Orlande de Lassus (1532-1594)
Lassus was variously known as Orlando di Lasso, and Orlande or Roland de Lassus. The date of his birth is most commonly given as 1532; he was born in Mons, in Hainaut, and thus is numbered among the numerous great Franco-Flemish composers of the era. In his time he probably overshadowed all other composers, even Palestrina. He was certainly the most prolific of them – some 2000 of his works of all kinds have come down to us. He was a considerable linguist, and composed songs in French, German and Italian. Unusually, we have letters written by him, mixing his various languages and showing him to have been witty and temperamental as well as learned. In one of them he said, ‘I sometimes go fishing, to avoid sin’ (‘je fai parfois exercice à pescher, pour éviter vice’), punning on the French pécher (to sin) and pêcher (to fish).
His names and his languages came from his travels, which started in the ducal Gonzaga household in Mantua, perhaps as early as 1544. He journeyed with Ferrante Gonzaga to Paris and back to Italy, and his first church post was as chapelmaster at St John Lateran in Rome in 1553 when he was barely 21. He did not stay long there, and was soon back in native territory, apparently in Antwerp in 1555. He got to know the composer and publisher Susato, who brought out his first book of motets in 1556, though a book of his madrigals was published in Venice the year before – his renown as a composer was already on the move. But in 1556 he was engaged by the court of the Duke of Bavaria, usually resident in Munich. At first he joined the choir, but became chapelmaster in 1563, a post he held till his death 31 years later. During all this time he continued to travel widely, to Venice in 1567, three times to the French royal court in the 1570s, and at various times to Vienna, Trent, Ferrara, Mantua, Bologna, Verona and Rome.
Lassus was very much a court composer. While charged with the Catholic liturgy of the ducal chapel, he was also called on to write for weddings and other celebrations, and wrote songs, madrigals and Tafelmusik till late in his life. But his last work, published in the year he died, was a set of spiritual madrigals based on religious verses by the poet Tansillo entitled Lagrime di San Pietro, often regarded as the product of melancholia which beset Lassus in later life. He dedicated them to Pope Clement VIII. Perhaps above all Lassus was known for the expressiveness of his composition, the words dictating much of the detail of the music. You have only to listen to one of his great motets, Infelix ego, to hear this very clearly. The text was written by Savonarola the night before he was burned at the stake for heresy; the words and Lassus’ setting bring out both Savonarola’s anguish and the peace of reconciliation as he offers his penitence and throws himself on God’s mercy.
Lassus clearly had particular enthusiasm for some liturgical texts. His son Rudolph wrote of ‘the love my father bore toward the Virgin Mother of God’ – he in fact set the Magnificat an extraordinary number of times; the words come from St Luke’s gospel and are particularly associated with Mary. Rudolph published 100, the bulk of them, in an edition of 1619. It is hard for the ordinary person to imagine how a composer could set the same text over and over finding fresh inspiration every time, but such was the nature of Lassus’ genius and also his faith. He was not, though, as strict a follower of the Council of Trent as Palestrina or Victoria; his setting of ‘Susanne un jour’ as a chanson was famous in his day, published three times in 1560; and he wrote a Mass based on the melody which was published in 1577.
What to listen for: It is difficult to single out particular qualities of Lassus' music because of his vast output. However, listeners will undoubtedly be able to appreciate the elegance of his music, and the range of influences present in his work (which presumably relate to the vast distances he covered during his career). The video above is a performance of a movement from a parody mass (one based on a pre-existing model, which in this case has yet to be identified). It is scored for eight voices divided into two equal choirs, reminiscent of the polychoral style emanating from Venice during this period. There are polyphonic sections, such as the very opening, but they are not constructed in quite such a strictly imitative fashion as in the music of Lassus' Franco-Flemish contemporaries. Listeners will be able to hear that this piece has a clear bass-line almost throughout, which sets it against much polyphonic Renaissance music where all voice parts have an equal role. In this way it prefigures the choral music of the Baroque era.
Lassus received honours unusual for a composer – he was ennobled by the Emperor Maximilian II, and made a Knight of the Golden Spur by Pope Gregory III. But he ignored lucrative offers of posts elsewhere; he was well enough established in Munich, and money was not an object. He was as much a friend of successive dukes as a composer in residence, and he was a truly international musical figure – his work was published from Amsterdam and Paris to Frankfurt and Venice He died in the same year as Palestrina, 1594, and was buried in the Franciscan cemetery of the Church of St Anthony in Munich, which no longer exists. There is a plaque in Munich on the house where he lived, Platzl No. 4, and a monument to him – see below – erected by Ludwig I of Bavaria in 1849; a monument to him can also be found in Mons, dating from 1853.
Crook, D. (1994) Orlando di Lasso’s Imitation Magnificats for Counter-Reformation Munich, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Erb, J. (1990), Orlando di Lasso: A guide to research, New York/London: Garland Publishing
Reese, G. (1984) New Grove High Renaissance Masters: Josquin, Palestrina, Lassus, Byrd, Victoria, London: Macmillan