The Musical Mysteries of Josquin


Singer and composer Josquin Desprez has lived through his time like a shy ghost, glimpsed here and there in the splendor of the Renaissance. He is believed to have been born around 1450 in present-day western Belgium, the son of a policeman who was previously imprisoned for excessive use of force. In 1466, a boy named Gossequin made a passage as an altar boy in the city of Cambrai. A decade later, the singer Jusquinus de Pratis appears at the court of René d’Anjou, in Aix. In the eighties, in Milan, Judocus Despres was in the service of the house of Sforza, which also employed Leonardo da Vinci. At the end of the decade, judo. de Prez joined the Vatican musical team, remaining there during the reign of Alexander VI, from the House of Borgia. The name Josquin can be seen engraved on a wall of the Sistine Chapel. In 1503, Maestro Juschino took up a post in Ferrara, singing in the presence of Lucrezia Borgia. Shortly after, Josse des Prez retired to Condé-sur-l’Escaut, near his alleged birthplace, serving as provost of the local church. He died there on August 27, 1521. His tomb was destroyed during the French Revolution.

Despite the obscurity of his existence, Josquin achieved a lasting fame of a genre no previous composer had known. In 1502 the Venetian printer Ottaviano Petrucci, the main pioneer of movable-type music publishing, published a volume of sacred motets, with the setting to music for four voices of “Ave Maria.” . . virgo serena ”(“ Hail Mary… serene virgin ”) at its head. The play must have cast a spell, and the beginning shows why. The highest voice, the superius, sings a graceful ascending and descending phrase: GCCDE C. Each of the low voices presents the pattern in turn. After arriving in bass, the superius again enters high C, forming an octave pillar. A second phrase unfolds the same, then a third, with voices shifted so that only two move together at a time. Eventually, the pattern changes, the texture thickens and the descending order of the vocal inputs is reversed. About a minute later, the four voices unite to form a sparkling tone in C major. The whole opening gives the illusion of breadth and depth, as if lamps had been lit in a vaulted room. Music becomes a space in which we walk with wonder.

Interest in Josquin was strong enough for Petrucci to publish three volumes of the composer’s masses, arrangements of five sections of the Roman mass (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei). Posthumously, the flow of publications only increased, to the point where one observer said wryly: “Now that Josquin is dead, he publishes more works than when he was still alive.” Extravagant claims have been made. Humanist Cosimo Bartoli described Josquin as the Michelangelo of music; Martin Luther called him “the master of notes”. During the following centuries, performances of his works practically ceased, but his name remained an element to be warded off. In 1782, historian Charles Burney declared that Josquin had achieved “universal monarchy and domination over the affections and passions of the musical part of humanity.” For August Wilhelm Ambros, in 1868, he was the first composer in history “who conveys an impression of genius”. In the 20th century, the early music movement revived Josquin’s scores, and the revival continued five hundred years after his death. The Tallis Scholars, the best known of Renaissance vocal groups, recently completed a recorded survey of eighteen masses attributed to Josquin. Bands such as Stile Antico, Cappella Pratensis, Blue Heron and the Huelgas Ensemble participate in a Josquin festival in Antwerp in August. Ave Maria is a staple of choirs around the world.

With Josquin began the cult of the great composer, a state of mind that has left a clearly ambiguous imprint on the culture of classical music. And his rise to superhero status has resulted in a curious paradox. Although commentators across five centuries have agreed on Josquin’s preeminence, his works can easily be mistaken for those of other gifted contemporaries. Two anecdotes from the beginning of the 16th century illustrate what one might call Josquin’s mirage, where the brilliance of his name distorts musical perceptions. Baldassare Castiglione, in his treatise “The Courtier’s Book” (1528), noted the composer’s snobbish appeal in aristocratic settings: “When a motet was sung in the presence of the Duchess, it pleased no one and was considered worthless, until it was known that it had been composed by Josquin Desprez. The opposite fate befell a play by Adrian Willaert, one of Josquin’s most accomplished successors. When Willaert first came to Rome, he discovered that the papal choir was singing one of their motets, under the impression that it was by Josquin. When Willaert corrected the error, the singers lost interest in the work. Such stories help explain why attributions to Josquin proliferated after his death: putting his name on a sheet music was guaranteed to generate interest. The same syndrome has long haunted Renaissance art, where the emphasis on the singular profile of canonical artists led to heated debates over authenticity and a thriving counterfeit market.

Over three hundred coins have been attributed to Josquin at one time or another. In recent decades, musicologists have removed questionable items from the catalog. This spring, I followed the work of two prominent Josquin authorities, Joshua Rifkin and Jesse Rodin, as they put together a considerably pruned list of probable Josquin pieces – one hundred and three in all. Some researchers fear that the attribution process has got out of hand; the half-joking fear is that Josquin will eventually disappear almost completely, like the Cheshire cat. Thanks to the pandemic phenomenon of the Zoom seminar, I was able to attend some of the deliberations, which kept raising bigger philosophical questions: how does an aura of infallibility come to surround a figure like Josquin? What becomes of the music that sinks into anonymity, when “The Man with the Golden Helmet” seems to come out of Rembrandt’s canon?

There is nothing wrong with this aura: Josquin was an astonishing composer, whose contrapuntal dazzles can make Bach clumsy. But he lived in a completely amazing community of creative artists. To explore Renaissance choral music is to enter an intimidating forest of names: Dunstable, Power, Binchois, Dufay, Busnois, Ockeghem, Regis, Faugues, Compère, Weerbeke, Agricola, de Orto, Obrecht, Isaac, de la Rue, Mouton, Brumel, Févin, Richafort, Ghiselin, Gombert, Pipelare, Martini, Clemens non Papa, Morales, Willaert, Lassus, Palestrina. Each of them wrote music worth hearing. The period bears witness to the emergence of composition as an art: Josquin became the patron of an essentially new profession which struggled to acquire the level of recognition long accorded to painters and poets. Distinct personalities materialize in the historical haze. We hear the sound of self, singing to a kind of freedom.

The term “composer” did not begin to generalize until the end of the 15th century. The practice of naming the authors of musical works was still in vogue. Documents of the time generally call Josquin a cantor, or singer. Yet his rise to fame helped bring about a change in status. In 1502, a courtier of Ercole I, the Duke of Ferrara, wrote a letter evaluating candidates for a musical nomination. One of them, Heinrich Isaac, was “easy going,” said the courtier; another, Josquin, “composes when he wants, and not when we want”. Also, Josquin asked for two hundred ducats, Isaac much less. Ercole, I hired Josquin.

Composers were a new phenomenon because written music itself was a relatively recent innovation in the long history of the arts. The earliest examples of fully decipherable staff notation, from the beginning of the 11th century, record Gregorian chant; sacred music for several voices was written in Notre-Dame, in Paris, in the 12th and 13th centuries. Troubadours, Finders, and other poet-composers have produced a well-loved body of songs, although the lyrics tend to receive more attention than the notes. The most formidable figure of the time was Guillaume de Machaut, who lived from around 1300 to 1377. Celebrated primarily for his courtly sung love poems, Machaut also wrote two dozen motets and the first cycle of masses for which a composer is known. Such large-scale elaborations on canonical texts sustained careers in the following century, as popes, princes, and other potentates sought to flesh out courtly ceremonies with splendid sounds. The history of written music is inextricably intertwined with worldly power structures, even though composers held a low place in the hierarchy.

Josquin embodies the art of polyphony: the interweaving of several voices according to strict contrapuntal rules. The main mandate was to control dissonance, a term that was understood differently in medieval times and the Renaissance than it is today. It indicated not only discordant combinations of tones, but also problematic relationships between notes. The octave, the fifth and sometimes the fourth were considered “perfect” consonances; thirds and sixths were “imperfect”; other intervals fall under the category of “dissonant”. A distrust of third parties is part of the reason medieval music can sound austere and strange to modern ears. Thirds are at the heart of tonal harmony, defining major and minor tones. At the beginning of the 15th century, English composers, led by John Dunstable, began to use thirds in abundance. Their lush, chord-rich sound has come to be known as the “English Face”, surprising and delighting listeners across the continent. English sources are also the first to name composers in large numbers.

“And that’s where the wealth comes from, my son.”
Cartoon by Robert Leighton

Geopolitics played a role in what happened next. King Henry V of England, who may have tried his hand at composition, won at Azincourt in 1415 and quickly recaptured northern France. The English officials brought with them their favorite choristers; Dunstable obviously served John of Lancaster, brother of Henry V and military commander. Thanks to Joan of Arc, England’s possessions quickly dwindled, but not before her music infiltrated northern France and Belgian lands. Coincidence or not, this region gave birth to the next great wave of musical activity. A large number of 15th and early 16th century composers, including Josquin, belonged to what is now called the Franco-Flemish School.

At the head of the procession was Guillaume Dufay (circa 1397-1474), who brought the elegance of dance to exalted masses and street songs. His motet “Nuper rosarum flores” was written for the consecration of Florence Cathedral in 1436, its majestic sounds echoing against Filippo Brunelleschi’s octagonal dome. Other composers of the mid and late 15th century broadened the range of possibilities. Antoine Busnois specializes in a lucid game of patterns; Johannes Ockeghem in opulent and unpredictable designs; Johannes Regis in complex structures that bring together the narrative energy of the calculated addition and subtraction of voices. (Josquin may have based his setting to music of “Ave Maria” on Regis’ motet of the same name.).


About Ethel Nester

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