Adrian Willaert, the most important Renaissance composer
Unjustly, Adrian Willaert fell into oblivion after his death. Until this leading figure of Flemish polyphony was restored to his rightful place in the 19th century. Today, amongst insiders, he is considered one of the greats, who can stand next to Johann Sebastian Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven or Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart with no scruple.
Around 1490, one Adrian Willaert was born in Roeselare to a family of five. From 1510 to 1515, he stayed in Paris, studying law. But he did not complete those studies. There, he met Jean Mouton, the greatest composer at the French court and himself a follower of the most famous composer of that time – Josquin des Prez. Mouton instilled in him a love of music. Around 1515, he exchanged France for Italy: successively Rome, Ferrara and Venice. He came into contact with Cardinal Ippolito I d'Este of Ferrara, the noble family that made Ferrara a leading centre of art and culture in the 15th and 16th centuries. In Venice, he was appointed chapel master of St. Mark's Basilica in 1527 and would remain so until his death in 1562.
In 1518, his first compositions, namely motets and French chansons, were recorded in manuscripts and prints. A mass and an experiment intended as a joke and theoretical cleverness also date from that period. So it should be clear that he had a broad interest in vocal music from a very early age. Later followed some madrigals, villanellas, hymns, psalms, passion music and he even paved the way for purely instrumental compositions. In Venice, the birthplace of printed music, the fame and position of messer Adriano was soon established. This translated into an increasingly wide distribution of his works, even outside Italy, as far as France, the German territories and the Netherlands.
However, the crowning achievement of his versatile career is his Musica Nova from 1559, dedicated to Duke Alfonso II d'Este, crown prince of Ferrara. The work is remarkable in several respects. It is a collection of polyphonic spiritual and secular compositions – 27 motets and 25 madrigals, respectively. A rarity. Furthermore, the title page is richly decorated, including the only preserved authentic portrait of Adrian Willaert – a woodcut. A portrait near the start of a publication was exceptional at the time – proof that the composer was held in high regard at the Ferrara court. His Musica Nova in particular beautifully combines his technical mastery with his restrained expressiveness.
Adrian Willaerts' richly varied musical output inspired generations of grandmasters after him. Now that the original musical notation has been converted into modern scores, laymen too will have the chance to enjoy his works, considered unreadable after centuries, once again.