Tag Archives: Composer

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.

Hildegard of Bingen

Hildegard of Bingen

Hildegard of BingenComposer, Playwright
(1098 – 1179) 

Hildegard of Bingen  is one of only a few of the men and women known by name who authored plays in the Middle Ages, and the only one about whom modern scholars have a substantial amount of information. Abbess Hildegard of Bingen, polymath and mystic, was the composer of the Ordo virtutum or  “Service of the Virtues,” among many other works. Hildegard’s extraordinary life and achievements have attracted the attention of an extremely wide and varied audience including medievalists, feminist critics, New Age spiritualists, historians of science, and fans of medieval music.

Hildegard was the tenth child born into an aristocratic family. She suffered from ill health throughout her life, and by the time she was eight years old her parents apparently decided that she should be dedicated to religion. She was entrusted to the care of a young anchoress called Jutta, who lived in seclusion in a cell attached to the Benedictine monastery at Disibodenberg, near the German city of Speyer. There, Hildegard learned some Latin and also apparently received informal instruction in a wide and eclectic array of subjects, including medicine and the natural sciences. Above all, she learned the elements of musical composition, which she would later employ inher drama. At the same time, Hildegard began to experience the visions for which she would later become renowned. By the time Jutta died in 1136, Hildegard had acquired a secretary, the monk Volmar, to whom she dictated and described the visual and aural messages that came to her from God. In the ensuing decade, Hildegard attracted many young women to the tiny convent that had grown up around her, and by 1147 was actively in search of a new home for her burgeoning community.

Drama in the Convent

In the meantime, thefame of her visions and holiness had spread, and Hildegardbegan to preach in public, as well as to circulate herwritings. These controversial activities brought her to the attention of the bishop of Mainz and also to that of Pope Eugenius III (r. 1145–1153), both of whom eventually declared her teachings to be divinely inspired and encouraged her to complete work on what is now recognized as one of the great mystical books of the Middle Ages, the Liber Scivias, roughly translated as “The Book on Knowing the Ways.” By 1150, Hildegard and her followers were established in a new and larger convent at Rupertsberg on the banks of the Rhine, near Bingen.

It was here that Hildegard composed the Ordo virtutum ,a drama about a female soul appropriately called “Anima” and her journey through life. This work is only one of many innovative liturgies, hymn sequences, and song cyclesintended for performance by her nuns. She also oversaw the copying of the books containing her writings and personally directed the production of the many manuscript images designed to illustrate these books and to capture the extraordinary visual qualities of her mystical communications with God. The color, vibrancy, and sensuality of these illuminations provide some indication of the qualities that must also have enriched the spectacle of performance in the convent.

An Unorthodox Career

Hildegard died in 1179, and it was widely believed that she would be canonized as a saint. An official biography was produced, and a number of miracles were attributed to her. However, the late twelfth century was a time when the process of canonization was becoming highly politicized, and when control over this procedure had shifted from local authorities to the papal court. Official enquiries were conducted four times over the course of the next two centuries but, on each of these occasions, objections to the orthodoxy of Hildegard’s life and works were raised by various factions within the church. To this day, only a few religious communities acknowledge her sanctity and celebrate her feast on 18 September.