Light on Lasso

Orlando di Lasso: Sämliche Werke, Neue Reihe

edited by Wolfgang Boetticher
Bärenreiter, Kassel und Basel, (Volume 1, 1956, 12 volumes to date) pp.

Orlando di Lasso Volume I: Sein Leben Volume II: Briefe

by Horst Leuchtmann
Breitkopf und Härtel (Wiesbaden), 478 pp., 100 DM

Music of Orlando di Lasso: I: Missa Bell Amfitrit Altera; Penitential Psalm VII, II: Four Motets; Penitential Psalm V

Choir of the Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, conducted by Simon Preston
Argo ZRG-735 and Argo ZRG-795

Of the great composers in the second half of the sixteenth century, Orlando di Lasso had the widest range and the most complex personality, so far as the latter is possible to determine about anyone who lived before the advent of the fully documented modern biography. Alfred Einstein1 was one of the first scholars to establish a connection between the life and the work. Comparing Lasso’s setting of a Petrarch sonnet with that of another composer,2 Einstein deduced that since Lasso’s version contains only two-thirds as many measures, he must have been “impatient.”

Lasso, who was born in the Walloon city of Mons and lived in Italy, Antwerp, and Bavaria, was also the most cosmopolitan musician of his age. He could compose in any form, and though he is best known at present for his sacred cycles—Psalms, Lamentations, Passions, Magnificats, Litanies, Fratres motets (the salutations of Paul’s Epistles)—his secular Italian madrigals and many of his French and German part songs have retained their popularity. Wolfgang Boetticher goes so far as to describe the canzonetta, La non vol esser più mia, written during the final, austerely contrapuntal period, as an experiment in monody, though the classification is debatable because of the polyphonic voice-leading.

Lasso’s multifariousness might or might not suggest a divided personality, but the evidence shows that he grew progressively melancholic, a development not attributable to the external circumstances of his life. In fact few composers have enjoyed so much fame at so early an age, or been so fortunate in finding such appreciative and generous, as well as powerful, patrons. Two of Lasso’s seven children became successful musicians in their own right. After collaborating with their father, then—like the sons of Bach—diverging from him to follow a new mode, they continued to revere him and to preserve his musical legacy. At the end of a prosperous, seemingly healthy, and comparatively long life, Lasso died in 1594, honored throughout Europe.

The British musicologist Jeremy Noble introduces as follows a recent recording3 of three Lasso motets and numbers I and IV of the Septem Psalmi Poenitentiales:

Two things distinguish Lassus among the great composers of the high Renaissance: his extraordinary creativity (his list of individual compositions comes to something like 2000) and his equally extraordinary diversity.

But is Lasso distinguished primarily by the quantity of his work, and is his diversity of any consequence apart from the consistent quality of his achievement in each category?4 Indeed, the number and different types of his compositions are scarcely believable, and although the secular music is less important than the sacred, he is a master in both domains. While, for example, Josquin’s motets are generally regarded as superior to his masses, the same, if true of Lasso, is by no means so obvious. But then, only a few scholars, Boetticher pre-eminently, are qualified to pass judgment on the more than 1,000 motets, to say nothing of the other music.

Lasso was drawn to the subject of death…

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