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Issue 18 – Assumption 2023


Orlando di Lasso

On the composer.


Sometime in 1590, Regina di Lasso returned home to find her husband incapacitated: he could not speak and was unable even to recognize her. A court physician was sent for, whose treatment brought about some improvement, but Regina’s husband never returned to his former self. He suffered from chronic insomnia and was unable to work. Most distressing was the change in his personality: “he has become gloomy and speaks only of death.” Regina, in desperation, took it upon herself to write to her husband’s former employers begging for financial assistance; she reminded them of his years of faithful service, suggesting that overwork had led to his physical collapse. We do not know if Duke Wilhelm V of Bavaria came to the aid of the Lasso family, but one certainly hopes that he did. After all, Orlando di Lasso had been the most famous musician in Europe.

It is always dangerous to use present-day medical categories to diagnose historical figures, and nowhere is there more possibility of confusion than in the changing descriptions of what we would call “mental illness.” A modern physician might conclude from Regina’s description that Orlando was the victim of a stroke, and that his subsequent symptoms were signs of clinical depression. Regina simply described his condition as a “true melancholy.” For writers of Lasso’s time—including Thomas Mermann, the doctor who attended him—melancholy was a physical substance, the black bile produced in the liver, which if found in excess could alter human character. Accounts differed on the exact mechanism by which an excess of black bile led to melancholic behavior, although all agreed that it had something to do with the balance of melancholy with the other bodily humors (blood, phlegm, and yellow bile). In one account, an overabundance of melancholy produced a black smoke that rose through the body and collected in the part of the brain that received and processed sensory images: the melancholic literally saw the world through a dark cloud.

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About the author

Aaron James

Aaron James is the Director of Music for the Toronto Oratory of Saint Philip Neri and a contributing editor at The Lamp.