One of the most prolific, versatile, and universal composers of the late Renaissance, Lassus wrote over 2,000 works in all Latin, French, Italian and German vocal genres known in his time. These include 530 motets, 175 Italian madrigals and villanellas, 150 French chansons, and 90 German lieder. No strictly instrumental music by Lassus is known to survive, or ever to have existed: an interesting omission for a composer otherwise so wide-ranging and prolific, during an age when instrumental music was becoming an ever-more prominent means of expression, all over Europe. The German music publisher Adam Berg dedicated 5 volumes of his Patrocinium musicum (published from 1573–1580) to Lassus' music.
Orland di Lassus (Roland de Lattre). (Idealized portrait).
Lassus remained Catholic during this age of religious discord, although not dogmatically so, as may be seen from his more worldly secular songs as well as his parody Masses and Magnificats based on secular compositions. Nevertheless the Catholic Counter-Reformation, which under Jesuit influence was reaching a peak in Bavaria in the late sixteenth century, had a demonstrable impact on Lassus' late work, including the liturgical music for the Roman Rite, the burgeoning number of Magnificats, the settings of the Catholic Ulenberg Psalter (1588), and especially the great penitential cycle of spiritual madrigals, the 'Lagrime di San Pietro' (1594).
Almost 60 masses have survived complete; most of them are parody masses based on secular works written by himself or other composers. Technically impressive, they are nevertheless the most conservative part of his output. He usually conformed the style of the mass to the style of the source material, which ranged from Gregorian chant to contemporary madrigals, but always maintained an expressive and reverent character in the final product. Some of his masses are based on extremely secular French chansons, some of which are frankly obscene (Entre vous filles de quinze ans, "Oh you fifteen-year old girls", by Clemens non Papa, gave him source material for his 1581 Missa entre vous filles, probably the most scandalous of the lot). That this practice was not only accepted but encouraged by his employer is confirmed by evidence from their correspondence, much of which has survived.
In addition to his traditional parody masses, he wrote a considerable quantity of missae breves, "brief masses," syllablic short masses meant for brief services (for example, on days when Duke Albrecht went hunting: evidently he did not want to be detained by long-winded polyphonic music). The most extreme of these is a work actually known as the Jäger Mass (Missa venatorum)—the "Hunter's Mass."
Some of his masses show influence from the Venetian School, particularly in their use of polychoral techniques (for example, in the eight-voice Missa osculetur me, based on his own motet). Three of his masses are for double choir, and they may have been influential on the Venetians themselves; after all, Andrea Gabrieli visited Lassus in Munich in 1562, and many of Lassus's works were published in Venice. Even though Lassus used the contemporary, sonorous Venetian style, his harmonic language remained conservative in these works: he adapted the texture of the Venetians to his own artistic ends.
Motets and other sacred music
Lassus is one of the composers of a style known as musica reservata—a term which has survived in many contemporary references, many of them seemingly contradictory. The exact meaning of the term is a matter of fierce debate, though a rough consensus among musicologists is that it involves intensely expressive setting of text, chromaticism, and that it may have referred to music specifically written for connoisseurs. A famous example of a composition by Lassus which is a representative of this style is his series of 12 motets entitled Prophetiae Sibyllarum, which is in a wildly chromatic style reminiscent of Gesualdo; some of his chord progressions in this piece were not to be heard again until the 20th century.
Lassus wrote four settings of the Passion, one for each of the Evangelists, St. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. All are for a cappella voices. He sets the words of Christ and the narration of the Evangelist as chant, while setting the passages for groups polyphonically.
As a composer of motets, Lassus was one of the most diverse and prodigious of the entire Renaissance. His output varies from the sublime to the ridiculous, and he showed a sense of humor not often associated with sacred music: for example, one of his motets satirizes poor singers (his setting of Super flumina Babylonis, for five voices) which includes stuttering, stopping and starting, and general confusion; it is related in concept if not in style to Mozart's A Musical Joke. Many of his motets were composed for ceremonial occasions, as could be expected of a court composer who was required to provide music for visits of dignitaries, weddings, treaties and other events of state. But it was as a composer of religious motets that Lassus achieved his widest and lasting fame.
Lassus's setting of the seven Penitential Psalms of David (Psalmi Davidis poenitentiales) is one of the most famous collections of psalm settings of the entire Renaissance. The counterpoint is free, avoiding the pervasive imitation of the Netherlanders such as Gombert, and occasionally using expressive devices foreign to Palestrina. As elsewhere, Lassus strives for emotional impact, and uses a variety of texture and care in text-setting towards that end. The final piece in the collection, his setting of the De profundis (Psalm 129/130), is considered by many scholars to be one of the high-water marks of Renaissance polyphony, ranking alongside the two settings of the same text by Josquin des Prez.
Among his other liturgical compositions are hymns, canticles (including over 100 Magnificats), responsories for Holy Week, Passions, Lamentations, and some independent pieces for major feasts.