580 respectively). He seems to have considered becoming a priest at this time, but instead he married again, this time to a wealthy widow; this finally gave him financial independence (he was not well paid as choirmaster) and he was able to compose prolifically until his death.
He died in Rome of pleurisy in 1594.
Palestrina left hundreds of compositions, including 104 masses, 68 offertories, more than 300 motets, at least 72 hymns, 35 magnificats, 11 litanies, 4 or 5 sets of lamentations etc., at least 140 madrigals and 9 organ ricercari (however, recent scholarship has classed these ricercari as of doubtful authorship; Palestrina probably wrote no purely instrumental music). There are two comprehensive editions of Palestrina's works: one edited by Haberl and published in 33 volumes in 1862-94, the other edited by R. Casimiri and others and published in 34 volumes. His Missa sine nomine seems to have been particularly attractive to Johann Sebastian Bach, who studied and performed it while he was writing his own masterpiece, the Mass in B Minor. His compositions are typified as very clear, with voice parts well-balanced and beautifully harmonized. Among the works counted as his masterpieces is the Missa Papae Marcelli (Pope Marcellus Mass), which according to legend was composed to persuade the Council of Trent that a draconian ban on polyphonic treatment of text in sacred music was unnecessary. However, more recent scholarship shows that this mass was composed before the cardinals convened to discuss the ban (possibly as much as ten years before). It is probable, however, that Palestrina was quite conscious of the needs of intelligible text in conformity with the doctrine of the Counter-Reformation, and wrote his works towards this end from the 1560s until the end of his life.
The "Palestrina Style, the smooth style of 16th century polyphony, derived and codified by Johann Joseph Fux from a careful study of his works, is the style usually taught as "Renaissance polyphony" in college counterpoint classes, although in a modified form, as Fux made a number of stylistic errors which have been corrected by later authors (notably Knud Jeppesen and Morris). As codified by Fux it follows the rules of what he defined as "species counterpoint." Palestrina established and followed these strict guidelines:
The flow of music is dynamic, not rigid or static.
Melody should contain few leaps between notes.
If a leap occurs, it must be small and immediately countered by opposite stepwise motion.
Dissonances are either passing note or off the beat. If it is on the beat, it is immediately resolved.
No composer of the sixteenth century has had such an edifice of myth and legend built around him as Palestrina. Much of the research on Palestrina was done in the nineteenth century by Giuseppe Baini, who published a monograph in 1828 which made Palestrina famous again, and reinforced the already existing legend that he was the "Saviour of Church Music" during the reforms of the Council of Trent. The nineteenth-century attitude of hero-worship is predominant in this monograph, however, and this has remained with the composer to some degree to the present day; Hans Pfitzner's opera Palestrina shows this attitude at its peak. Scholarship of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries tends to retain the view that Palestrina was a strong and refined composer, representing a summit of technical perfection, but emphasizes that there were other composers working at the same time with equally individual voices and slightly different styles, even within the confines of smooth polyphony, such as Lassus and Victoria.
Palestrina was immensely famous in his day, and his reputation, if anything, increased following his death. Conservative music of the Roman School continued to be written in his style (known as the "prima pratica" in the seventeenth century), by such students of his as Giovanni Maria Nanino, Ruggiero Giovanelli, Arcangelo Crivelli, Teofilo Gargari, Francesco Soriano and Gregorio Allegri. It is also thought that Salvatore Sacco may have been a student of Palestrina. Palestrina's music continues to be performed and recorded, and provides models for the study of counterpoint.