Catholic Encyclopedia (1913)/Orlandus de Lassus
(Original name, Roland de Lattre), composer, born at Mons, Hainault, Belgium, in 1520 (according to most biographers; but his epitaph gives 1532); died at Munich, 14 June, 1594. At the age of eight and a half years he was admitted as soprano to the choir of the church of St. Nicholas in his native city. He soon attracted general attention, both on account of his unusal musical talent and his beautiful voice; so much so that he was three times abducted. Twice his parents had him returned to the parental roof, but the third time they consented to allow him to take up his abode at St-Didier, the temporary residence of Ferdinand de Gonzaga, general in command of the army of Charles V and Viceroy od Sicily. At the end of the campaign in the Netherlands, Orlandus followed his patron to Milan and from there to Sicily. After the change of his voice Orlandus spent about three years at the court of the Marquess della Terza, at Naples. He next went to Rome, where he enjoyed the favour and hospitality, for about six months, of Cardinal Archbishop of Florence, who was then living there. Through the influence of this prince of the church , Orlandus obtained the position of choirmaster at St. John Lateran, in spite of his extreme youth and the fact that there were many capable musicians available. During his residence in Rome, Lassus completed his first volume of Masses for four voices, and a collection of motets for five voices, all of which he had published in Venice. After a sojourn of probably two years in Rome, Lassus, learning of the serious illness of his parents, hastened back to Belgium only to find that they had died. His native city Mons not offering him a suitable field of activity, he spent several years in travel through France and England and then settled at Antwerp for about two years. It was while here that Orlandus received an invitation from Albert V, Duke of Bavaria, not only to become the director of his court chapel, but also to recruit capable musicians for it in the Netherlands. While in the employment and under the protection of this art-loving prince, Lassus developed that phenomenal productivity as a composer which is unsurpassed in the history of music. For thirty-four years he remained active at Munich as composer and director, first under Albert V, and then under his son and successor, William V. During all this time he enjoyed not only the continued and sympathetic favour of his patrons and employers, but was also honoured by Pope Gregory XIII, who appointed him Knight of the Golden Spur; by Charles IX of France, who bestowed upon him the cross of the Order of Malta; and by Emperor Maximilian, who on 7 December, 1570, raised Lassus and his descendants to the nobility. The imperial document conferring the honour is remarkable, not only as showing the esteem in which the master was held by rulers and nations, but particularly as evidence of the lofty conception on the part of this monarch of the function of art in the social economy. Lassus's great and long-continued activity finally told on his mind and caused a depression and break-down, from which he at first rallied but never fully recovered.
Lassus was the heir to the centuries of preparation and development of the Netherland school, and was its greatest and also its last representative.
While with many of his contemporaries, even the most noted, such as Dufay, Okeghem, Obrecht, and Josquin des Prés, contrapuntal skill is often an end in itself, Lassus, being consummate master of every form of the art and possessing a powerful imagination, always aims at a lofty and truthful interpretation of the text before him. His genius is of a universal nature. His wide culture and the extensive travels of his youth had enabled him to absorb the distinguishing musical traits of every nationality. None of his contemporaries had such a well -defined judgment in the choice of the means of expression which best served his purpose. The lyric, epic, and dramatic elements are alternately in evidence in his work. But he would undoubtedly have been greatest in the dramatic style, had he lived at a later period. Although Lassus lived at the time of the Reformation, when the individual and secular spirit manifested itself more and more in music, and although he interpreted secular poems such as madrigals, chansons, and German lieder, the contents of which were sometimes rather free (as was not infrequently the case in those times), his distinction lies overwhelmingly in his works for the Church.
The diatonic Gregorian modes form the basis of his compositions, and most frequently his themes are taken from liturgical melodies. The number of works the master has left to posterity exceeds two thousand, in every possible form, and in combinations of from two to twelve voices. Many of them remain in manuscript, but the great majority have been printed at Venice, Munich, Nuremberg, Louvain, Antwerp, or Paris. Among his more famous works must be mentioned his setting of the seven penitential psalms, which for variety, depth, truth of expression, and elevation of conception are unsurpassed. Duke Albert showed his admiration for this work by having it written on parchment and bound in two folio volumes, which the noted painter Hans Mielich illustrated, at the command of the duke, in a most beautiful manner. These, with two other smaller volumes containing an analysis of Lassus's and Mielich's work by Samuel van Quickelberg, a contemporary, are preserved in the court library at Munich. Lassus left no fewer than fifty Masses of his composition. Some of these are built upon secular melodies, as was customary in his time, but the thematic material for most of them has been taken from the liturgical chant. In 1604, his two sons, Rudolph and Ferdinand, also musicians of note, published a collection of 516 motets, under the title of "Magnum opus musicum", which was followed in 1609 by "Jubilus B. Mariae Virginis", consisting of 100 settings of the Magnificat. The publication of a critical edition of Lassus's complete works in sixty volumes, prepared by Dr. Haberl and A. Sandberger, was begun 1894.