Thursday, October 23, 2008

Orlando di Lasso/Reginald de Lassus: Missa pro defunctis and Prophetiae Sibyllarum


Search engines have met their match when it comes to Orlando di Lasso. Or is it Reginald di Lassus? Or Orlando Lasso? What about Orlandus Lassus? All of these names point to one man; and by any name, the Franco-Flemish composer best known as Orlando di Lasso, was a Renaissance music celebrity, his fame spreading all over Europe.

Legend says that young Orlando di Lasso, a Franco-Flemish choir boy born at Mons (now Walloon Belgium), was abducted and spirited away to foreign lands to sing, as it was custom of the Italians to abduct sweet-singing choir boys during this period. He escaped and returned home, only to be abducted twice more. After his third abduction at age twelve, he chose to stay and work under the Viceroy of Sicily.

What history tells us is that Lasso did in fact begin working for the Viceroy of Sicily at age twelve, though he certainly did not stay in one place. Lasso served patrons throughout Italy, from Mantua to Rome. He travelled frequently to Flanders, France and Italy, even after finding a permanent post in Munich working for Duke Albrecht V of Bavaria in 1556. Leaving no European stone unturned in his travels, Lasso is the most famous composer in the Renaissance, the best-traveled musician of his time, as well as the most eclectic in genres, styles and languages.

Best known for his motets, Lasso’s ability to portray images and emotions through sound-image (to correlate the movement of the music with the text) was unrivaled. Two of Lasso’s pieces written for the Mass, as performed by The Hilliard Ensemble (Missa pro defunctis and Prophetiae Sibyllarum), demonstrate this beautifully.

Missa pro defunctis and Prophetiae Sibyllarum are both written for four voices and are settings of the mass. Interestingly, even though it was written for the Mass, Prophetaie Sibyllarum is inspired by the stories of the Greek prophetesses, or Sibyls. A Sibyl is, as described in the album’s booklet, a “mystical soothsayer whose origins are lost in the mists of antiquity.” This source of inspiration should not be surprising, when considering the many other pagan and Christian cultural crosses, and that Lasso certainly did not isolate himself in one society.

This feeling of being spoken to by a “mystical soothsayer” is apparent, as the phrases begin with one voice and are commonly either echoed or supported by the remaining voices. The Prophetiae Sibyllarum's opening has baffled music scholars for centuries now, using chromaticism frequently, especially in the first nine measures, which was never used before. Scholars argue about the exact structure of the tonality, or if there even is tonality within the beginning measures. Regardless, all the scholars can agree it is unlike anything before its time. The chromaticism and step-wise motion in the Prophetiae Sibyllarum give fluidity of the sound, resulting in the music having a calm, easing-into feeling, as if the music was water moving from a small brook into a larger, faster-moving stream. The metaphorical water babbles quietly and sweetly at first. As it moves through the Mass, it swirls and expands into a larger body of sound and emotion. The music is soothing, but not the type of soothing that lulls a child to sleep. It is the type of soothing that one would play during meditation, the type that puts you in a calm, clear mood.

After decades of turmoil over how much emphasis to put in the music in the church, I believe that Lasso found that balance. His attention toward text and his ability to portray it so meaningfully through music has had him recognized as the supreme composer of the Renaissance. Along with his influence over Europe, it is no small wonder he has become such a grand milestone in music history.

2 Comments:

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At October 27, 2008 at 6:40 PM , Blogger Jaime said...

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