Orlando de Lassus

1532 1594

Orlando de Lassus



Orlando de Lassus was a prolific Renaissance composer and one of the most highly respected musicians in Europe during his lifetime. He was a musician in the court of Duke Albrecht V for most of his life, and this led him to have a large output of both sacred and secular works.

Lassus was born in either 1530 or 1532, in the Franco-Flemish province of Hainaut – an area renowned for high calibre musicians born and bred there during the Renaissance era. While we know little about his childhood, it is speculated that he was a choirboy at the church of St Nicholas, and a popular legend claims that he was abducted three times because of the beauty of his singing voice.

One of the first concrete facts we know about Lassus’ life is that in 1544, at about the age of 12, he entered the service of Ferrante Gonzaga and presumably travelled with him, first to the Low Countries, then to Paris and eventually further South to Italy, where they spent the years 1546-9 in Milan. He then spent two years in Naples, informally in the service of Constantino Castrioto and in 1551 moved to Rome, where he becamemaestro di capella at S Giovanni in Laterano in spite of his young age.

Little over a year later, he left Rome to visit his parents who were both sick, however they had both already passed away by the time he returned home. There is no record of his whereabouts for two years after this, however he may have travelled to France and England during this time. He reappeared in Antwerp in 1555 where he appeared to make friends quickly, in spite of having no official post. In particular, he befriended printers Tylman Susato and Jean de Laet who later published his first collection of pieces.

In 1556, he accepted the invitation that brought him to Munich; he became a tenor in the court of Duke Albrecht V of Bavaria, where he was in the company of many other newly appointed Flemish singers. Lassus married Regina Wäckinger in 1558. She was the daughter of a Bavarian court official.

Lassus did not take up the leadership of the chapel in Munich until his predecessor Daser retired in 1563, a position he then held for the rest of his life – indeed, two of his sons, Ferdinand and Rudolph, went on to be successful musicians and succeeded Lassus in the leadership of the Duke’s court after his death.

A collection of his motets, Magnus Opus Musicum, was published posthumously by his two sons, Rudolph and Ferdinand, in 1604 in Munich. Containing 516 motets in total, most of which were previously unpublished, the collection is organised in ascending order of voice parts in the works, from two parts to twelve parts. This has made it difficult to trace the chronology of many of the motets.Domine quid multiplicati sunt is written to the text of psalm 3, is one of only two motets written for 12 voices, and the only one written for three choirs. The voices are split into three groups of CATB, although it is difficult to see how these groups could stand apart from each other, as often two voices from each choir will sing together at once.

Lassus’ Sacrae cantiones, also known as the Nuremberg Motet Book, was published around 1662 during his sixth year in Munich. The publication was dedicated to his patron Albrecht V and also contains a 36 line verse in the preface. This text is matched by the sixth work in the publication, written in a similar style.Heu quantus dolor is a secular lament and a particularly expressive piece. The largely syllabic style combined with poignant deviations from a largely homophonic setting portray the deep emotion of the text.

Lassus’ influence in Western music is strong and far-reaching. While he had many students in Munich and further afield, including Gabrieli and Andrea Giovanni, his music was published both during his lifetime and posthumously, and in many genres. He was held in very high esteem during his lifetime and his relative fame survived after his death. A huge amount of his output survives thanks to his publications and the efforts of his sons Rudolph and Ferdinand and it is both esteemed and performed today.

Images courtesy of Here of a Sunday Morning, The Famous People, Visit Mons and public domain

His leadership duties at the Munich chapel included composing masses of varying styles, as the occasion required, as well as composing settings of theMagnificat for Vespers. He was also responsible for producing music for state visits, hunting parties, or for any other occasion that might arise, and was responsible for the education of the choir boys in the court.

Although he remained based in Munich, he was often sent abroad at the request of the Duke. In 1560 he was sent to Flanders to recruit singers, in 1562 he went to Prague for the coronation of king of Bohemia and in 1567 he visited Ferrara and Venice. This meant that his reputation was growing both locally and internationally, and he started to garner a relative amount of fame. This fame was further boosted by his role in the wedding of Willhelm V and Renée of Lorraine in 1568, and again in 1575 when his motetDomine Jesu Christ won first prize at Evreax, a competition which he won a second time in 1583 with the motet Cantantibus organis.

In his later life, he chose to remain in Munich, although he did receive other offers; in 1580 the Duke of Saxony approached him to take in his court in Dresden, citing old age and the fact that he didn’t want to leave his house and garden. In later life, he suffered ill-health for several years, although he continued to write music throughout his illness. He died in Munich on the 14th of June 1594.

Part of Lassus’ reluctancy to leave his Munich home may have been to do with his positive relationship with his employers, Duke Albrecht V and his son Duke Wilhelm. A series of letters from 1572-1579 exist between the composer and Duke Wilhelm. These letters show not only Duke Wilhelm’s good understanding of- and interest in music, but also the strong sense of humour of both parties. Many of the letters feature witty signatures such as ‘Orlando Lasso col cur non basso’; ‘Orlandissimo lassissimo, amorevolissimo’ and ‘secretaire publique, Orlando magnifique’. Duke Wilhelm’s knowledge of music is apparent, as he was able to read a letter to him from Lassus written entirely in musical jokes.

His output is made up mainly of masses, motets, four passions, many secular works such as madrigals and chansons, and German lieder, which his publishers asked from him throughout his life.