Adrian Willaert: Biography and Music

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Have you ever sung harmony in a song? When did Western music move away from everyone singing the same melody? In this lesson, we'll look at the life and work of Renaissance composer Adrian Willaert.


Adrian Willaert (c. 1490-1562) was probably born in the Netherlands, but we don't know much about his early life. As a young man he traveled to Paris, where he considered studying law but went into music instead. Willaert studied with Jean Mouton, a composer for the French royal chapel who became known for his motets. A motet is a type of composition where multiple voices are added to a chant (a single melody sung by a group in unison). Motets were usually sacred in nature and sometimes had multiple movements. Learning from Mouton, Willaert began composing vocal music that blended French and Flemish characteristics, including motets.

Around 1515, Willaert made his first trip to Rome, where he was shocked to hear a papal choir singing one of his pieces. But Willaert's music was good, and this experience suggested more to come. He eventually settled in Venice because he was offered a prestigious job, that of maestro di cappella, or 'choir master,' of St. Mark's Cathedral in Venice. He spent the next 35 years in that role and it guaranteed that the music he wrote would have a big impact.

Portrait of Adrian Willaert
Adrian Willaert

Willaert and Antiphonal Music

Willaert composed the music his choir sang and he used the cathedral's architecture to his advantage. How? St. Mark's had two choir lofts facing each other, each with an organ. Willaert's compositions divided the choir into two groups and put them in opposite lofts where they could sing in response to each other. The term for this type of music is antiphony.

Why was antiphony important? It led composers to write music that combined multiple parts, each with its own melody. These multiple parts harmonized with each other. This type of music is called polyphony, a word that comes from the Greek language meaning 'many sounds.' It's one of the hallmarks of Western music.

Willaert became well known as a composer and teacher, and musicians from around the world came to study with him and learn his style of composition. His students and those influenced by his music included later important composers like Cipriano de Rore, Parabosco, and Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli. They, too, composed work in polyphony and became part of a wider music scene in Venice. In fact, a special term, cori spezzati or 'split choirs,' signaled polychoral singing in Venice in the 16th century.

Front page of catalogue for new Willaert works, 16th century
Title page for Willaert catalogue

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