Beyond Chant: Roland de Lassus and Polyphony

Have you ever suspected that all church music sounds the same, at least in certain genres? If you have heard one plainchant, you have heard them all? No matter how much the New Agers rave about the monks of Santo Domingo de Silos, who must be somewhat perplexed by the new pop chart audience for medieval chant (as performed by them in a mega-hit CD), a little chant goes a long way if it is divorced from its devotional setting. It is emphatically not concert music.

That is the way liturgical music was supposed to be, devotional, not distracting, not calling attention to itself and away from the object of devotion, who is, after all, the Word. The inherent tension in this task became keenly felt at the time of the Renaissance and deeply affected its major composers, like Roland de Lassus and Palestrina. The Renaissance provided a major shift in focus, as announced by Pico della Mirandolla and others, who sang a new gloria to man.

Accompanying this trend was a flood of secular music, bawdy, profane, impious, sometimes lascivious. This secular music then began to infect liturgical modes of composition, which even employed popular tunes in the Mass in a form called “parody” Mass. The monophony of plainchant gave way to the diverting richness of polyphony’s ingenious contrapuntal devices.

The popes and some of their legates were not pleased. In 1538, Giovanni Morone, Bishop of Modena, felt strongly enough about the issue that he banned polyphony from his cathedral in favor of plainsong. Pope Marcellus II, who reigned for only three weeks before his death in 1555, had time to issue an admonition that music for holy days “be sung in a fitting manner, with properly modulated voices, so that everything could be both heard and understood properly.”

In the later stages of the Council of Trent (1562-63), Morone, now a cardinal, joined Bernardo Cardinal Navagero in proposing a ban on “music that was too effeminate in character.” The Council decided not to ban polyphony, though it issued reforms to simplify it — to make the words clearly audible and to make the music more closely correspond to the meaning of the words. In a story, probably apocryphal, it was Palestrina’s composition, Missa Papae Marcelli, written to honor Marcellus II, that convinced Pope Pius IV that polyphony could be harnessed to serve the Word. (In any case, Hans Pfitzner used this story as the basis for his 1917 opera, Palestrina.)

Neither the Renaissance nor the Counter-Reformation ultimately resolved the problem of how to use music to augment the liturgy, without the music being so excessive as to call attention to itself. How is one not supposed to notice Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis? Control was completely lost in the 19th century with Masses that were essentially operas in church. When the Church objected, composers wrote Masses for concert performance. In the 20th century, the situation became even stranger with a number of non-believers writing Masses. One of the most beautiful examples is the Mass of Ralph Vaughan Williams, Perhaps the most bizarre is the Mass by Leonard Bernstein.

All of which brings us back to the 16th century, when this problem was so keenly felt, and to the four hundredth anniversary of the death of Palestrina, whose music continues to be celebrated as an ideal of impersonal purity. However, over four hundred years ago, it was not Palestrina who was thought to be the greatest composer of his time, but his slightly younger Flemish contemporary, Roland de Lassus, who died in 1594. Born in 1532 in what is now Mons, Belgium, Lassus wrote over two thousand works—motets, psalms, madrigals, and Masses. He was kidnapped three times for his beautiful  voice, preceded Palestrina as choirmaster of St. John Lateran in Rome, was knighted by both Emperor Maximilian and Pope Gregory XIII, and served in the court of the Duke of Bavaria from 1556 until his death in 1594.

Two recent Harmonia Mundi CD releases of Lassus’ music round out his anniversary year and give us a look at a master who found greater expressive depths in the idioms of his time than perhaps any other. The first of the two CDs is a beautiful recording of Lassus’ St. Matthew Passion (HMU 97076), which combines plainchant and polyphony in a way that might even have pleased Cardinal Morone. Using a Latin text, Lassus set the words of Jesus and the Evangelist in plainchant. The words of other characters are in two- and three-part polyphony, and those of the crowd in five and six parts. The result is reverential. It is more a meditation on the Passion than a dramatization of it. It is both austere and rich, and, in its own way, moving. Paul Hillier, the famous English bass, leads in a luminous performance, the Theatre of Voices, which he founded in 1989.

The second CD (HMC 901483) shows Lassus the master polyphonist in his last work, Lagrime di San Pietro (The Tears of St. Peter), a set of twenty spiritual madrigals in Italian and a concluding Latin hymn on St. Peter’s grief at having denied Christ. A work of great delicacy, refinement, and perfection, it is a rich and moving portrayal of its subject. It is far more opulent than the St. Matthew Passion. Lassus dedicated the work to Pope Clement VII with the words “I hope that you will take pleasure in listening to my music, not for itself, but for the subject of which it speaks, Saint Peter, the foremost among the apostles of whom you are the true and lawful successor,” but also described it as “a personal devotion at this difficult age.”

Well aware of his own mortality, Lassus died three weeks after this work’s completion. Phillipe Herreweghe and the Ensemble Vocal European perform this masterpiece, set in seven parts, with real psychological penetration and fervent conviction. They sing with warmth and precision, bringing to life one of the extraordinary works of the 16th century that shows how deeply devotional non-liturgical music can be.


  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly is the author of America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, forthcoming from Ignatius Press.

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