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Orlando di Lasso

Orlando di LassoBorn: 1530
Birthplace: Mons, Hainaut
Died: 14-Jun-1594
Location of death: Munich, Germany
Cause of death: unspecified
Remains: Buried, Alter Franziskaner Friedhof, Munich, Germany

Gender: Male
Religion: Roman Catholic
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Composer

Nationality: Belgium
Executive summary: Psalmi Davidis Poenitentiales

Belgian musical composer, whose real name was probably Roland Delattre, was born at Mons, in Hainault, probably not much earlier than 1532, the date given by the epitaph printed at the end of the volumes of the Magnum Opus Musicum; though already in the 16th century the opinions of his biographers were divided between the years 1520 and 1530. Much is reported, but very little known, of his connections and his early career. The discrepancy as to the date of his birth appears also in connection with his appointment at the church of St. John Lateran in Rome. If he was born in 1530 or 1532 he could not have obtained that appointment in 1541. What is certain is that his first book of madrigals was published in Venice in 1555, and that in the same year he speaks of himself in the preface of Italian and French songs and Latin motets as if he had recently come from Rome. He seems to have visited England in 1554 and to have been introduced to Cardinal Pole, to whom an adulatory motet appears in 1556. (This is not, as might hastily be supposed, a confusion resulting from the fact that the ambassador from Ferdinand, king of the Romans, Don Pedro de Lasso, attended the marriage of Philip and Mary in England in the same year.) His first book of motets appeared at Antwerp in 1556, containing the motet in honour of Cardinal Pole. The style of Orlando had already begun to purify itself from the speculative and chaotic elements that led Charles Burney, who seems to have known only his earlier works, to call him "a dwarf on stilts" as compared with Palestrina. But where he is orthodox he is as yet stiff, and his secular compositions are, so far, better than his more serious efforts.

In 1557, if not before, he was invited by Albrecht IV, Duke of Bavaria, to go to Munich. The duke was a most intelligent patron of all the fine arts, a notable athlete, and a man of strict principles. Munich from henceforth never ceased to be Orlando's home; though he sometimes paid long visits to Italy and France, whether in response to royal invitations or with projects of his own. In 1558 he made a very happy marriage by which he had four sons and two daughters. The four sons all became good musicians, and we owe an inestimable debt to the pious industry of the two eldest sons, who (under the patronage of Duke Maximilian I, the second successor of Orlando's master) published the enormous collection of Orlando's Latin motets known as the Magnum Opus Musicum.

Probably no composer has ever had more ideal circumstances for artistic inspiration and expression than had Orlando. His duty was to make music all day and every day, and to make it according to his own taste. Nothing was too good, too severe or too new for the duke. Church music was not more in demand than secular. Instrumental music, which in the 16th century had hardly any independent existence, accompanied the meals of the court; and Orlando would rise from dessert to sing trios and quartets with picked voices. The daily prayers included a full mass with polyphonic music. This amazing state of things becomes more intelligible and less alarming when we consider that 16th-century music was no sooner written than it could be performed. With such material as Orlando had at his disposal, musical performance was as unattended by expense and tedious preliminaries as a game of billiards in a good billiard room. Not even Haydn's position at Esterhaz can have enabled him, as has been said, to "ring the bell" for musicians to come and try a new orchestral effect with such ease as that with which Orlando could produce his work at Munich. His fame soon became worldwide, and every contemporary authority is full of the acclamation with which Orlando was greeted wherever lis travels took him.

Very soon, with this rapid means of acquiring experience, Orlando's style became as pure as Palestrina's, while he always retained his originality and versatility. His relations to the literary culture of the time are intimate and fascinating; and during his stay at the court of France in 1571 he became a friend of the poet Pierre de Ronsard. In 1579 Duke Albrecht died. Orlando's salary had already been guaranteed to him for life, so that his outward circumstances did not change, and the new duke was very kind to him. But the loss of his master was in great grief and seems to have checked his activity for some time. In 1589, after the publication of six Masses, ending with a beautiful Missa pro Defunctis, his strength began to fail; and a sudden serious illness left him alarmingly depressed and inactive until his death on the 14th of June 1594.

If Palestrina represents the supreme height attained by 16th-century music, Orlando represents the whole century. It is impossible to exaggerate the range and variety of his style, so long as we recognize the limits of 16th-century musical language. Even critics to whom this language is unfamiliar cannot fail to notice the glaring differences between Orlando's numerous types of art, though such critics may believe all those types to be equally crude and archaic. The swiftness of Orlando's intellectual and artistic development is astonishing. His first four volumes of madrigals show a very intermittent sense of beauty. Many a number in them is one compact mass of the fashionable harsh play upon the "false relation" between twin major and minor chords, which is usually believed to be the unenviable distinction of the English madrigal style from that of the Italians. It must be confessed that in the Italian madrigal (as distinguished from the villanella and other light forms), Orlando never attained complete certainty of touch; though some of his later madrigals are indeed glorious. But in his French chansons, many of which are settings of the poems of his friend Ronsard, his wit and lightness of touch are unfailing. In setting other French poems he is sometimes unfortunately most witty where the words are most gross, for he is as free from modern scruples as any of his Elizabethan contemporaries. In 1562, when the Council of Trent was censuring the abuses of Flemish church music, Orlando had already purified his ecclesiastical style; though he did not go so far as to Italianize it in order to oblige those modern critics who are unwilling to believe that anything appreciably unlike Palestrina can be legitimate. At the same time Orlando's Masses are not among his greatest works. This is possibly partly due to the fact that the proportions of a musical Mass are at the mercy of the local practice of the liturgy; and that perhaps the uses of the court at Munich were not quite so favorable to broadly designed proportion (not length) as the uses of Rome. Differences which might cramp the 16th-century composer need not amount to anything that would draw down the censure of ecclesiastical authorities. Be this as it may, Orlando's other church music is always markedly different from Palestrina's, and often fully as sublime. It is also in many ways far more modern in resource. We frequently come upon things like the Justorum Animae [Magnum Opus, No. 260 (301)] which in their way are as overpoweringly touching as, for example, the Benedictus of Beethoven's Mass in D or the soprano solo in Brahms' Deutsches Requiem.

No one has approached Orlando in the ingenuity, quaintness and humor of his tone-painting. He sometimes descends to extremely elaborate musical puns, carrying farther than any other composer since the dark ages the absurd device of setting syllables that happened to coincide with the sol-fa system to the corresponding sol-fa notes. But in the most absurd of such cases he evidently enjoys twisting these notes into a theme of pregnant musical meaning. The quaintest instance is the motet Quid Estis Pusillanimes [Magnum Opus, No. 92 (69)] where extra sol-fa syllables are introduced into the text to make a good theme in combination with the syllables already there by accident! (An nescitis Justitiae Ut Sol [Fa Mi] Re Laxatas habenas possit denuo cohibere?). The significance of these euphuistic jokes is that they always make good music in Orlando's hands. There is musical fun even in his voluminous parody of the stammering style of word-setting in the burlesque motet S.U. Su.PER. per. super F.L.U., which gets through one verse of a psalm in fifteen minutes.

When it was a question of purely musical high spirits Orlando was unrivalled; and his setting of Walter de Mape's Fertur in Conviviis (given in the Magnum Opus with a stupid moral derangement of the text), and most of his French chansons, are among the most deeply humorous music in the world.

But it is in the tests of the sublime that Orlando shows himself one of the greatest minds that ever found expression in art. Nothing sublime was too unfamiliar to frighten him into repressing his quaint fancy, though he early repressed all that thwarted his musical nature. His Penitential Psalms stand with Josquin's Miserere and Palestrina's first book of Lamentations as artistic monuments of 16th-century penitential religion, just as Bach's Matthew Passion stands alone among such monuments in later art. Yet the passage (quoted by Sir Hubert Parry in vol. 3 of the Oxford History of Music) "Nolite fieri sicut mulus" is one among many traits which are ingeniously and grotesquely descriptive without losing harmony with the austere profundity of the huge works in which they occur. It is impossible to read any large quantity of Orlando's mature music without feeling that a mind like his would in modern times have covered a wider field of mature art than any one classical or modern composer known to us. Yet we cannot say that anything has been lost by his belonging to the 16th century. His music, if only from its peculiar technique of crossing parts and unexpected intervals, is exceptionally difficult to read; and hence intelligent conducting and performance of it is rare. But its impressiveness is beyond dispute; and there are many things which, like the Justorum Animae cannot even be read, much less heard, without emotion.

Orlando's works as shown by the plan of Messrs. Breitkopf & Härtel's complete critical edition (begun in 1894) comprise: (1) the Magnum Opus Musicum, a posthumous collection containing Latin pieces for from two to twelve voices, 516 in number (or, counting by single movements, over 700). Not all of these are to the original texts. The Magnum Opus fills eleven volumes. (2) Five volumes of madrigals, containing six books, and a large number of single madrigals, and about half a volume of lighter Italian songs (villanellas, etc.) (3) Three volumes (not four as in the prospectus) of French chansons. (4) Two volumes of German four-part and five-part Lieder. (5) Serial church music: three volumes, containing Lessons from the Book of Job (two settings). Passion according to St. Matthew (i.e. like the Passions of Victoria and Soriano, a setting of the words of the crowds and of the disciples); Lamentations of Jeiemiah; Morning Lessons; the Officia printed in the third volume of the Patroncinium (a publication suggested and supported by Orlando's patrons and containing eight entire volumes of his works); the Seven Penitential Psalms; German Psalms and Prophetiae Sibyllarum, (6) one hundred Magnificats (Jubilus B. M. Virginis) 3 vols, (7) eight volumes of Masses, (8) two volumes of Latin songs not in the Magnum Opus, (9) five volumes of unpublished works.

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