From Heavenly Harmony
by Ken Myers
Among musically knowledgeable listeners, even those who admire the music of the high Renaissance, the work of Orlande de Lassus is woefully unfamiliar. It was not always so. During his lifetime, in the second half of the sixteenth century, Lassus was easily the most famous composer in Europe. With contemporaries that included Palestrina, Victoria, and Byrd, such fame is a remarkable tribute to his artistic accomplishments. Another contemporary, the celebrated French poet Pierre de Ronsard, hailed Lassus as one “who like a bee has sipped all the most beautiful flowers of the ancients and moreover seems alone to have stolen the harmony of the heavens to delight us with it on earth, surpassing the ancients and making himself the unique wonder of our time.”
The neglect of his work in our time may be a function of the fact that his genius renders him (in the judgment of music historian Richard Taruskin) “a blessedly unclassifiable figure who sits uncomfortably in any slot.” Born in 1530 (or 1532), Lassus was honored in his day for unsurpassed musical versatility, adapting his compositional skills to a wide range of languages, aesthetic forms, and performance settings. “In every vocal genre of his time,” writes musicologist Ignace Bossuyt, “sacred or profane, he was like a fish in water: Latin motets, Masses, lectiones, Magnificat settings, and Lamentations, French chansons, Italian villanelles and madrigals, German lieder, all flowed effortlessly from his prolific pen.” His very name was the site of protean cosmopolitanism; born at Mons in Hainaut (a Franco-Flemish province) and baptized “Roland de Lassus,” he was (and is) known variously as Orlando di Lasso, Orlandus Lassus, Orlande de Lattre, and Roland de Lattre (I’ve adopted the New Grove Dictionary andWikipediaconventionof Orlande de Lassus).
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Ken Myers is the host and producer of the Mars Hill Audio Journal. Formerly an arts editor with National Public Radio, he also served as editor of Eternity, the Evangelical monthly magazine, and This World, the quarterly predecessor to First Things. He also serves as music director at All Saints Anglican Church in Ivy, Virginia. He is a contributing editor for Touchstone.
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