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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.

It is easy to laugh at the fanciful theories of early modern physiology, but the physicians who wrote these things were grappling with something real. Generations of readers have paged through Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy with pleasure, and not merely for the elegance of the author’s style: the old category of melancholy captures a whole spectrum of human experience that the modern reader still recognizes, ranging from a pleasurable state of sorrowful reverie to the most extreme realms of human misery. Because so many states of mind, with so many possible meanings, fell under the umbrella of early modern melancholy (as too with today’s “depression”), interpreters of Lasso’s life and music have not agreed on how to understand his later-life treatment for melancholia. Was Lasso suffering from a physical ailment of the brain, a chemical imbalance that could have been treated with the aid of modern pharmacology? Was his melancholy an indication of a tragic flaw in his character, and therefore a sign of something diseased and unhealthy in his music? Or, on the contrary, was his melancholy the truest sign of his genius, an indication that he saw deeper than his frivolous contemporaries into the sorrows of the human condition?

This last view—Lasso as a doomed Romantic hero—is a tempting one, because his life story fits well into a familiar narrative of triumph and tragedy. We read first of a Lasso defined by his early international success—call him Young Lasso—who is prodigiously gifted, gregarious and sociable, and a master of all genres, sacred and secular. Young Lasso, perhaps, is too clever for his own good; his compositions are stuffed with little jokes, ingenious bits of text setting, references to the music of past composers. His letters reveal a man of high spirits, fond of puns, wordplay, and practical jokes. But then there is Old Lasso, depressed and miserable, physically worn by his painstaking work but persevering to pen a final, melancholy masterpiece for posthumous publication. (The Lagrime di San Pietro, published a year after Lasso’s death, is a cycle of madrigals describing the penitence of Saint Peter after his denial of Christ.) It is probably not a coincidence that both Young Lasso and Old Lasso sound very much like Mozart—not Mozart the historical figure, but the preternaturally gifted child turned tragic victim portrayed in Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus.

The most impressive piece of evidence in this narrative of Lasso the penitent libertine is the motet Recordare Jesu pie, which concludes his final published book of motets (the Cantiones sacrae for six voices of 1594). Commending his final works to his patron, the aged and melancholy Lasso describes these new works as “endowed with a weightier countenance” and liable to “afford a profounder pleasure to the mind and the ear of the critic”: these works are to be understood as the quintessence of the composer’s late style, overshadowed by Lasso’s brush with death. And as a final valedictory gesture, the dying master sets to music the stanzas of the Dies irae that include his own name:

Recordare, Jesu pie
quod sum causa tuae viae:
ne me perdas illa die.
Quaerens me, sedisti lassus,
redemisti crucem passus:
tantus labor non sit cassus.

Remember, kind Jesus, that I am the cause of your going forth: let me not be lost on that day. Seeking me, you sat down weary; you redeemed me, dying on the cross; let not this great labor be in vain.

The invocation of Lasso’s name is unmistakable: the composer used the Italian Lasso and the Latin Lassus interchangeably, and invariably employed the latter in his sacred music publications. In a performance of the motet, one hears the word “Lassus” dragged out over three full measures, stretched out almost beyond endurance, and then repeated a second time: you are meant to hear the composer speaking and naming himself. The lassitude evoked here is the weariness of Christ, exhausted by his work of salvation, but it is also the weariness of Lasso himself, broken down by years of painstaking work. The motet is an astonishing masterpiece, deeply moving and a perfect conclusion to the composer’s career, and so it is disappointing to learn that it was not written by Old Lasso but by Young Lasso. The piece was written years before Lasso’s attack of melancholia and seems to have been a long-standing favorite; he re-used its music in a setting of the Magnificat written sometime before 1590. With the sly sense of humor that we expect from Young Lasso, the music of the heartbreaking cry sedisti Lassus is used in the Magnificat for the words dimisit inanes (“sent away empty”); instead of portraying the exhaustion of the penitent composer, the music now describes the dispossession of the haughty rich.

If we have difficulty telling Young Lasso from Old Lasso, it may be because most musicians, even specialists in the Renaissance, don’t know either of them particularly well. Students of music history are taught to name Lasso as one of the four great composers of the late Renaissance, along with Palestrina, Victoria, and Byrd, but Lasso is by far the least performed, and he tends to be given short shrift in textbooks. More than two thousand of Lasso’s compositions survive, and he is an intimidating figure to come to grips with. Much of his music has not been surveyed in any detail even by scholars: a complete critical edition of his motets was completed only in 2006. The vast majority of his music has never been recorded, and it is likely that some of his compositions have never been sung in modern times. The student of Lasso is faced with a bewildering variety of languages and musical styles, which reflect the composer’s international and polyglot career: Latin Masses and motets, Italian madrigals, French chansons, German Lieder.

Adding to the difficulty in approaching Lasso is that much of his most frequently performed music seems uninspiring, functional rather than expressive. Many musicians will encounter him first through his book of two-voice Latin duets, simple pedagogical pieces designed as demonstrations of the most rudimentary forms of Renaissance counterpoint. More than many of his contemporaries, Lasso seems to have been willing to churn out large quantities of music to fulfill purely practical needs and was capable of setting liturgical texts in a style so businesslike and perfunctory as to be almost offensive. Some of his Magnificat settings are over so quickly that it would take more time to sing the text in unadorned Gregorian chant; meanwhile, Lasso’s repertoire of Masses includes what may be the shortest Mass setting of the entire sixteenth-century, labeled Missa venatorum in most of its manuscript sources. (This title literally means “hunter’s Mass,” a label that persisted for centuries as a Bavarian slang term for a hastily and sloppily celebrated liturgy.) Because of its brevity and simplicity, the Missa venatorum is one of the most popular Mass settings among parish choirs worldwide, but there is something almost impudent about it; the Gloria and Credo are rattled off at top speed like a patter song out of Gilbert and Sullivan.

It is hard to know whether a sixteenth-century listener would have sensed unbecoming haste in this music; clearly the brevity of the Missa venatorum was intended to serve a practical function in situations where circumstances dictated that the music be short and simple. But it is clear that many sixteenth-century listeners were offended by the excesses of Young Lasso. In 1591, the Jesuit provincial in Bavaria issued a catalog of prohibited music, with seventeen pieces by Lasso at the head of the list. Most of the forbidden works turn out to be drinking songs with off-color texts parodying the style of liturgical Latin (Vinum bonum et suave, Ave color vini clari, and the like). One gets the impression that the Jesuit provincial, bearing in mind increasing standards of literacy and clerical education in the aftermath of the Council of Trent, was targeting illiterate musicians who would sing any piece with a Latin text, ignorant of its actual meaning. (Among the pieces forbidden to be sung is an unknown work titled Barbara celarent darii ferio, which is not a sacred text but a mnemonic used to remember the kinds of syllogisms in Aristotelian logic.) But among the banned works by Lasso is one of the strangest and most puzzling pieces in the sixteenth century repertoire. This motet, if so it can be called, is a setting of the one hundred thirty-sixth Psalm, Super flumina Babylonis, which does not set the words of the Psalm but its individual letters and syllables (“S – U – Su – P – E – R – Per – Su – Per – F” and later “Ba–na–ba–mi–na–ba–by–na–ba–by–mi–na”). It takes eight pages of score for Lasso to babble his way to the end of one verse of the Psalm; the effect in performance is bizarre. It is hard to imagine that Lasso really intended that anyone would use the piece liturgically, but it’s not clear where it would have been sung instead; here, as so often in the sixteenth century, the historian has the impression of having walked in on a long-standing inside joke with no idea why the punch line is supposed to be funny.

It would seem that the impudences of Young Lasso must have been the sort of thing that the Council of Trent had in mind when they banished “extravagant and impure” music from the sacred liturgy: comic drinking songs in Latin, and compositions that reduced the text of the Psalms to disconnected syllables. And I have not even mentioned the Masses written by Lasso based on music from secular models, some with pornographic or scatological texts (Lasso’s Missa Je ne mange point de porc sets the text of the Mass Ordinary to music based on a French song about how it is safest not to eat pork because of the pig’s enthusiastic consumption of excrement). Yet the great paradox of Lasso’s career was that, far from being sidelined in the aftermath of Trent, Lasso was hailed as the undisputed prince of music in the final decades of the sixteenth century, far exceeding his contemporaries in international fame. And when Lasso was the court composer to the Bavarian ducal court in Munich, he was employed by one of the most self-consciously Tridentine courts in Europe, one that prided itself on its loyalty to Rome and its obedience to the reformist program of the council.

Much scholarly ink has been spilled over this paradox, which goes far beyond the music of Lasso: in the years following Trent’s injunctions against impurity and license in sacred music, composers continued to write Masses based on secular love songs in French and Italian, and to do so even in bastions of Counter-Reformation piety such as the Habsburg imperial court and the papal chapel itself. In Rome, Palestrina cheerfully continued to compose Masses on secular models after the end of the council; even the pious priest-composer Tomás Luis de Victoria could not resist writing a Mass based on the French song La bataille (a song describing a skirmish in one of the French proxy wars with Spain, consisting mostly of onomatopoeic battle sounds). Neither Palestrina nor Victoria could be accused of a lack of reverence for the liturgy or a failure of discrimination between suitable and unsuitable styles, so the modern listener is left trying to understand how such men could have seen no contradiction between their Tridentine loyalties and the freedom with which they quoted secular music in church.

One expert on Tridentine liturgical music, the musicologist David Crook, has approached this paradox by adapting a distinction made in some patristic scholarship between the “secular” and the “profane.” The realm of the “profane” names that which is opposed to Christianity, that which the convert must reject, but the “secular” names something more ambiguous and fluid: a shared space that does not belong exclusively to the realm of Christian religious practice but is not opposed to it either. This is the space in which members of the visible Church meet with those who are outside; it provides a shared point of reference from which the Church can adapt what it finds useful and appropriate for its own purposes. Understood in this way, the practice of post-Tridentine composers was to reject the “profane” but to retain the “secular”: by allowing the music of Italian love songs or French battle songs to echo in the Mass, old points of contact between secular and sacred could be retained. Materials referring to the secular experiences of love or war could be repurposed to re-inforce the symbolism of the Mass. A few decades after Lasso’s death, a musician at the Bavarian court recorded that the court typically sang his Missa Puisque jay perdu on Ash Wednesday, an association that revolves around exactly this sort of symbolic equation between sacred and secular: the song Puisque jay perdu (“Because I have lost my love . . . I have reason to sigh”) redescribes in a secular register the same theme of renunciation that is given sacred shape in the Ash Wednesday liturgy.

To enter into this perspective requires an imaginative leap for most modern churchgoers; it means accepting much more porous boundaries between the sacred and the secular than apply today. And it would take a much more detailed analysis to show the care with which Lasso combines secular music with sacred texts, and to determine whether the expressive gains were worth the risks. In the end, we might still conclude that it would be better not to have written a Mass based on a song like Je ne mange point de porc.

Perhaps Lasso’s greatest strength was also his greatest weakness: he was willing to try anything once. He would write in two voices or in twelve voices, from the most complex experiments in chromatic harmony (the Prophetiae Sibyllarum) to the simplest exercises that any of his students could have written. (A whole volume of Lasso’s complete works consists of harmonized Psalm tones and responses to litanies, some of the most rudimentary and unprepossessing music by any great composer.) Over the course of his career, he found new ways to revitalize standard liturgical texts like the Mass Ordinary and the Magnificat, but he also set a greater variety of obscure and unusual motet texts than any other composer of the Renaissance. Looking through the volumes of his complete motets, one finds Lasso practically ransacking the Scriptures to find new texts to set: a particularly memorable series of motets come from Ecclesiastes (Vidi calumnias; Ego cognovi; Dixi ergo in corde meo). He particularly liked to set complete narratives from the Gospels as multi-part motets, producing several large-scale works in which familiar stories are treated musically with great subtlety and sophistication (Cum natus esset Jesus for Epiphany; Nuptiae factae sunt for the wedding at Cana; Missus est angelus for the Annunciation). Some of Lasso’s greatest expressive heights are reached in texts from the Pauline epistles, which were rarely set to music by composers of this period; Cum essem parvulus sets a famous passage from the first book of Corinthians, ending with an unforgettable setting of “faith, hope, and love.”

Lasso, in other words, was an inveterate risk-taker. Some of his risks paid off handsomely, and others didn’t; there are plenty of duds among his two thousand works, and sometimes one gets exasperated with Lasso for trying out yet another eccentric text or strange musical idea. Yet if this habit of risk-taking was a vice—if his sheer exuberance led him sometimes to cross the line into irreverence, and other times to pursue half-baked ideas—it was also a virtue, because it prevented him from settling into any merely routine gestures of musical piety. What critics always praise in Lassus is his hypersensitivity to the text he is setting, attentive to the expressive connotation of each word and phrase as it passes. This quality made him a favorite among the music theorists of the early Baroque, who saw him as the great progenitor of their ideas of musical rhetoric. But it also gives him a kind of intensity and concentration of expression that is very different from the other great composers of the Renaissance. Lasso ranges far more widely than does Victoria or Palestrina; he is guilty of gaucheries that would horrify them, but he also explores realms of expression different from anything that they attempt. Without risking Lasso’s occasional descent into poor taste or sheer silliness, there is no way to reach the expressive heights of the great Passiontide motets which deservedly stand among the great accomplishments of sixteenth-century sacred music: Ave verum corpus, In monte Oliveti, or Tristis est anima mea.

No one could doubt that the tragedy of Lasso’s final years gives a special poignancy to his last works: his final book of six-voice motets and the penitential Lagrime di San Pietro. But the melancholy depths of Old Lasso were already present in Young Lasso. The depressive comedian is a familiar archetype, and one does not have to look very far to find evidence of a tendency to morbid introspection beneath his youthful exuberance. The Italian form of his name (lasso in Italian means not only “weary” but also “miserable” or, as an interjection, simply “alas”) provided fodder for any number of jokes, of which the most typical is his self-characterization as lasso, ma di buon core (sad, but of good cheer). And so his choice to place Recordare Jesu pie at the conclusion of his life’s work was an appropriate one: the piece was not a new work, but the sadness expressed by that long sedisti Lassus had gained new urgency in the light of his physical and psychological deterioration.

It would be a mistake, however, to think of Lasso’s piece merely as a personal swan song with no broader significance. The Anglican spiritual writer W. H. Vanstone noted that the verses of the Dies irae set by Lasso are a kind of Gospel in miniature, with the three rhyme-words expressing the characteristics of love: “the word lassus—‘weary’ or ‘spent’—expresses the limitlessness of love’s self-giving: the word passus—‘suffering’—expresses the vulnerability of love: the word cassus—‘in vain’—expresses the precariousness of love and the possibility that its outcome is tragedy and its work in vain.” What Lasso contemplated in the last motet that he published, therefore, was nothing less than the mystery of Christ’s identification with humanity in the Incarnation. Even in his final years of melancholy, this text reminded him that whatever his own suffering may have been, the suffering of Christ at least was not finally in vain. If he managed to bring across this serious message while still working in a final pun on his last name, there could be no more fitting epitaph.

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