Orlande de Lassus (c 1532-1594), a Catholic composer born in Mons in the Habsburg Netherlands (modern-day Belgium), was one of the most prolific creative spirits of the 1500s. Producing more than 2,000 works, he eschewed instruments, unlike most of his contemporaries, and wrote only for human voices. His polyphonic (many-voiced) approach juxtaposed singers in heart-stoppingly emotive sounds, reaching its apogee in his Penitential Psalms of David (Psalmi Davidis poenitentiales; 1584), with an almost unbearably moving De profundis.
The way voices climb in a composition by Lassus goes beyond the metaphor of ecclesiastical architecture in sound, often applied to choral works. Something organic and self-sustaining about his work led the astronomer Johannes Kepler to repeatedly cite Lassus, especially his motet “Your wrath swept over me” (In me transierunt irae tuae), in his Harmony of the World (1619), about planetary motion and the harmony of the spheres.
Recognising in Lassus’s notes melodies that echoed his arrangement of the planets, Kepler also believed implicitly in the composer’s practical know-how, writing to a friend in 1599 that had Lassus still been alive, he would have instructed Kepler on how to tune a clavichord.
Multiplicity of skills was at the heart of Lassus’s creativity. He was fluent in Italian, French, German, Dutch and Latin, and wrote idiomatic music in all these languages. So posterity has remembered him as Orlando di Lasso, as well as names with other national associations. His private correspondence includes racy puns in Italian, Latin, French, and German, sometimes in a single letter.
In one comic motet, Lassus even uses a Hungarian term (kurvafia) to excoriate a flea as a “whoreson beast!”
Most of his career was spent in Munich at the court of Albrecht V, Duke of Bavaria, and his heir, Wilhelm V, educated by the Jesuits, with whom Lassus enjoyed a relationship of mutual esteem. Still, court musicians of the day were considered household staff, and Lassus was called upon to compose a range of missae breves (brief Masses) for occasions when Duke Albrecht wanted to go hunting and had no time for extended worship.
A contemporary memoir by Massimo Troiano, a fellow court musician, relates that Lassus routinely performed music for the Duke’s meals, as entertainment and perhaps as a digestive aid: “When the fruit is served, Messer Orlando di Lasso gives his singers free rein, and with sweet and clear voices they make everyone listen to the new composition that is presented each day.”
Praising the way ensembles led by Lassus performed with “liveliness, sweetness and sonority”, Troiano noted: “Sound from these controlled voices was so well united that the best ears could not distinguish one from another.”
While many recordings today of Lassus’s sacred and secular works are in the homogenised dulcet tones of the English choral tradition as led by such conductors as Simon Preston (Decca), perhaps more expressive are the dramatic CDs by the Belgian maestro Philippe Herreweghe (Harmonia Mundi), especially the penitential cycle of spiritual madrigals, the Tears of St Peter (Lagrime di San Pietro, 1594).
The American musicologist Jeremy Smith has identified works by Lassus that share with other Catholic composers of the day a recognition of Mary, Queen of Scots as the biblical Susanna from the Book of Daniel, falsely accused of adultery but eventually spared from a death sentence.
Catholic popular literature of the Elizabethan era likened Mary to Susanna. But beyond these stories, Lassus’s patron-to-be, Wilhelm, married Renata of Lorraine, Mary’s aunt (with Lassus writing the wedding music). Wilhelm would volunteer to pay for an army of 5,000 Germans to invade Norfolk and try to liberate Mary from captivity.
By setting many songs and other works in her honour, Lassus echoed his patron’s ardent support and influenced other Catholic composers, notably England’s William Byrd, who greatly esteemed his musical achievement.
Jeremy Smith suggests that the inspiration may have been mutual, insofar as Byrd’s own compositions about Mary/Susanna may have led Lassus to compose in 1594, well after her execution, a particularly anguished setting of verse 14 from Psalm 86 (85 in the Vulgate), “O God, the iniquitous have risen up against me.”
Posthumously, Lassus was not always in vogue. In the late 1700s, Charles Burney’s General History of Music slates him as “heavy and dull” and compared to Palestrina, “little better than the strut of a dwarf upon stilts”. Yet of all the many and deserved posthumous tributes to Lassus, perhaps none is so endearing as one in The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans (1908) by Arthur Conan Doyle, in which Dr Watson observes that Sherlock Holmes, while on a demanding case, “lost himself in a monograph which he had undertaken upon the Polyphonic Motets of Lassus … which has since been printed for private circulation, and is said by experts to be the last word upon the subject.”
Benjamin Ivry is the author of biographies of Ravel, Poulenc and Rimbaud, and is a translator from the French of authors including Gide, Verne and Balthus