Adrian Willaert (c. 1490–December 7, 1562) was a
Flemish composer of the Renaissance and founder of the Venetian School. He was
one of the most representative members of the generation of northern composers
who moved to Italy and transplanted the polyphonic Franco-Flemish style there.
He was probably born at Bruges, although a secondary source has suggested
Roulers. According to his student, the renowned late 16th century music
theorist Gioseffo Zarlino, Willaert went to Paris first to study law, but
instead decided to study music. In Paris he met Jean Mouton, the principal
composer of the French royal chapel and stylistic compatriot of Josquin
Desprez, and studied with him.
Sometime around 1515 Willaert first went to Rome. An anecdote survives which
indicates the musical ability of the young composer: Willaert was surprised to
discover the choir of the papal chapel singing one of his own compositions,
most likely the six-part motet Verbum vonum et suave, and even more surprised
to learn that they thought it had been written by the much more famous
composer Josquin. When he informed the singers of their error—that he was in
fact the composer—they refused to sing it again. Indeed Willaert's early style
is very similar to that of Josquin, with smooth polyphony, balanced voices and
frequent use of imitation.
In July 1515, Willaert entered the service of Cardinal Ippolito I d'Este of
Ferrara. Ippolito was a traveler, and Willaert likely accompanied him to
various places, including Hungary, where he likely resided from 1517 to 1519.
When Ippolito died in 1520, Willaert entered the service of duke Alfonso of
Ferrara. In 1522 Willaert had a post at the court chapel of Duke Alfonso; he
remained there until 1525, at which time records show he was in the employ of
Ippolito II d'Este in Milan.
Willaert's most significant appointment, and one of the most significant in
the musical history of the Renaissance, was his selection as maestro di
cappella of St. Mark's at Venice. Music had languished there under his
predecessor, Pietro de Fossis, but that was shortly to change.
From his appointment in 1527 until his death in 1562, he retained the post at
St. Mark's. Composers came from all over Europe to study with him, and his
standards were high both for singing and composition. During his previous
employment with the dukes of Ferrara, he had acquired numerous contacts and
influential friends elsewhere in Europe, including the Sforza family in Milan;
doubtless this assisted in the spread of his reputation, and the consequent
importation of musicians from foreign countries into northern Italy.
Musical style and influence
Willaert was one of the most versatile composers of the Renaissance, writing
music in almost every extant style and form. In force of personality, and with
his central position as maestro di cappella at St. Mark's, he became the most
influential musician in Europe between the death of Josquin and the time of
According to Gioseffo Zarlino, writing later in the 16th century, Willaert was
the inventor of the antiphonal style from which the polychoral style of the
Venetian school evolved. As there were two choir lofts, one of each side of
the main altar of St. Mark's, both provided with an organ, Willaert divided
the choral body into two sections, using them either antiphonally or
simultaneously. He then composed and performed psalms and other works for two
alternating choirs. This innovation met with instantaneous success and
strongly influenced the development of the new method. In 1550 he published
Salmi spezzati, antiphonal settings of the psalms, the first polychoral work
of the Venetian school. While more recent research has shown that Willaert was
not the first to use this antiphonal, or polychoral method — Dominique Phinot
had employed it before Willaert, and Johannes Martini even used it in the late
15th century — Willaert's polychoral settings were the first to become famous
and widely imitated.
Willaert was no less distinguished as a teacher than as a composer. Among his
disciples are: Cipriano de Rore, his successor at St. Mark's; Costanzo Porta;
Francesco Dalla Viola; Gioseffo Zarlino; and the two Gabrielis, Andrea and
Giovanni. These formed the core of what came to be known as the Venetian
school, which was decisively influential on the stylistic change which marked
the beginning of the Baroque era. Willaert left a large number of compositions
- 8 masses, over 50 hymns and psalms, over 150 motets, about 60 French
chansons, over 70 Italian madrigals and several instrumental (ricercares).