Personalities | Orlande de Lassus | Renaissance | Classical

(Or-land’ de Las’soos) 1532–94
Franco-Flemish composer

Lassus went to Italy at the age of 12 as a singer in the choir of Ferrante Gonzaga, a minor member of the important family of music patrons who ruled the duchy of Mantua.

He spent the next 10 years in Italy, travelling to Naples and then Rome, where for a time he was maestro di cappella at S Giovanni Laterano, one of the city’s great basilicas and the employer of many important musicians over the course of the sixteenth century. He assumed this prestigious position in 1553 and two years later began his career as a published composer with the appearance of his op. 1.

An Audacious Debut

The op. 1 was one of the most audacious debuts in the history of composition. The book was clearly designed as a sample of his talents. Its title page boasts the variety of its contents (motets, madrigals, villanescas and chansons), and the range and self-assurance of the compositions is astonishing for a composer just beginning his career. The five motets reveal that Lassus had been studying the works of Rore. Secular music is represented by three genres in two languages. Among the villanescas is now the ribald ‘Matona mia cara’, one of his most famous works. With its uncomplicated music, the genre was decidedly low-brow (though still extremely popular). However, in the secular realm, the genre in which a young composer needed to prove himself was the madrigal. And the madrigals in op. 1 show a composer of great musical gifts. The poetry is of a deliberate weightiness, including works by Petrarch, Sannazaro and Ariosto. The poems vary in length, from a setting of a single sonnet quatrain (Petrarch’s ‘Occhi piangete’ – ‘Crying Eyes’) to an extensively worked six-part madrigal cycle on the sestina ‘Del freddo Rheno’.

Lassus’s Letters

In 1556 Lassus joined the court of duke Albrecht V of Bavaria in Munich, where he remained for the rest of his life. His marriage in 1558 produced two sons, Ferdinand (c. 1560–1609) and Rudolph (c. 1563–1625), who both became musicians. Lassus journeyed widely and received offers of employment from some of the leading courts of Europe, but he seems never to have seriously considered leaving Munich. Indeed, evidence shows that he was happy there and had exceptionally good relationships with Albrecht V and his son Wilhelm V who succeeded his father in 1579.

An extraordinary correspondence between Lassus and the future Wilhelm V, gives a glimpse of the composer’s personality that is very rare in this period. The letters were written in the 1570s, a decade during which Lassus travelled extensively in France and Italy. As a record of the composer’s wit and linguistic virtuosity this corres­pondence is matched in music history only by the letters of Monteverdi and Mozart. Like those of Mozart, Lassus’s letters are full of humour, both sophisticated and childish. The wordplay is brilliant and many letters are written in a mixture...

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