Orlando Di Lasso

Orlando Delattre is generally known by the Italian form of his name, Orlando di Lasso. He was the last great light of the famous school of Netherlands masters who were the real founders of modern musical art.

The history of Lasso’s career is tolerably well known to us, owing to the existence of Vinchant’s “Annals of Hainault” and a sketch by Van Quickelberg published in 1565 in a biographical dictionary called “Heroum Prosopographia.” Although the former author was born in 1580, and Lasso died in 1594 or 1595, he places the date of the composer’s birth ten years earlier than Van Quickelberg. Fetis gives plausible reasons for accepting Vinchant’s date, yet it is probably that Van Quickleberg got his data directly from the composer, of whom he was an intimate friend.

At any rate, he was born in Mons in 1520 or 1530 and at the age of seven began his education. Like all musically gifted persons, he displayed his inclination toward the tone art at an early age, and in his ninth year he began the study of music. At that period music meant counterpoint and church signing. Hence Lasso, being endowed with a fine voice, began his career as a boy chorister in the church of St. Nicolas in his native town. There he became celebrated for the beauty of his voice and was twice stolen but recovered by his parents.

The third time the little song-bird was carried off, he consented to remain with Ferdinand Gonzague, viceroy of Sicily and at that time commander of the army of Charles V. When the war was over the lad went with Ferdinand to Sicily and afterward to Milan. Van Quickelberg says that after six years his voice broken and at the age of eighteen he was sent by his patron under charge of Constantin Castriotto to Naples with letters of recommendation to the Marquis of Terza.

He became a member of that nobleman’s household and remained with him three years. At the end of that time he went to Rome, where he stayed six months as the guest of the archbishop of Florence. He was then appointed chapel-master of the famous church of St. John Lateran. While serving there he was informed of the sickness of his parents, and, probably being somewhat conscience stricken, set out for Mons, where he arrived after his father and mother were dead.

He returned to Rome and soon afterward paid a visit to France and England in company with a noble amateur of music called Julius Caesar Brancaccio. From France he went to Antwerp, where he stayed until he went to Munich in 1557 to enter the service of Albert of Bavaria. The doubt as to the date of his birth makes the length of his residence in Rome uncertain. He was there either two years or twelve, according as he was born in 1520 or 1530.

The invitation to Munich seems to show that Lasso had acquired a European reputation as a composer. Such a reputation would naturally have been acquired during a long period of service in the Lateran church. If, however, Lasso did remain in Rome twelve years and produce works which gave him European celebrity, they are lost. Nevertheless even Van Quickelberg’s testimony goes to show that Lasso’s fame as a composer and as a man had preceded him to Munich.

The Duke Albert directed him to engage a number of singers for the ducal choir and take them with him to Munich. Albert V. was a lover of art, and he is credited with being highly pleased at the engagement of Lasso. Quickelberg says that report in the Bavarian capital “was busy as to the character and disposition of the man. He was credited with being a great artist and a high-minded gentleman, and the Munich folk were not to be disappointed. The brilliant wit of the master, his amiability of temper, the cheerfulness of his disposition, and the universality of his knowledge, combined to make him a favorite with all. With the duke and the duchess he was especially intimate, and owing to their favor was admitted to the highest social gatherings. His introduction to the court nobility resulted in his marriage in 1558 with Regina Welkinger, a maid of honor attendant on the duchess.

It may be as well to add here that Lasso and his wife had six children, four sons and two daughters. Ferdinand and Rudolph, the eldest sons, became composers of some note. It was in 1562 that Lasso was made chapel-master to the Duke of Bavaria, thus attaining what was then esteemed as the highest prize in the musical world. He now had under his direction a fine body of singers and instrumentalists, for which a modern composer would have written not only masses, but cantatas and oratorios.

We must bear in mind, however, that in Lasso’s day church composers preferred the a capella style, and the art of orchestral accompaniment, as we understand it now, was unknown. When instruments were used in conjunction with voices they simply doubled the voice parts. Hence Lasso’s compositions are all written for an unaccompanied choir.

It appears that Lasso served for five years as chamber musician before being made chapel-master, because Ludwig Daser was not quite old enough to be retired from the higher post and because the Duke wished Lasso to learn the language before assuming the responsibility of the mastership.

In 1562, as stated, Daser was retired, and, as Van Quickelberg tells us, “the Duke, seeing that Master Orlando had by this time learnt the language and gained the good will of all by the propriety and gentleness of his behavior, and that his compositions (in number infinite) were universally liked, without loss of time elected him master of the chapel, to the evident pleasure of all.”

From this time forward for several years Lasso was engaged in composing his most noted church works, among them being the famous “Penitential Psalms,” which are still held in the highest esteem among lovers of pure old church music. He wrote also some of his finest Magnificats, as well as many pieces of secular music. His fame spread through Europe, and though Palestrina was his contemporary, it was Lasso who was spoken of as the “Prince of Musicians.” He was also much praised as a conductor, and contemporary writers bear testimony to the fine precision and spirit with which the ducal choir sang under his direction.

In 1570 the Emperor Maximilian honored the composer by making him a knight. The following year Pope Gregory XIII conferred upon him the order of the Golden Spurs. The ceremony was performed with much pomp in the papal chapel at Munich by the chevaliers Cajetan and Mezzacosta. In the same year the composer made a visit to Paris, where he was received with every mark of distinction by Charles IX. This visit and the favor of the monarch have given rise to one of those pretty stories with which the history of music is dotted, but which unfortunately will not bear scrutiny.

The story is that Charles IX, tormented by remorse for the massacre of St. Bartholomew, asked Lasso to write his Penitential Psalms as an expression of the kingly repentance. But dates, which are stubborn things, refuse to be reconciled with this story. These psalms were undoubtedly written at the request of Duke Albert. The first volume of them in manuscript is preserved in the Royal State Library at Munich, and it bears the date 1565. The massacre of St. Bartholomew took place in 1572. The value which Duke Albert set upon these compositions is shown by the manner in which he treated them. They were bound in the most costly manner, in morocco, with silver ornaments which alone cost seven hundred and sixty-four florins. The court painter, Hans Mielich, painted for them portraits of the Duke, Orlando, and of the persons who made the books. J. Sterndale Bennett, in his excellent article on Lasso in Grove’s “Dictionary of Music,” makes the suggestion that the production of these noble psalms so early in the composer’s life at Munich points to the probability that his Roman sojourn was twelve years instead of two, and that he was, therefore, born in 1520 instead of 1530. The inference is hardly avoidable.

To return to the Paris visit, it may be deemed probably that one result of it was the erection of a new Academy of Music, authorized by the king in 1570. The only composition known to have been produced by Lasso in Paris was sent to Duke Albert as “some proof of my gratitude.”

In 1574 Lasso set out for Paris once more, but when he had gone as far as Frankfort he learned that King Charles IX was dead; so he returned to Munich, where he resumed the work of composition with undiminished activity. Lasso never left Munich again and a detailed record of his life subsequent to 1575 would consist chiefly of a chronological catalogue of the works which he published.

It may be said that he did not produce any large compositions in the years 1578-80. The Duke, who had confirmed him for life in his appointment on his return from Munich, had become ill, and in October, 1579, this generous and high-minded patron of the arts breathed his last.

This was a sad blow to Lasso, whose affection for his princely friend was surely sincere. It was fortunate for the composer’s material welfare that Duke Albert’s successor was a hearty admirer of his works. The substantial nature of his regard was shown in 1587, when, Lasso having begun to show signs of failing health, the new potentate gave him a country house at Geising on the Ammer. There the composer sought seclusion for a time from the bustle of court life. On April 15, he dedicated twenty-three new madrigals to Dr. Mermann, the court physician, and J. Sterndale Bennett sees in this an evidence of restored health and renewed activity.

Near the end of the year, however, he asked to be relieved of some of his numerous duties. The Duke gave him permission to retire from his post and pass a part of each year at Geising with his family, but his salary was to be reduced to two hundred florins per annum. His son Ferdinand, however, was to be appointed a member of the choir at two hundred florins, and Rudolph was to be made organist at the same salary. For some reason Lasso was not satisfied with this arrangement, and so he resumed his labors.

It would be gratifying to be able to picture this great master approaching his end along the green pathway of a serene old age. Unfortunately this cannot be done. His declining years were marked by gloom and morbidity. He talked constantly of death, and became so peevish as to write to Duke William complaining that he had not done all for the composer that Duke Albert had promised.

The devoted wife, Regina, united her efforts with those of Princess Maximiliana to remove the evil effects of this letter. The composer sank gradually and died at Munich on June 14, 1594. He was buried in the cemetery of the Franciscans, and his widow erected a fine monument to his memory in their church. According to Fetis this stone was two feet four inches high and four feet eight inches long. It had ornamental bas-reliefs representing the holy sepulchre, Lassus and his family at prayer, and the coat-of-arms conferred upon them by the Emperor Maximilian. The inscription on the base was as follows:

“Hic ille est Lassus, lassum qui recreat orbem,
Discordemque sua copulat harmonia.”

Translated to English:

“Here lies he who a weary world refreshed,
And discord with him harmony enmeshed.”

The monument was removed when the Franciscan churchyard was dismantled in 1800, and in 1830 the stone disappeared from view. The world of art has to thank the “mad king” Ludwig, of Bavaria (to whom it owes debts of gratitude in connection with Wagner’s career), for the erection of a life-size statue in bronze of Orlando Lasso. It stood originally next to the statue of Gluck near the Theatiner Church, but was afterward removed to the public promenade. There is another statue of Lasso at Mons, where he was born.