Michael Jackson’s Fame Rubs Off On Forgotten 16th-Century Composer

Sources: Wall Street Journal | All Things Michael

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MUNICH—A statue of 16th-century composer Orlando di Lasso in this city’s center draws fans from around the globe. Music lovers come to light candles and leave pictures and other bits of memorabilia.

Di Lasso, a Flemish musician who spent much of his time in this city, was a giant in his day. “He was amazingly famous,” says Franz Körndle, a musicology professor at University of Augsburg and a di Lasso expert. “There’s not been anything like him in music history since.”

The fans swarming to his bronze likeness aren’t devotees. Many have no idea who he was, and don’t even notice he’s there.

They’re Michael Jackson aficionados. They flock to the site because it is in front of the Hotel Bayerischer Hof—a venue where the musician often stayed.

“This is the place where the spirit is, the magic,” says Nena Akhtar, head of fan group MJ’s Legacy, which in 2009 appropriated the pedestal of di Lasso’s statue as an impromptu Michael Jackson shrine to mourn his sudden death. “This place is so Michael-y.”

That Michael vibe is also a discordant reminder of fame’s vagaries. Di Lasso, who died in 1594, was also adored and feted in his day. Like Mr. Jackson, di Lasso traveled widely to perform. His compositions were printed and distributed across Europe in an era when printing was expensive and strictly local. His works were admired in centers of power and money. Four centuries later, di Lasso was largely forgotten.

Ms. Akhtar took little notice of the musician until she started decorating his statue with photographs and other ephemera.

“He was very big in his time,” says Ms. Akhtar. “Michael is big in my time—that’s the difference.”

The devotion expressed by Ms. Akhtar and her peers has sparked turf battles. Last summer, a member of her camp accused someone from a rival fan group of launching an attack with a glass candleholder.

Such dust-ups have helped put di Lasso back in the spotlight, after media reports about the sparring Jackson fans mentioned the composer and his statue as well.

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Thanks to the late King of Pop, the Flemish friend of kings and nobles is now regaining a bit of his old luster as Ms. Akhtar and others are getting acquainted with the forgotten composer. Ms. Akhtar says she was recently inspired to read a di Lasso biography.

Soon, the sculpture itself will regain some of its own sheen. The city plans this summer to clean the 10-foot monument and protect it with a coat of hot wax.

But the beautification project worries Ms. Akhtar. She says she recently heard from Munich officials about the planned renovation and has been fretting “nonstop” about the memorial’s fate.

She is worried about “all the paperwork” the city may require in order for her group to gain a proper permit.

Bavarian culture-ministry spokesman Henning Giessen says city officials had for years “tolerated” the unsanctioned shrine. If fans now want Michael Jackson to enjoy the same recognition from Munich as di Lasso, he says, they must officially apply to put up a memorial.

“Historic preservation cannot be based on current taste,” says Mr. Giessen, who acknowledges di Lasso is a “rather forgotten musician.”

Local di Lasso experts are fascinated by the dissonance at the shrine. “In a way, it shows an appreciation for Lasso,” says Bernhold Schmid, who is completing a definitive collection of di Lasso’s compositions at the Bavarian Academy of Sciences and Humanities. “It has a certain charm.”

Prof. Körndle, a fellow di Lasso lover, says he previously paid little attention to the statue. “All of a sudden” his interest in the sculpture has been piqued, he said, sitting before a wall of di Lasso literature and compositions.

Prof. Körndle notes that di Lasso and Mr. Jackson have something in common beside sharing part of a grassy Munich traffic island: Both gained fame as boys for their remarkable singing voices.

Dr. Schmid says he has at least 40 CDs of Lasso compositions, which he knows is rare. “There’s not really a huge market anymore.”

In his day, di Lasso was also among Europe’s richest composers. Several oil paintings of him survive—images that centuries ago were considered guarantees of a lasting recognition.

By 1849, when Munich erected the statue in memory of di Lasso’s work and death there, his renown was fading. One measure of his obscurity: Sherlock Holmes, in a short story from 1908, is penning a monograph on di Lasso’s “Polyphonic Motets.” Dr. Watson notes it “is said by experts to be the last word upon the subject.”

And so it remained for more than a century—until last summer’s fan disputes put di Lasso back in the public eye.

Ms. Ahktar’s group, MJ Legacy, said rival group MJ Memorial Munich was sabotaging and destroying its decorations. MJ Memorial Munich denied the accusations and said MJ Legacy monopolized the space.

When one fan accused another of the attempted candleholder attack, Munich officials intervened.

“If peaceful coexistence between the different groups of fans behind the Michael Jackson memorial is not possible, then sadly the memorial will have to be removed,” the Bavarian culture ministry said in a letter to fans.

Standing by the monument on a recent sunny afternoon, Ms. Ahktar mused that her idol deserves a statue of his own—next to di Lasso’s.

Yet passersby offered a reminder that even a statue holds no guarantee of lasting fame.

“Everyone knows Michael Jackson,” said Simone Buhovac, who recently stopped by the shrine while walking through town with a friend. She voiced certainty that he will still be famous in 500 years.

She had never heard of di Lasso.

 

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