Adrian Willaert

Adrian Willaert (c. 1490-1562), from West Flanders, was a composer of the Renaissance musical period and considered 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.

Appointed in 1527, as “maestro di cappella” at St Mark’s Basilica; he retained the post until his death in 1562. Composers came from all over Europe to study with him and his standards were high both for singing and composition.

Willaert’s and his successors, formed the core of what came to be known as the “Venetian School”, which was decisively influential on the stylistic change; that marked the transition from the musical Renaissance to the musical Baroque era.



Adrian Willaert – LIFE

He was born at Rumbeke, near Roeselare in West Flanders; part of the Low Countries (historically known as the Netherlands, Flanders or Belgica).

According to the renowned 16th century music theorist Gioseffo Zarlino, his student; Willaert went to Paris first to study law, but instead chose to study music. In Paris he met and studied with Jean Mouton, the principal composer of the French royal chapel and stylistic compatriot of Josquin des Prez.

Move to Italy. Around 1515, Willaert first went to Rome. An anecdote survives, that indicates the musical ability of the young composer. He was surprised to discover the choir of the papal chapel singing one of his own compositions, most likely the six-part motet “Verbum bonum 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, that he was in fact the composer; apparently they refused to sing it again.

Indeed, Willaert’s early style was very similar to that of Josquin, with smooth polyphony, balanced voices and frequent use of imitation or strict canon. Indeed, the early Willaert admiration for Josquin so great, that he wrote a mass “Missa Mente Tota”, in double canon throughout, with two free voices; based upon a movement of a famous Josquin motet “Vultum tuum deprecabuntur”.

In July 1515, Willaert entered the service of Cardinal Ippolito d’Este, of Ferrara. Ippolito was a traveller 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, he had a post at the court chapel of Duke Alfonso, remaining there until 1525; at which time records show, that he was still in the employment of Ippolito II d’Este in Milan.


St Mark’s Basilica. 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 Basilica, Venice.  Doge Andrea Gritti, was said to have influenced his appointment.

Under his predecessor, Pietro de Fossis (1491–1525); music had languished there – 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. What no doubt assisted his reputation, during his previous employment with the dukes of Ferrara; was firstly that he had acquired numerous contacts and influential friends elsewhere in Europe, including the Sforza family in Milan. Another factor, was the importation of musicians from abroad, into northern Italy.

In Ferrarese court documents, Willaert is referred to as “Adriano Cantore”. In addition to his output of sacred music as the director of St. Mark’s, he wrote numerous madrigals; a secular form of which he is considered, a Flemish madrigal composer of the highest rank.



Willaert was one of the most versatile composers of the Renaissance, writing music in almost every extant style and form. With his central position as maestro di cappella and force of personality, he became the most influential musician in Europe; between the death of Josquin and the time of Palestrina.

Some of Willaert’s motets and double canonic chansons, had been published as early as 1520 in Venice. He owes much of his fame in sacred music to his motets.

Evolution of the antiphonal style, from which the polychoral style of the “Venetian School” evolved.

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 at St. Mark’s – one each side of the main altar, both provided with an organ; Willaert divided the choral body into two sections, using them either antiphonally and occasionally simultaneously. His successors, De Rore, Zarlino, Andrea Gabrieli, Donato and Croce; all cultivated this style. The tradition of writing that Willaert established during his time at St. Mark’s; was continued by other composers working there, throughout the 17th century.

Adrian Willaert Music scoreHe 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 Venice, a compositional style, established by Willaert, for multiple choirs dominated. In 1550 he published “Salmi spezzati“, antiphonal settings of the psalms; the first polychoral work of the Venetian school.

Willaert’s work in the religious genre, established Flemish techniques firmly as an important part of the Venetian Style. Recent research has shown that he was not actually 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. His polychoral settings however, were the first to become famous and widely imitated.

With his contemporaries, Willaert developed the “canzone” (a form of polyphonic secular song) and the “ricercare”, (Italian: “to seek out”), musical compositions for instruments, in which one or more themes are developed through melodic imitation; the forerunners of modern instrumental forms.

Willaert was among the first to extensively use chromaticism in the madrigal. In an early 4-part vocal work, Willaert used “musica ficta”; an outstanding experiment with chromatic enharmonics .



Musica Ficta. In early contrapuntal music, the introduction by a performer of sharps, flats, or other accidentals; so as to avoid unacceptable intervals.

Chromatics. Refers to a series of notes moving up or down by a series of half steps. A chromatic scale goes from any given note through all twelve half-steps up one full octave. If you start with a C and play a chromatic one-octave scale you will play these notes: C-C#-D-D#-E-F-F#-G-G#-A-A#-B-C

When we go higher with a chromatic scale, we use sharps. As we go lower, we use flat signs, like this:  C-B-B♭-A-A♭-G-G♭-F-E-E♭-D-D♭-C

Derivation. Around the 1700’s, composers decided that the scale should be divided into 12 equal steps per octave. Frequency of a pitch doubles from one octave to the next. So, they were looking for a way to have the exact same frequency interval between each half step within an octave. Using physics and math, including logarithms, they took the twelfth root of 2 to get an interval frequency of 1.0595. If you look at the standard frequency for any pitch (like A = 440), multiply that by 1.0595 and do that 12 times, you will end up with double the frequency, or the pitch of the note an octave higher than your starting note.

Enharmonics. They are essentially alternate spellings for notes. For example, look at a keyboard and at the notes F and G. You see that there is a black key between the two notes. If you go up a half-step from F, we hit that black key and call it F#. Going down a half-step from G, you hit that same note and call it G♭. They are a different name for the same note. By using sharps and flats, and double sharps and flats; one note can have two or three different names.

Why do we need to have different names for the same notes as it seems complicated?  For example in major scales, you can only use the same letter name, once in each octave of a scale (exception – first and last note). You also have to use the letters in alphabetical order, not skipping any. So, you can’t write a      scale using D-E-G♭-G-A-B-D♭-D. It must be written like this: D-E-F#-G-A-B-C#-D. If you played those two examples on a keyboard, they would sound the same, but they can’t be written like that.

Another reason for using enharmonics, is usually that, when notes are going higher, accidentals are written with sharps signs and when they are going lower, flat signs are usually used. This helps musicians better visualise, how the sound progresses.


With the help of De Rore, he standardised a five-voice setting in madrigal composition. Willaert also pioneered a style that continued until the end of the madrigal period, of reflecting the emotional qualities of the text and clearly defined the meanings of important words.

Willaert was no less distinguished as a teacher than as a composer. Among his disciples were fellow northerner and perhaps one the most prominent was Cipriano de Rore, his successor at St. Mark’s. Others included Costanzo Porta; the Ferrarese Francesco Viola; Gioseffo Zarlino and Andrea Gabrieli.  These composers, formed the core of what came to be known as the Venetian school, which was decisively influential on the stylistic change that marked the beginning of the Baroque era. Another composer stylistically descended from Willaert, was Lassus and also he probably influenced a young Palestrina.

The Venetian School flourished for the rest of the 16th century and into the 17th, led by the Gabrielis and others. He left a large number of compositions: 8 (or possibly 10) masses, over 50 hymns and psalms, over 150 motets, about 60 French chansons, over 70 Italian madrigals and 17 instrumental pieces (ricercares).








Other related posts in the category of Art-Music-Literature 

The Venetian School of Music      

Major members of the Venetian School of Music.

Jacques Buus (c.1500-1565)

Andrea Gabrieli (c.1532-1585)

Nicola Vicentino (1511-c.1576)

Cipriano de Rore (c.1515-1565)

Gioseffo Zarlino (1517–1590)

Baldassare Donato (1525–1603)

Annibale Padovano (1527–1575)

Costanzo Porta (c.1529-1601)

Claudio Merulo (1533–1604)

Gioseffo Guami (c.1540-1611)

Vincenzo Bellavere (d.1587)

Girolamo Diruta (c.1554-after 1610)

Girolamo Dalla Casa (d.1601)

Giovanni Gabrieli (c.1555-1612)

Giovanni Croce (c.1557-1609)

Giovanni Bassano (c.1558-1617)

Giulio Cesare Martinengo (c.1561-1613)

Claudio Monteverdi (1567–1643)


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