Franco-Flemish church musician and composer, he was born (?) in Bruges, c. 1490 and died in Venice, 7 December 1562. Willaert was a pupil in Paris of Jean Mouton. In about 1514 he became a chapel singer to Cardinal Ippolito I d'Este, living variously in Rome, Ferrara, and Hungary. In 1527 he was appointed maestro di cappella at St Mark's, Venice; he remained in that position until his death. Through his presence, Venice (and St Mark's in particular) rose to a level of high musical importance in the 16th century. His pupils included Rore, Andrea Gabrieli, Porta, and the theorist Zarlino.
Willaert was a many-sided composer but is famous especially for his church music, much of which is written in a highly individual and sonorous style that was eminently suitable for grand, solemn occasions. His vesper psalms (Venice, 1550) were important for establishing the practice of writing for double choir (known as cori spezzati), which was to become a special feature of Venetian music. Other liturgical works include masses, two of which are derived from motets by his teacher Mouton, and a cycle of polyphonic hymn settings that follows the St Mark's liturgy. Some of his many motets are clearly designed for church or state ceremony; others appear to have been written as serious chamber music. His madrigals explore the more serious side of the genre, and at times achieve extreme polyphonic density. Lighter works include chansons, songs in Neapolitan dialect (villanellas), and some important early examples of the instrumental ricercar. Although rarely heard today, Willaert's music was widely respected both during his lifetime and posthumously, Monteverdi describing it as the crowning achievement of the prima pratica.
Denis Arnold, John Milsom