The composer was a native of Mechelen, the centre of the County of Hainaut (a region now split between France and Belgium), where he was born in 1521. There is no further information about the composer’s birth or the first years of his life. It is assumed that he gained his introductory musical education in his home city, at the cathedral of St. Rumbold. Monte then left for Italy, where we have evidence of his activities from the end of the 1540s until the mid 1550s, specifically in Naples and Rome. He then returned to his home country, only to depart again, this time for England. He spent the years 1554 and 1555 there in the music chapel of the Spanish king Philip II of Spain, or rather in the services of his wife, Mary I of England (Mary Tudor). He maintained the friendships he established during his engagement through correspondence, often including considerably younger composers. 

Philippe de Monte

After his departure from England in 1555, Monte attempted to secure the post of chapelmaster of Albrecht V, Duke of Bavaria, but he did not succeed. The post was taken up by Orlande de Lassus a year later, whom Monte subsequently met personally and maintained correspondence with. Monte then headed to Italy again, where he spent several years supported by various patrons. His traces lead through Genoa, Florence, and Rome. When Jacobus Vaet, Kapellmeister to Maximilian II, Holy Roman Emperor, died at the beginning of the year 1567, the emperor and his emissaries began searching for a successor. Even Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina himself was being considered, but in the end, Philippe de Monte was chosen and named the court chapelmaster in 1568. At that point, he could hardly have suspected that he had set himself up for a long thirty-five years of service to two Habsburg emperors. 

Monte was not only highly valued for his personal and artistic qualities by his musical colleagues – his art was appreciated by the imperial court, too: in 1572, Maximilian named him the guardian of the treasure of Cambrai, and five years later, he was awarded a canonry by Rudolf II (canonries were a device through which emperors frequently supported deserving musicians who were also clerics). Monte, however, never made use of this prebend, as his numerous requests for retirement were repeatedly declined by the emperor. Philippe de Monte died on July 4th 1603 in Prague, and was buried in the Basilica of St. James in the Old Town of Prague, as specified in his will.


The composer spent almost half of his life directing the imperial music chapel. What did this ensemble look like? The origin of the German word Kapelle (band or ensemble; kapela in Czech) is related to the word Kapell; chapel (kaple in Czech), a sacred space in which church services were officiated in the presence of the ruler. Providing musical accompaniment to such rites was among the primary functions of the court ensemble. The ensemble – also known as a Capellnparthey in this period – had a fixed position in the hierarchy of the court. It was mostly composed of men – adult and boy singers, chamber musicians, an organist, and other persons occupying positions related to music in the imperial chapel (the almoner; chaplains; the teacher to the boy choristers; copyists; a tuner). There was also another musical ensemble – the trumpeters and drummers, who were not, however, fully part of the chapel. Instead, they were grouped with the equerry (Stallparthey; the officers in charge of the stables), which had to do with their originally military and later representative function. Many phenomenal musicians of European stature passed through the imperial chapel during Rudolf’s reign – at its height, the group consisted of around sixty musicians.

Il settimo libro delli Madrigali (1583)
Il settimo libro delli Madrigali (1583), preserved in Bayerische Staatsbibliothek

All this suggests that the imperial chapel mostly performed sacred music. With some degree of hyperbole, we can thus state that Philippe de Monte composed much of his sacred music with a view to the abilities and assets of this group. His preferred genres of sacred music included motets (250 pieces), spiritual madrigals (131 pieces), and masses (37 in total). Monte’s secular output, however, was much greater, particularly in the field of the Italian madrigal. This too could, of course, be useful at the court: at various festivities and ceremonies, as well as in the emperor’s private chambers. But Maximilian or Rudolf are not the only one’s to whom Monte dedicated his collections of madrigals, of which there are thirty-five (!) in total. Among the list of dedicatees, we find both secular and church dignitaries, wealthy aristocrats, and experts in music who were able to appreciate the composer’s art.

Some of his contemporaries described his style as musica reservata, a term that contains several meanings, beginning with a close relation between the music and the text and also including rhythmic and chromatic nuances (and social aspects, too: the Grove Music Online dictionary defines musica reservata as music “reserved for a particular section of the public, whose members regarded themselves as connoisseurs”). All this can, indeed, be found in Monte’s music. But it is apparent that his highly original compositional style transformed during the course of his long artistic career, even though it was always based in the art of vocal counterpoint, a style for which composers originating from the area now known as Benelux were famous already in the 15th century. Philippe de Monte, however, had a great sensitivity for words set to music, and his contrapuntal craft was always unconditionally subordinated to the text. These artistic qualities, which all of Europe had a chance to acquaint itself with (mostly thanks to the work of prestigious printing houses in Venice and Antwerp), led to Monte being appreciated literally across all of Europe by both professionals and laymen.

If we stand in wonder when faced with the number and quality of Monte’s works, we cannot but help asking ourselves: How could such a famous composer, whose oeuvre is just as extensive and significant as that of Palestrina or Lassus, fall into oblivion so soon after his death? There are multiple possibilities, but let us mention two here, at least. Firstly, Monte was celibate, so after his death – unlike Palestrina and Lassus –, he had no one to actively maintain his legacy. Secondly (again in contrast to the two more famous composers), he did not write a work that became the stuff of legends, like Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli or Lassus’ Prophetiae Sibyllarum and Psalmi poenitentiales, which would secure him constant popularity throughout the centuries that followed. Philippe de Monte stands squarely in the shadow of Palestrina and Lassus, and outside of the interest of musicology, too. This is why his oeuvre is still not available in a modern, complete edition (both attempts in the past failed).