The enormous production of the Franco-Flemish composer Roland de Lassus (1532-1594), over 1,200 works in all categories, and their extraordinarily high quality, make him one of the greatest masters of Renaissance music.
Roland de Lassus, also known as Orlando di Lasso, was born in Mons, where he sang as a chorister in the church of St-Nicolas. Because of his unusual talent and beautiful voice, he was kidnaped three times for other choirs. After the third attempt, in 1544, his parents gave up the 12-year-old boy to Ferdinand Gonzaga, Viceroy of Sicily, who retained Lassus in his service for 6 years, taking him to Palermo and later to Milan.
Formative Years in Italy
In 1550 Lassus went to Naples, where he lived in the household of the Marchese della Terza. Toward the end of 1552 he proceeded to Rome, staying with Antonio Altovito, Archbishop of Florence. Lassus was choirmaster of St. John Lateran from April 1553 until 1555, when he left for Antwerp.
These formative years in Italy were decisive for Lassus' musical development. As part of his training he learned to compose the many genres cultivated in Italy—simple, note-against-note villanelle, sophisticated madrigals, Masses, and motets for one or more choruses. In most of his works his awareness of text and its musical depiction marked the Italian reorientation of musical architecture handed down by the older Franco-Flemish school. Probably connected with Naples is the Prophetiae Sibyllarum, a cycle of poems by an unknown Italian contemporary. The prophecies of these ancient Sibyls suggested to Lassus a chromatic idiom atypical of his other works, but it was destined nevertheless to impress many contemporaries, particularly those at the French court of Charles IX.
Lassus remained at Antwerp until the fall of 1556, during which time publishers began to vie for his works. Within a few months of his arrival Tielman Susato of Antwerp issued a miscellaneous collection of four-voice madrigals, villanelle, chansons, and motets; the Venetian Antonio Gardana restricted his edition to madrigals for five voices. The following year saw a collection of five-and six-voice motets in which Lassus unveiled the emotional expression he favored for these sacred pieces.
In 1556 Duke Albert of Bavaria called Lassus to Munich, and the composer spent the remaining 38 years of his life there. Engaged as a singer in the choir directed by the composer Ludwig Daser, Lassus was advanced to court kapellmeister in a short time and was put in complete charge of all music for secular and sacred functions. His personal charm and artistic talent made him a favorite of the duke and his son William. In 1558 Lassus married a lady-in-waiting at court, Regina Wächinger, with whom he had six children. Two sons, Rudolph and Ferdinand, were to become musicians and edit posthumously over 500 of their father's motets in a monumental edition, Magnum opus musicum (1604).
Within a dozen years of his coming to the Bavarian capital, Lassus published volume after volume of madrigals, chansons, lieder, motets, and Masses. The French publishers LeRoy and Ballard issued in 1560 the first of many chansons by the master. Stylistically these works range from homophonic patter songs after the Parisian fashion to intricately contrapuntal, and occasionally chromatic, pieces reflecting in their word treatment the Italian madrigal.
Lassus' Psalmi Davidis poenitentiales (ca. 1560) are settings of the penitential psalms (Nos. 6, 31, 37, 50, 101, 129, and 142). The composer responded in a particularly sensitive way to the sad words of these poems. He conveyed their mood so penetratingly that Samuel Quickelberg, a Bavarian court official, referred to the music as a superb example of musica reservata. By this term he meant music faultlessly adapted to, and bestowing profound expression on, the words. Duke Albert was so impressed with the penitential psalms that he ordered them copied into handsome folio volumes and illuminated with miniatures by the court painter Hans Mülich. Other sacred music from Lassus' early years in Munich is his Sacrae lectiones novem ex propheta Job (1565) and a volume of Magnificats on the eight tones (1567).
In a collection of German songs, Neue teutsche Liedlein (1567), Lassus abandoned the traditional tenor cantus-firmus lied favored by older masters such as Heinrich Isaac and Ludwig Senfl. Lassus preferred imitative, yet freely composed pieces full of tonal word painting, a technique clearly derived from the madrigal. He can justifiably be considered the innovator of the late Renaissance lied.
Lassus' astounding productivity brought him honors and renown. On Dec. 7, 1570, Emperor Maximilian II conferred on him a noble title and coat of arms. Three years later William, heir to the Bavarian throne, was the patron of a 12-volume edition, Patrocinium musices, in large part devoted to the works of Lassus. Also in 1573 Catherine de Médicis of France commissioned music from Lassus to celebrate the accession of her son Henry of Anjou to the throne of Poland. Henry's brother, King Charles IX of France, also admired Lassus and made strenuous efforts to lure him to Paris. The composer never seriously considered leaving Munich, however, and the death of Charles in 1574 brought all negotiations to an end.
Five Masses by Lassus (Ite rime dolenti, Scarco di doglia, Sidus ex claro, Credidi propter, Le Berger et la bergère) were published as volume 2 of the Patrocinium musices (1574). Although his Masses do not always represent him at his best, and rarely achieve the level of the most inspired motets, Pope Gregory XIII so valued these five works that he invited Lassus to Rome and named him a knight of the Golden Spur.
In the later 1570s and first half of the 1580s Lassus was at the height of his fame and power. Volume 5 of the Patrocinium musices (1576) was dedicated to a new collection of Magnificats. In contrast to his Magnificats of 1567, based on traditional chants, Lassus now "parodied" secular and sacred polyphony for his borrowed material. Like some of the Masses admired by Pope Gregory, these Magnificats seem to ignore the religious spirit demanded of Church music by the Council of Trent. This "secularization," however, is by no means a true or complete picture of Lassus' later output. On the contrary, the mature works on the whole tend to be more spiritual in text and tone and are closely related to political and religious changes at the Bavarian court.
In 1579 an event occurred that was to have momentous repercussions on the composer's career: the death of his revered patron, Duke Albert. Faced with awesome debts, Duke William was obliged to curtail chapel expenses and discharge many singers and instrumentalists. More important still was the duke's religious nature and attitude, which made for a changed court atmosphere. Piety and penitence, the fruits of Counter Reformation fervor, pervaded the court and strongly affected Lassus himself. With the Jesuits strongly entrenched in Bavaria, the composition of frivolous chansons and madrigals was now unwelcome.
Lassus altered the sprightly secular genres of the past by transforming them into sacred or at least serious pieces. In his fifth book of madrigals (1585) the contents were completely spiritualized into madrigali spirituali. They were set to poems from the Rime spirituali by Gabriele Fiamma, Bishop of Chioggia, whose verse was closely attuned to the temper of the times.
The following year Lassus experienced the beginnings of a deep melancholy that paralyzed his creative efforts for a time. By April 1587 he had recovered from his depression and issued a new volume of spiritual madrigals. These were followed in 1588 by a setting of 25 psalms for three voices in the German translation of Ulenberg. By 1590 Lassus' mental health had once again deteriorated, and he required constant care and attention. He was able to return to his duties in 1593. His last work, Le lagrime di San Pietro, a series of 20 spiritual madrigals on poems by Luigi Tansillo, was completed shortly before his death on June 14, 1594.
Further Reading on Roland de Lassus
The musical style of Lassus is treated in Gustave Reese, Music in the Renaissance (1954; rev. ed. 1959), and New Oxford History of Music, vol. 4: The Age of Humanism, 1540-1630, edited by Gerald Abraham (1968). Also useful are Donald Jay Grout, A History of Western Music (1960), and Friedrich Blume, Renaissance and Baroque Music: A Comprehensive Survey (trans. 1967).