Category Archives: Music

Orlando di Lasso

Orlando di Lasso

(1530 – 1594)

The Flemish composer Orlando di Lasso was born in Mons in what is today modern Belgium, where he received his early musical training and served as a choirboy. Lasso’s beautiful voice resulted in him being kidnapped on three occasions by wealthy families desiring his services; after the third incident, his parents finally relented and allowed him to stay in the household of the viceroy of Sicily. As part of the viceroy’s household he traveled to Palermo, and over the next ten years, he also spent time in Milan, Rome, and Naples.

His years in Italy were critical for his later development as a composer, and while there, he adopted the Italian name that he continued to use for the rest of his life. Following the death of his parents in 1554, he took a position in Antwerp, but several years later became a chorister in the chapel of Albert V, duke of Bavaria. He remained in the duke’s household at Munich for the rest of his life. Although Munich was a small and rather provincial capital at the time, Bavaria was a large and important state, a center of the Counter-Reformation in Northern Europe.

In his Munich years, Lasso published a number of his compositions, and he became, in fact, the first composer in European history to establish his reputation primarily on the basis of his printed work. In the last forty years of his life Lasso printed more than 600 works, and usually a new composition appeared in the press about once each month. He favored musical printing houses in France, Italy, and the Netherlands, as well as those in Germany.


Lasso wrote more than 1,000 works and he was a master of most of the musical forms of the period. He produced a number of excellent compositions in all genres except instrumental music. His Latin motets form his largest group of compositions, totaling more than 500. He also composed almost sixty masses and about 100 magnificats.

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Antonio Vivaldi

Antonio Vivaldi

antonio-vivaldiComposer, Violinist
(1678 – 1741)

Vivaldi was both a prolific composer and a noted violinist. His father was a violinist at the ducal chapel of San Marco in Venice, and Antonio began his musical education at home. He was ordained a priest, though chronic respiratory problems (probably asthma) kept him from many clerical duties; due to his red hair he acquired the nickname il prete rosso, meaning “the red priest.” In 1703 he accepted a position as violin teacher at a girls’ orphanage and foundling home in Venice, the Pio Ospedale della Pietà.

These orphanages provided musical training as part of their educational mission; the girls gave regular concerts, which attracted large audiences and garnered the institution an international reputation. Vivaldi was eventually promoted to concertmaster, and despite many years of travel during his career, he continued his association with the institution until 1740.


The frequent concerts at the Ospedale required a constant supply of new compositions, as audiences expected to hear new works. In 1723, for example, the institution asked Vivaldi to produce two concertos for them each month. Vivaldi continued to comply, and grew quite proud of his ability to compose not only well but quickly; he boasted that he could compose a concerto in all its parts faster than a copyist could transcribe them. About 500 of his concertos survive. Vivaldi wrote them for a number of different solo instruments and combinations that reflect not only the popularity of various instruments, but also the variety of players over the years at the Ospedale.

antonio-vivaldi-il-gran-mogolNearly half are for a solo violin and orchestral strings. He also wrote for other solo instruments, such as flute, cello, oboe, and even mandolin. Others are double concertos for two soloists. Some use three soloists in the form of a concerto grosso, or in other combinations. Most of these works are in three movements, fast-slow-fast. Many fast movements use a form called ritornello, in which the larger orchestral group of strings plays a thematic section that returns several times in various keys, and alternates with freer sections for the soloist or soloists. This form allows for virtuoso writing and provides passages through which the soloist can display his or her skill.

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Josquin des Prez

Josquin des Prez

Josquin des PrezComposer, Musician
(1450 – 1521)

Little is known about many key details of Josquin des Prez’s life, the indisputable genius of High Renaissance musical composition. It had long been thought, for example, that he had been born sometime around 1440, although research conducted in recent years has thrown his date of birth into grave doubt. The composer’s family name was actually Lebloitte, and he was born in Northern France, where he served as a choirboy in Saint-Quentin. Part of the confusion about Josquin’s early career has arisen from the fact that he shared the name “des Prez” the name he adopted in adulthood with another musician active in Italy who was a decade or two older. A date of birth of around 1450 for Josquin des Prez now seems likely, because his first positions seem to have been in the employ of the Sforza dukes of Milan in the mid-1470s.

While the early circumstances of this composer’s life are still shrouded in some mystery, Josquin’s quick rise to prominence allows scholars to track his career as it progressed. After leaving the court of Milan, he entered into the service of King René of Anjou, who maintained a residence at Aix-ex-Provence near Marseilles in southern France. By 1486, he had resumed his affiliation with the Sforza, having become a member of the Sforza Cardinal Ascanio’s household. In these years he spent most of his time in Rome, where he was occasionally associated with the pope’s chapel. In 1501, he traveled to France, where he likely worked in the king’s court for a few years before returning to Italy to take a position in the court of the dukes of Ferrara. For his services Josquin was offered an enormous salary, although he only stayed in Ferrara for a little over a year. In 1504, Josquin des Prez left Italy, this time for his ancestral homeland in Northern France, where he served as an official in the Cathedral of Notre Dame at Condé-sur- L’Escaut until his death in 1521.


Josquin des Prez’s compositional output was considerable and included about eighteen masses, fifty motets, and some seventy secular pieces. Many other works from the time have long been attributed to him, although ongoing research is still separating spurious compositions from those actually from Josquin’s hand. His chief importance lay in his ability to fashion new techniques and styles that heightened the understanding of his music’s text. Although he still continued to be affected by the French and Flemish musical traditions of the fifteenth century, Josquin des Prez simplified his work’s musical phrases, bringing his compositions into alignment with the humanist demands for a music that expressed ideas and words and did not just impress the ear with complex harmonies.

While he made use of canons and cantus firmus melodies in his masses, Josquin also expanded the boundaries of these compositional techniques by freely varying and re-interpreting the melodies that were repeated in these compositions. Josquin des Prez was known for being a willful individualist, and was sometimes compared to Michelangelo in this regard. His career was similar to the great sculptor and painter in that he established a standard in music that those who came after him tried to emulate and surpass.

His works continued to be widely admired in the first half of the sixteenth century. For many years they were played at the court of the Habsburg emperor Charles V. Notably, the Protestant reformer Martin Luther dubbed Josquin des Prez the “master of the notes,” and he stressed the composer’s ability to bring all the compositional devices to bear in his works so that a single artistic unity and a deeper understanding of the text developed after one listened to them.

Cesare Negri

Cesare Negri

cesare negriDance master
(1535 – 1604)

Cesare Negri –  The Graces of Love (1602) was the most complete and detailed of all the great Renaissance works on dance theory and practice, and it provides a great deal of information about the dance life of the Italian upper classes in the late Renaissance. In this work Negri also informs us about his own life, allowing us to reconstruct the career of one of the Renaissance’s most important dance masters.

Born in Milan around 1535, he served the city’s Spanish governors as dance master until 1599. Between 1555 and 1600 he also directed a number of spectacles for major Italian ducal families. His list of distinguished clients included the Visconti, the Medici, the Gonzaga, and D’Este. One ofhis most impressive productions was a spectacle celebrating the naval victory of the Italian admiral Andrea Doria against the Turks in 1560. Another was his direction of the festivities marking the visit of Queen Margarethe of Spain to Milan in 1598. In his capacity as dance master, Negri also traveled extensively with Milan’s noble rulers, performing dances for them on journeys to Malta, Genoa, Naples, Florence, Mantua, and Saragossa. Negri’s Graces of Love is also a rich source of information about the major dancing masters of the later Renaissance. He includes the names of over forty dance masters who practiced at the time and gives details about their training and where they traveled to practice their art. His work thus points to the development in Italy of a group of professional male dancers, many of whom opened dancing schools in Europe’s cities or who taught dance to their noble patrons.

Negri’s dance manual includes some of the typical information on ballroom etiquette that is to be found in many similar books from the period. He also discusses dance’s role in aristocratic processions and intermedi, two of the most common occasions for theatrical dance in Renaissance Italy. By far, though, the largest portion of The Graces of Love is given over to a technical discussion of dance steps. The dances that he treats in the work are extremely complex, among the most difficult to survive from the Renaissance. In particular, he treats extensively the upper class forms of the galliard and outlines a number of variations on the dance’s footwork. He also shows that dances, just like the music of the time, were often improvised and that dancers loved to practice variations on the basic steps, joining different steps and footwork together to create ever more difficult choreographies. He includes 43 choreographies for dances, a number of which are figure dances similar to those that are still performed in American square dances. Like other dance manuals of the period, Negri’s also included music to accompany these forms.

Fabrizio Caroso – Dance Master of the 16th century

Fabrizio Caroso – Dance Master of the 16th century

Fabrizio CarosoLittle is known about the circum stances of Caroso’s life, except that he was born in Sermoneta, a small town near Rome, sometime between 1527 and 1535. Long standing legends have alleged that he was a peasant taken into the household of the Caetani family, dukes of Sermoneta and Rome, and provided with an education. In his treatises Caroso dedicates a number of his dances to members of the Caetani and Orsini families, and it is likely that he probably served as the dance instructor in these households for a time. Both families kept large palaces in Rome during the sixteenth century, and besides the Orsini and Caetani, Caroso mentions other powerful Roman nobles of the day, including the Farnese and Aldobrandini Duke and Duchess of Parma and Piacenza, to whom he dedicates his second dance book, The Nobility of Ladies (1600).

Torquato Tasso, the accomplished late Renaissance poet, also wrote a sonnet dedicated to Caroso, which is included in The Nobility. Like most of the prominentd ance masters of the period, though, he probably spent much of his life moving in princely circles in Italy, teaching dance and mounting spectacles and other entertainments for court circles. Little more, though, can bedetermined about his life.


Works of Caroso

Caroso is remembered today for two dance manuals he published late in the sixteenth century: The Dancing Master (1581) and The Nobility of Ladies (1600). Both are informative sources about the kinds of dances that were popular in the later Renaissance and together include information on about 100 different dances. Among these dances, Caroso includes a number of balletto, which were specially choreographed dances that consisted of multiple parts and specially composed music.

While Caroso’s works include a few simple dances that could be easily mastered, most of them were highly complex constructions that even expert amateurs might have had to spend many hours practicing. His books also include music intended to accompany these dances, and thus his work has been of great value to scholars and modern dance enthusiasts anxious to recover Renaissance styles of dance. In his Nobility of Ladies Caroso also included two dialogues between a dance master and his student that outline ballroom etiquette and a series of hard and fastrules for dancers to observe.

His prescriptions on etiquetteare notable for their extreme courtliness. He advises his readers on such subjects as how to wear a cape, how to sit and stand, when and how to remove gloves, and so forth. New editions of Caroso’s book Nobility of Ladies continued to appear in Italy until 1630, demonstrating its continued role in the seventeenth century as an authority on dance techniques and ballroom behavior.