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 and to tragic figures, like the Prodigal Son, Rachel, and Dido. One of his earliest works is The Lessons of Job, an unusually morbid theme to inspire a young man, especially a privileged one. Among the poems of his favorite, Petrarch, he preferred the sonnets for Laura the deceased to those for Laura the living. No doubt modern psychiatry would have an explanation for the fervor of Lasso’s religious devotion and the concomitant licentiousness and carnality of his imagination, for this representative composer of the Counter-Reformation, conforming his polyphonic art to the dogma of the Council of Trent, also wrote blasphemous pieces, bawdy Rabelaisian songs, and indulged a worldly taste for Villon, Clémont Marot, Du Bellay, and Ronsard. While dedicating masses to archbishops and pontiffs, he was also producing villanelle, moresche, and canzone.
Lasso has been shamefully neglected in the English-speaking countries, and it is to be hoped that a British or American publisher will issue a translation of Horst Leuchtmann’s new life of the composer, the most comprehensive monograph to date on any cinquecento musician. The bibliography, extending from 1566 to 1976, lists only one contribution in English, the entry in Grove’s Dictionary. Most of the studies are in German and French, with a few Latin articles from the early years and an increasing number in Italian. Leuchtmann’s documentation is exhaustive, but his book will interest readers other than scholars pursuing technical details. In the composer’s youth the story is an exciting one, and all of it, then and later, takes place in the highest courts of church and state on both sides of the Alps. Lasso’s correspondence alone is worth the price of the two volumes, and despite the mandated obsequiousness of the form of his addresses to the nobility, he is clearly on unusually familiar terms with them. Lasso was not only a composer of genius but also the least parochial of men, polyglot, literary, and socially cultivated.
Leuchtmann sets forth the life in calendar form first, beginning with the birth, between 1530 and December 1532, and ending with the dates of the most significant posthumous publications of the music. He then substantiates and verifies this abbreviated information with countless shreds of historical evidence, some of it derived from woodcuts and epitaphs, as well as from printed documents. Other sections include all known references to the composer, genealogical tables, a chart of contemporary historical and artistic events, pictures of patrons (Samuel Quickelberg, Ferdinand de Gonzaga, the Bavarian dukes), specimens of the handwriting, photographs of Lasso’s coat-of-arms and seal (he had been knighted in 1570 by Maximilian II), and even an early print of his house in Munich. All of the portraits of him, including the three-quarter relief on his tomb, are reproduced, and all agree on the wide-set, large, and intelligent eyes, thin nose, pointed face with dimpled chin, and the oversized ears often found in composers.
Leuchtmann supplies new facts in the life of the exceptional child singer, Roland de Lassus (de là-dessus), whose name was Italianized when, after abductions by rival choirmasters in his own country, he was whisked into the service of the Gonzagas, first in Mantua, then in Palermo (November 1545) and Milan. After these adventures, he worked under a different aegis in Naples from 1549 to 1551, then went as a guest of the archbishop of Florence to Rome, becoming maestro di cappella at San Giovanni Laterano. After more than a year and a half at this post, he returned to Mons in 1554 because of the fatal illnesses of his parents, then lived for two years in Antwerp, where he became well known as a result of the printing of his music there. After moving to Munich (1556) and entering the service of Duke Albrecht V of Bavaria, Lasso married (1558) the daughter of a maid of honor to the Duchess. In 1559 he went to Augsburg, and his twelfth and thirteenth chanson books were published in Paris. In 1562, he accompanied his patron to Prague and Frankfurt for the coronation of Maximilian II as Holy Roman Emperor. In this and the following year, collections of motets and madrigals were published in Venice and Rome, and almost annually thereafter books of secular music appeared in Paris, and of sacred in Venice, where one containing five masses was advertised for its “suavissimis modulationibus.”
Historians could learn something of the power structure of mid-sixteenth-century Central Europe by noting Lasso’s dedications to the monied, the mitred, and the crowned—a book of six-voice motets to Jacob Fugger, another of three-voice ones to the three sons of Albrecht, and a volume of masses to Pope Gregory XIII, who acknowledged this with the Order of the Golden Spur. Lasso traveled to Italy, Verona and Loreto as well as Venice, where, in 1588, ten masses were published. On May 8, 1594, he dedicated his last motet volume to the Archbishop of Augsburg, and, on May 24, his final work, the Lagrime di San Pietro, to Pope Clement VIII. Lasso died on June 14, and, ten years later, his two composer sons published a Magnum opus musicum Orlandi de Lasso, containing over 600 motets. This became the cornerstone of the first modern edition of his works (1894-1953, twenty-one volumes), though Boetticher, using both paleographic and stylistic criteria, has recently shown that some of the contents of this collection are not authentic Orlando but compositions by his sons, and possibly by others.
Linguists, as well as music lovers, should acquire Leuchtmann’s biography, if only for the second volume, which contains fifty-seven of the composer’s letters from a seven-year period beginning in 1572. Most of these are written in a pan-European language that anticipates Finnegans Wake, consisting of Italian, French, German, bad Latin, as well as dialect words and expressions, jumbled together in the same sentences and paragraphs. All except nine of the letters are addressed to Albrecht’s successor, Duke Wilhelm V, who was evidently entertained by Lasso’s Wake-like punning; scholars who are able to read the letters today agree that the author was witty as well as verbally gifted. That Lasso did not normally converse in this lingua franca is shown by his purely Italian or French or German letters to other correspondents. Leuchtmann provides modern German translations, and copious etymological and other notes. A single letter by a composer of Lasso’s time is a rarity, but this sizable collection is also unique as literature.
Only two years ago, in a chapter on Lasso in a survey of Renaissance music, Howard M. Brown rightly observed that the composer’s
mastery and the range of his capabilities were so great that his music is still only half understood. There are…almost no completely satisfactory recordings of any of his works…. It is no easy task to bring out the subtlety…within the typically dense mass of counterpoint.5
In truth, Lasso’s music is much less than “half” understood, since no more than small bits of it are even known, the first Gesamtausgabe having reached only the twenty-first of sixty projected volumes, while, to judge from the rate of publication of the new one—twelve volumes in twenty-two years—an optimistic date for the appearance of the actual complete works would be well into the next millennium.
But a promising event in Lasso affairs can now be reported, the release of two recordings that capture the sound, character, and spirit of his music. These discs feature the fifth and seventh sets of the Psalmi Davidis poenitentiales, as well as the Venetian-style Mass, “Bell’ amfitrit’ altera“—a mass on “the beautiful Amphitrite”!—and a group of the greatest eight-voice motets, exemplifying not only the virtuosity and perfection of technique attained toward the end of the polyphonic period, but also the threatening decline into grandiloquence.
The tapes were made at Merton College Chapel, Oxford, whose acoustics suit the period and style of the music, which is sung a cappella, immaculately on pitch, and with translucent tone. The results in, for example, the cadences on “meditabar” and “descendentibus in lacum” in the seventh Psalm series are rapturously beautiful. Moreover, the conductor paces and phrases the music intelligently, achieves balance, and successfully paints the chiaroscuro so essential to Lasso’s style, spectacularly at the dazzling “Dominus dei coelo” and the dark “In terram aspexit,” in Psalm series V.
Whoever hears the Oxford performances will want to listen to the other Psalm cycles, but, incredibly, only the first and fourth are recorded, and these far from satisfactorily. For one thing, the instrumental doublings overemphasize particular lines, thicken textures in music generally low in range, and drag the tempo. The use of instruments is historically justified, of course, but here they distort Lasso’s architecture of changing vocal combinations and shifting weights. In the Miserere mei Deus cycle, he intersperses the five-voice pieces with a duet and two trios, while concluding the whole with a sextet; but the instruments reduce the effectiveness of these contrasts. Also, the conductor displays little affinity for the music and no knowledge of its requirements; in one place, in the key of E-flat, with alternating A-naturals and A-flats, he settles on the natural, thus creating a sustained diminished chord on, of all words, “Filio“!
Admirers of the Psalm cycles will also wish to hear the Prophetiae Sibyllarum6 and the Sacrae lectiones novum ex propheta Job. 7 But the recorded performance of the Prophetiae is a catastrophe, densely chromatic music being unbearable with less than perfect intonation. Job is disappointing, too, the music itself, in this case, as well as the presentation. The composition is not only early but also immature, and the performance, punching each note, emphasizes the rhythmic monotony. The piece is unrelievedly scored for four voices, whereas Lasso, the great colorist, is more comfortable with five and six, and excels with eight, ten, and twelve, and the many subgroupings that these numbers afford him. Furthermore, Job is written in the misura breve, and when this switches momentarily to ternary meter, the transitions are graceless. The syncopations are bumpy as well, and, at this stage of Lasso’s development, his music is not equal to such lines as
…I should have been as though I had not been; I should have been carried from the womb to the grave.
The Psalm cycles are made up of short pieces complete in themselves but subtly related. Suspense is created by such surprises as an ending on the dominant minor, or in a remote key, as in the seventh cycle where one movement begins in B-flat and concludes in C; by suddenly dropping a whole tone in the bass, and from a B-flat to an A-flat triad; by ignoring the metrical accent; and by placing the cadence on the weakest beat. But Lasso’s principal means for avoiding uniformity is in varying the vocal combinations.
If obliged to choose only one recorded work by Lasso, the reader will not be able to pass over the eight-voice motet, “Salve Regina mater.” A close second choice would be “Omnes, Omnes, de Saba Venient,” with its jubilant antiphonal “allelujas,” but the twisting chromatics of the “Salve Regina” are even more alluring, and the different registers of its two choirs provide a richer palette of colors. At times, Lasso switches from one chorus to the other on every word, which both dramatizes the text and heightens the sense of movement. The two vocal groups often overlap by a single, scarcely perceptible line, which further emphasizes their separation and juxtaposition. And, finally, at “O clemens pia,” the large tessituras enable Lasso to employ canonic imitation in ascending sequence of each choir as a whole. Such moments surely inspired Mathurin Regnier’s lines (1567):
To Josquin the palm, for he was the first;
To Willaert, the myrtle, to Cipri- ano, the laurel;
To Orlando all three; the master is he.
May 4, 1978
The Italian Madrigal, Vol. II (Princeton, 1949). ↩
Adrian Willaert (c. 1490-1562). A recording of five of his four-voice motets has just appeared (Nonesuch H-71345). Perhaps the sampling of a single genre is the best way to introduce an important but still little-known composer, yet a variety of pieces, including the chromatic quartet, Quid Non Ebrietas, and a sprinkling of instrumental compositions—the character of the medium makes a difference—might have stimulated greater interest. A note accompanying the record asserts that “Willaert dominated the musical life of his adopted [Italy] from almost the moment of his arrival until his death.” But how can it be said that Willaert dominated anything during the period immediately before he moved to Venice, since even his whereabouts in these years have just become known? And can it be true that his influence in Rome in the 1550s exceeded that of Palestrina? ↩
Archiv 2533 290 Pro Cantione antiqua, London. ↩
Noble is also adrift on Lasso’s style, writing that he “avoids the illustrative strokes that would become commonplace in the next generation, such as sharp dissonances for ‘amara‘ .” In fact, Lasso frequently resorts to illustrative dissonances on such words, one of the sharpest occurring at “in hac lacrimarum valle” in the eight-voice “Salve Regina mater.” ↩
Music in the Renaissance (Prentice-Hall, 1976). ↩
Das Alte Werk, Prager Madrigalisten, Teldeck 641274, conducted by Miroslav Venhoda. ↩
Argo ZRG-795. ↩