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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

The Life and Work of Lassus

A while back I came to the realisation that I often forget Bartók. I was brought up to think of the history of 20th century music as being divided into one of two strands: you either followed Schoenberg or you followed Stravinsky. So this meant we thought of Schoenberg and Stravinsky as the two most important composers of the 20th century. But when I really thought about it, I felt Bartók should be up there as well and now I tend to think of three rather than two strands of musical thought in the 20th century. (Of course there are millions, but the idea of three is easier to handle.)

Only recently I realised I was doing exactly the same thing with the 16th century. Think of High Renaissance music - and that usually means church music - and two composers come to mind: Palestrina and Victoria. But then I realised that there is a third name which should be absolutely right up there with both these giants, someone I knew about and whose music I loved, but someone who doesn't seem to get the publicity given to Palestrina and Victoria. This post is about him.

The problem is, who is he? I mean, we know who he is, but his name has so many variants in different languages. In English we tend to just call him Lassus. He was a Franco-Flemish composer, so his name is sometimes rendered as Orlande de Lassus, or Roland de Lassus, or even in its Italian form as Orlando di Lasso. Whatever you call him - and we'll call him Lassus - he was a giant. [listen]

Mons, Belgium: panorama of the old town

Current thought among scholars favours 1532 as the year of Lassus's birth. He was born in Mons in what is now Belgium, about 70 km south west of Brussels, and about 12 km north of the present French border. So famous was he in later life that legends circulated about his childhood. The often-repeated story that as a boy he was kidnapped three times because of the beauty of his voice has no evidence whatsoever to support it. According to Grove, the earliest-known fact about Lassus is that in 1544, at about the age of 12, he entered the service of Ferrante Gonzaga, related to the Gonzaga rulers of Mantua and a general in the army of Emperor Charles V.

Ferrante Gonzaga

Over the next couple of years the boy travelled with Gonzaga's entourage to Mantua (via Paris), and then to Palermo in Sicily before Gonzaga was appointed imperial governor in Milan. It's assumed Lassus spent the years 1546-49 there in the governor's service. Gonzaga's musical establishment was headed in Milan by Hoste da Reggio, a madrigal composer, and Reggio would have been only one of many musicians the young Lassus would have met in Milan during this time.

The basis of Lassus's musical training is completely unknown to us, but it's assumed he had education and training in various arts, including music, while in Gonzaga's service. Given his later aptitude for hard work, it's not at all unlikely that the young man was self-taught.

Milan (Nuremburg Chronicle, 1493)

Early in 1549, the year in which he probably turned 17, Lassus went to Naples to enter the service of Costantino Castrioto. In Naples he lived in the house of Giovanni Battista d'Azzia della Terza, a man of letters. It's suggested that Lassus began to compose while he was in Naples, although he may have done so while in Milan. Six years after going to Naples, his first collection of music was published, and the villanescas in this collection quite possibly date from the Naples period. The villanesca is a light secular song which originated in Naples around this time. [listen]

Lassus stayed in Naples for almost three years before he went to Rome at the end of 1551. In the spring of 1553, when he was only 21, he became maestro di capella at the church St John Lateran. This was one of the most prestigious posts of its kind in Rome and the fact that he scored such a position while young and relatively unknown as a composer is evidence that he must certainly have acquired a reputation of some sort even by this early stage. [listen]

St John Lateran, Rome (photos taken by me, January 2019)

Only a little over a year later, Lassus left Rome for Mons to visit his parents who were sick. Sadly they both died before he reached home. There is a suggestion that immediately after this he spent time in England and France but this is difficult to confirm. It is known that he was in Antwerp by early 1555. He didn't have an official post there but he made important connections with prominent musicians and publishers. It was in 1555 - in Antwerp - that Lassus published his first collection of vocal music, both sacred and secular. At around the same time his first book of madrigals was published in Venice, and the following year his first book of motets appeared in print, again in Antwerp.

Orlande de Lassus

Over a period of 39 years, from 1555 until his death in 1594, Lassus published a truly staggering number of collections of music; Grove lists 88 separate publications, each of which contains many works. This wide dissemination of his music of all types, sacred and secular, no doubt contributed to his fame during his lifetime and long afterwards.

Dating Lassus's works is, as it is for most composers of this period and before, very difficult. It's assumed that many of the works contained in his publications were written many years before they appeared in print. One of his most unusual works is the Prophetiae Sibyllarum, a very unusual, chromatic setting of humanistic Latin texts. It wasn't published until after the composer's death, but some scholars think it may belong to this early period as well. [listen]

The major turning point in Lassus' life came in 1556 - the year he probably turned 24 - when he received an invitation from Duke Albrecht V of Bavaria to join his court in Munich. Lassus was originally engaged as a singer - a tenor - but in 1563, on the retirement of the maestro di capella, Ludwig Daser, he was appointed to lead the chapel music, and he held the post for 30 years. At the time of his arrival in Munich, Lassus found a court with fluctuating religious affiliation. Duke Albrecht started to move towards embracing Protestantism, but then returned to being a Catholic. Daser was a Protestant, and all this at the time of the Council of Trent developing the Catholic Church's response to the Reformation. Lassus seems to have remained Catholic although he was no card-carrying Counter-Reformation zealot, and despite the changing fortunes of the chapel music as the numbers of singers and instrumentalists rose and fell over the years, his hold on this post was secure and unchallenged.

Duke Albrecht V of Bavaria

This motet, In monte Oliveti, was published in 1568, five years after Lassus became director of the chapel music in Munich. [listen]

In 1558, two years after he first came to Munich. Lassus married Regina Wäckinger, the daughter of a local court official. Two of their sons, Ferdinand and Rudolph, became musicians. Both were to be beneficiaries of their father's genius, because when Lassus died, the maestro di capella position was inherited in turn by each of them. Even as late as 1629 one of Lassus' grandsons still held the post.

Lassus's work in Munich, and his steady stream of publications, ensured his fame across Europe. There were many attempts to get him to leave Munich and work elsewhere but he never seriously considered accepting any of these offers. He travelled widely on behalf of the Duke of Bavaria, and in Italy he assimilated the latest Italian styles into his own Italian madrigals. [listen]

In the 1560s Lassus's music appeared in publications across Europe and in tandem with his increasing fame he was awarded honours and titles rarely given to musicians. In 1570 Emperor Maximilain II conferred on him a patent of nobility; three times in the 1570s King Charles IX of France invited him to visit the French court; and in 1574 Pope Gregory XIII made him a Knight of the Golden Spur. Yet despite all this he was content to remain in Munich.

Duke Albrecht of Bavaria held Lassus in the highest esteem; in fact it could be said that the two men were genuine friends. Such esteem was shared by Albrecht's son and heir, Wilhelm V, who came to the throne of Bavaria on his father's death in 1579.

In the 1580s a number of major new publications appeared, containing masses, Magnifcats, motets, psalms and secular music. Despite claiming to feel old (he was only in his 50s) Lassus' appetite for work doesn't seem to have diminished. In any case, his son Ferdinand took over some of his duties in 1584.

Lassus lived for another ten years, and undertook some travel to Italy in the mid-1580s. In his final years he suffered poor health, and what seems to have been some form of depression, but he continued to compose intermittently. He died in Munich on 14 June, 1594, at the probable age of 62.

Orlande de Lassus

Such are the basic signposts of Lassus's life, but they do little to reflect the enormous reputation he developed during his times. Many of his letters survive, bearing testament to an intelligent, urbane man with a wicked sense of humour and fluency in several languages. He was an exact contemporary of both Palestrina and Victoria, both of whom are better-known and more frequently-performed today, but in the second half of the 16th century, Lassus was probably regarded as the most famous composer in Europe. And unlike most other composers, whose music usually went out of fashion soon after their deaths, if not beforehand, Lassus' reputation continued long after his death, with posthumous publications and widespread dissemination and performance of his music well into the 17th century.

Where an article like this can't possibly do justice to Lassus is in reflecting the vastness of his output. With the understanding that some of his works may be lost, the huge number of his publications has ensured the survival of an incredible body of work, which I'd like to now briefly (and inadequately) survey.

The simple numbers are staggering. Lassus composed 74 masses, at least 102 Magnificats, 4 Passions, 525 motets, and a huge number of other sacred works such as offices, lamentations, canticles, hymns and responsories. Like Palestrina, but unlike Victoria, he also composed secular music, which in Lassus's case extends across three languages: 196 Italian madrigals, 144 French chansons, and 92 German partsongs.

Plan of Munich in 1642

Nearly all of Lassus's 74 mass settings are what are called "parody" masses. This means they take pre-existing material - either a motet or secular song, by himself or someone else, or plainchant - and use this as the basis of the mass setting.

A good example is the Missa Vinum bonum. This is based on Lassus's own motet, Vinum bonum et suave which is scored for 8-part choir and was published in 1570. Here's the motet. [listen]

In a parody mass, the composer takes fragments of the source material and uses this as the basis for expanded development across the sections of the mass. The Missa Vinum bonum, like the motet, is scored for eight-part choir. [listen]

The roughly 525 motets of Lassus are one of the more amazing contributions to the sacred repertoire. They show his skill as a composer across the entire range of vocal expression of the time. The earlier motets show his assimilation of the Italian style, but in his more mature works, we see the intricate and famous contrapuntal skill for which the Netherlands composers were famous. Getting an overview of the entire body of work is almost impossible but for the most devoted scholar.

This motet, Exaltabo te Domine, is an Offertory motet for use in Lent. It's barely two minutes long, yet it's a gem. The opening words, meaning, "I will extol thee, O Lord", are set to ascending arpeggios, suggesting praise ascending to God. The next line, "for thou hast lifted me up", starts without the bass line, suggesting elevation. Later, when the text says, "I cried to thee", the musical lines suggest crying out on the word clamavi. Every word is subtly and carefully painted. [listen]

Among the motets published after Lassus's death is this lavish Christmas setting, Omnes Saba venient in eight parts. [listen]

Church composers in the Renaissance were usually required to compose many settings of the Magnificat for Vespers. This was to ensure that the modal tone of the Magnificat setting matched that of the daily antiphons, and so Magnificat settings in all the modes (or tones) were needed on a regular basis. Among Lassus's hundred or more more settings of this canticle for Vespers are four complete cycles in all the tones, each containing eight different settings. There are 40 other Magnificats which are parody settings, based on pre-existing material. [listen]

Again, it's difficult to get a real sense of the breadth of Lassus's secular music simply because there's so much of it. The delineation into three genres - Italian madrigals, French chansons and German lieder - goes far beyond the language of the text but extends to encapsulating a truly Italian, French and German style in each. I linked to an Italian madrigal above; here are examples of the German and French secular pieces, a German lied in praise of wine [listen] and a French chanson, also in praise of wine. [listen]

Orlande de Lassus is quite simply one of the most important and gifted composers in the European tradition. His massive output and complete mastery of his craft place him at the pinnacle of composers of any age, and most definitely on a par with his Italian and Spanish contemporaries, Palestrina and Victoria.

To end I want to share with you part of Lassus's last composition. In the final year or so of his life he composed an extraordinary cycle of spiritual madrigals called The Tears of St Peter. The twenty Italian madrigals in seven parts are made into a cycle of 21 pieces by the addition of a concluding seven-part motet Vide homo, quae pro te patior (Behold man, what things I suffer for you). After completing this mammoth work, which takes an hour in performance, the composer dedicated it to Pope Clement VIII in May, 1594. Three weeks later he died.

The Tears of St Peter deserves an entire article to itself, such are its beauties, but we'll end with the concluding motet as an indication of Lassus's mastery and place in the western canon. [listen]

El Greco: The Tears of St Peter (c. 1590)

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in May, 2015.

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