Page:A Dictionary of Music and Musicians vol 2.djvu/108

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96
LASSUS.
 

the statement. The 1st book (à 4) contains 27 short pieces of a humorous character, many of which are given by Van Maldeghem in his 'Trésor Musical.' The music is admirably adapted to the words, notwithstanding the fact that in later times it was considered equally well suited to sacred words, or at least published with them, an ordeal to which many of his earlier secular compositions were subjected. The reason and result of these journeys are thus given by Massimo Trojano:—

'The Duke seeing that his predecessor's chapel was far beneath his own ideal, sent messages and letters, with gifts and promises through all Europe, to select learned musical artists, and singers with fine voices and experience. And it came to pass in a short time, that he had collected as great a company of virtuosi as he could possibly obtain, chosen from all the musicians in Germany and other countries by his composer, the excellent Orlando di Lasso.'

Of these musicians, upwards of 90 in number, the same author mentions more than 30 by name. Among them Antonio Morari, the head of the orchestra, Gioseppe da Lucca and Ivo da Vento, organists, Francesco da Lucca and Simone Gallo, both instrumentalists, Giovanne da Lochenburg, a great favourite and companion of the Duke's, and Antonio Gosuino, were all composers, some of whose works still exist.[1] The singing of the choir was of the highest order, balanced with the greatest nicety, and able to keep in tune through the longest compositions. The Duke treated them so kindly, and their life was made so pleasant, that, as Massimo Trojano says, 'had the heavenly choir been suddenly dismissed, they would straightway have made for the court of Munich, there to find peace and retirement.'

For general purposes the wind and brass instruments seem to have been kept separate from the strings. The former accompanied the mass on Sundays and festivals. In the chamber music all took part in turn. At a banquet, the wind instruments would play during the earlier courses, then till dinner was finished the strings, with Antonio Morari as their conductor, and at dessert Orlando would direct the choir, sometimes singing quartets and trios with picked voices, a kind of music of which the Duke was so fond, that he would leave the table to listen more attentively to 'the much-loved strains.' He and all his family were intensely fond of music, and made a point of attending the musical mass every day. They took a keen interest in Lassus' work, and the Duke and his son William were continually sending him materials and suggestions for new compositions. The manuscript of the music to the 'Penitential Psalms,' already noticed, remains to this day a witness of the reverence with which the Duke treated the composer's work.

These 7 psalms were composed, at the Duke's suggestion, before the year 1565, the date of the first volume of the MS., but were not published till some years after. The music is in 5 parts, one, and sometimes two separate movements for each verse. The last movement, 'Sicut erat,' always in 6 parts. Duets, Trios, and Quartets appear for various combinations of voices. The length of the Psalms is considerable, and though no reliance can be placed on modern ideas of their tempi, the longer ones would probably occupy nearly an hour in performance.

'When we think,' says Ambros, 'of the principal works of the i6th century, these Psalms and Palestrina's Missa Papæ Marcelli always come first to our [2]minds.' One reason for this is, perhaps, that these works have each a little story attached to them which has made them easy to remember and talk about. It is not true that Lassus composed the 'Penitential Psalms' to soothe the remorse of Charles IX, after the massacre of St. Bartholomew, but it is more than probable, that they were sung before that unhappy monarch, and his musical sense must indeed have been dull, if he found no consolation and hope expressed in them. This is no everyday music, which may charm at all seasons or in all moods; but there are times when we find ourselves forgetting the antique forms of expression, passing the strange combinations of sounds, almost losing ourselves, in a new-found grave delight, till the last few movements of the Psalm—always of a more vigorous character—gradually recall us as from a beautiful dream which 'waking we can scarce remember.' Is this indefinite impression created by the music due to our imperfect appreciation of a style and composition so remote, or is it caused by the actual nature of the music itself, which thus proves its inherent fitness for the service of religion? So unobtrusive is its character, that we can fancy the worshippers hearing it by the hour, passive rather than active listeners, with no thought of the human mind that fashioned its form. Yet the art is there, for there is no monotony in the sequence of the movements. Every variety that can be naturally obtained by changes of key, contrasted effects of repose and activity, or distribution of voices, are here; but these changes are so quietly and naturally introduced, and the startling contrasts, now called 'dramatic,' so entirely avoided, that the composer's part seems only to have been, to deliver faithfully a divine message, without attracting notice to himself.

The production of such a masterpiece at an early date in his Munich life, seems to point clearly, through all the contested dates of birth, positions or appointments, to some earlier career of the composer. To obtain a style at once great and solemn, natural and easy, it seems almost indispensable that Lassus had occupied for several years the post to which Baini says he was first appointed in 1541, had spent these years in writing the great cumbrous works which had been the fashion of his predecessors, and then, like Palestrina—whom, if he really lived at Rome all this time, he must have known—gradually acquired the less artificial style, by which his later works are characterised.

In the years 1565–66 Lassus adds 3 more volumes of 'Sacræ Cantiones' (several numbers

  1. See these names in Eitner's Bibliographie.
  2. Geschichte. iii 363.