Orlande de Lassus (also Orlandus Lassus, Orlando di Lasso, Roland de Lassus, or Roland Delattre) (1532 (possibly 1530) – June 14, 1594) was a Franco-Flemish composer of late Renaissance music. Along with Palestrina (of the Roman School), he is today considered to be the chief representative of the mature polyphonic style of the Franco-Flemish School, and he was the most famous and influential musician in Europe at the end of the 16th century.
He was born in Mons in the province of Hainaut, in what is today Belgium. Information about his early years is scanty, although some uncorroborated stories have survived, the most famous of which is that he was kidnapped three times because of the singular beauty of his singing voice. At the age of twelve he left the Low Countries with Ferrante Gonzaga and went to Mantua, Sicily, and later Milan (from 1547 to 1549). While in Milan he made the acquaintance of the madrigalist Spirito l'Hoste da Reggio, an influence which was formative on his early musical style.
He then worked as a singer and a composer for Costantino Castrioto in Naples in the early 1550s, and his first works are presumed to date from this time. Next he moved to Rome, where he worked for Cosimo I de' Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, who maintained a household there; and in 1553, he became maestro di cappella of the Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano in Rome, a spectacularly prestigious post for a man only twenty-one years old, but he stayed there only for a year (Palestrina took this post a year later, in 1555).
No solid evidence survives for his whereabouts in 1554, but there are contemporary claims that he traveled in France and England. In 1555 he returned to the Low Countries and had his early works published in Antwerp (1555-1556). In 1556 he joined the court of Duke Albrecht V of Bavaria, who was consciously attempting to create a musical establishment on a par with the major courts in Italy; Lassus was one of several Netherlanders to work there, and by far the most famous. He evidently was happy in Munich and decided to settle there. In 1558 he married Regina Wäckinger, the daughter of a maid of honor of the Duchess; they had two sons, both of whom became composers. By 1563 Lassus had been appointed maestro di cappella, succeeding Ludwig Daser in the post. Lassus remained in the service of Albrecht V and his heir, Wilhelm V, for the rest of his life.
By the 1560s Lassus had become quite famous, and composers began to go to Munich to study with him. Andrea Gabrieli went there in 1562, and possibly remained in the chapel for a year; Giovanni Gabrieli also possibly studied with him in the 1570s. His renown had spread outside of strictly musical circles, for in 1570 Emperor Maximilian II conferred nobility upon him, a rare circumstance for a composer; Pope Gregory XIII knighted him; and in 1571, and again in 1573, the king of France, Charles IX, invited him to visit. Some of these kings and aristocrats attempted to woo him away from Munich with more attractive offers, but Lassus was evidently more interested in the stability of his position, and the splendid performance opportunities of Albrecht's court, than in financial gain. "I do not want to leave my house, my garden, and the other good things in Munich," he wrote to the Duke of Saxony in 1580, upon receiving an offer for a position in Dresden.
In the late 1570s and 1580s Lassus made several visits to Italy, where he encountered the most modern styles and trends. In Ferrara, the center of avant-garde activity, he doubtless heard the madrigals being composed for the d'Este court; however his own style remained conservative, indeed becoming more simple and more refined as he aged. In the 1590s his health began to decline, and he went to a doctor named Thomas Mermann for treatment of what was called "melancholia hypocondriaca"; however he still was able to compose as well as travel occasionally. His final work was one of his best pieces: an exquisite set of twenty-one madrigali spirituali known as the Lagrime di San Pietro ("Tears of St. Peter"), which he dedicated to Pope Clement VIII, and which was published posthumously in 1595. Lassus died in Munich, on June 14, 1594, the same day that his employer decided to dismiss him for economic reasons; he never saw the letter.
Lassus remained Catholic during this age of religious discord, although not dogmatically so, as may be seen from his more worldly secular songs as well as his parody Masses and Magnificats based on secular compositions. Nevertheless the Catholic Counter-Reformation, which under Jesuit influence was reaching a peak in Bavaria in the late sixteenth century, had a demonstrable impact on Lassus' late work, including the liturgical music for the Roman Rite, the burgeoning number of Magnificats, the settings of the Catholic Ulenberg Psalter (1588), and especially the great penitential cycle of spiritual madrigals, the 'Lagrime di San Pietro' (1594).
In addition to his traditional parody masses, he wrote a considerable quantity of missae breves, "brief masses," syllablic short masses meant for brief services (for example, on days when Duke Albrecht went hunting: evidently he did not want to be detained by long-winded polyphonic music). The most extreme of these is a work actually known as the Jäger Mass (Missa venatorum)—the "Hunter's Mass."
Some of his masses show influence from the Venetian School, particularly in their use of polychoral techniques (for example, in the eight-voice Missa osculetur me, based on his own motet). Three of his masses are for double choir, and they may have been influential on the Venetians themselves; after all, Andrea Gabrieli visited Lassus in Munich in 1562, and many of Lassus's works were published in Venice. Even though Lassus used the contemporary, sonorous Venetian style, his harmonic language remained conservative in these works: he adapted the texture of the Venetians to his own artistic ends.
Lassus wrote four settings of the Passion, one for each of the Evangelists, St. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. All are for a cappella voices. He sets the words of Christ and the narration of the Evangelist as chant, while setting the passages for groups polyphonically.
As a composer of motets, Lassus was one of the most diverse and prodigious of the entire Renaissance. His output varies from the sublime to the ridiculous, and he showed a sense of humor not often associated with sacred music: for example, one of his motets satirizes poor singers (super flumina Babylonis) which includes stuttering, stopping and starting, and general confusion; it is related in concept if not in style to Mozart's A Musical Joke. Many of his motets were composed for ceremonial occasions, as could be expected of a court composer who was required to provide music for visits of dignitaries, weddings, treaties and other events of state. But it was as a composer of religious motets that Lassus achieved his widest and lasting fame.
Lassus's setting of the seven Penitential Psalms of David (Psalmi Davidis poenitentiales) is one of the most famous collections of psalm settings of the entire Renaissance. The counterpoint is free, avoiding the pervasive imitation of the Netherlanders such as Gombert, and occasionally using expressive devices foreign to Palestrina. As elsewhere, Lassus strives for emotional impact, and uses a variety of texture and care in text setting towards that end. The final piece in the collection, his setting of the De profundis (Psalm 129/130), is considered by many scholars to be one of the high-water marks of Renaissance polyphony, ranking alongside the two settings of the same text by Josquin des Prez.
In his madrigals, many of which he wrote during his stay in Rome, his style is clear and concise, and he wrote tunes which were easily memorable; he also "signed" his work by frequently using the word 'lasso' (and often setting with the sol-fege syllables la-sol, i.e. A-G in the key of C). His choice of poetry varied widely, from Petrarch for his more serious work to the lightest verse for some of his amusing canzonettas.
Lassus often preferred cyclic madrigals, i.e. settings of multiple poems in a group as a set of related pieces of music. For example, his fourth book of madrigals for five voices begins with a complete sestina by Petrarch, continues with two-part sonnets, and concludes with another sestina: therefore the entire book can be heard as a unified composition with each madrigal a subsidiary part.
One of the most famous of Lassus's drinking songs was used by Shakespeare in Henry IV, Part II. English words are fitted to Un jour vis un foulon qui fouloit (as Monsieur Mingo) and sung by the drunken Justice Silence, in Act V, Scene iii.
Azure, a pile and a pile reversed Argent, on each a crosslet Or; on a fess Argent a sharp, flat and natural, over all a bordure Or