Orlando de Lassus (c.1532-1594) excelled in every compositional genre of his time, whether it be Masses and motets, Magnificats and Passions or madrigals and lieder. His vast output survives in many contemporary sources, but much has since been handed down by his sons Ferdinand (c.1560-1609) and Rudolph (c.1563-1625) who were both composers and publishers.
Born in Mons in modern Belgium, Orlando de Lassus started life as a chorister in the Chapel Royal of the Low Countries, which involved extensive diplomatic travel to Italy. His later travels to France and perhaps England eventually brought him to Germany, where he accepted an invitation to join the court of Duke Albrecht V of Bavaria in Munich in 1556. His later travels brought him to Vienna and Venice, along with more extended stays in other Italian cities, and his music was published across Europe in places such as Venice, Paris, Rome, Antwerp, Nuremberg and in his adopted hometown of Munich. Much manuscript material from his time in Munich is preserved in the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek München (Munich State Library), and it is from a choirbook in this collection that this Mass has been drawn.
Lassus’ Mass settings vary enormously in ambition and scale, from the humble, workaday style (e.g. Missa Je ne mange poinct de porcq) to the lofty, more learned form seen here. The majority of these as their basis some model or other, be it a motet or a madrigal or perhaps a fragment of plainsong, and can be traced back to Lassus’ own material or that of other composers (e.g. Arcadelt, de Rore, Willaert etc.). However, the model for Missa Bella Amfitrit’ altera has not been identified and can be presumed to have been lost. Nevertheless, the Venetian style of the Mass (sonorous and largely antiphonal) and the association with Amphitrite, Greek goddess of the sea, surely leads us to an otherwise unknown Venetian madrigal. Each Ascension Day, the festival of the wedding of Venice to the sea (known as Lo Sposalizio) was celebrated, an elaborate affair that mixed sacred and secular custom, culminating in the symbolic throwing of a wedding ring into the sea. This Mass may well be connected with this festival.
Whatever the original intention, the sunny and declamatory nature of Missa Bella Amfitrit’ altera make it suitable for Sunday Masses and other festive occasions.