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Josquin des Prez

On a high Renaissance composer.


In April 1503, Josquin des Prez arrived in Ferrara to begin his one-year term as maestro di cappella at the court of Duke Ercole d’Este. Already around fifty years old, Josquin was nearing the end of an enviable career as a singer in the court of King Louis XII of France, one whose voice had even graced the Sistine Chapel. While Josquin was an active composer throughout his adult life, none of his positions before Ferrara had entailed composing per se; singers, not composers, were required for the everyday business of chapel music-making. By the end of the fifteenth century, however, some courts specifically sought out composers and emphasized that aspect of their work. In Ferrara was one such court.

We know this not only because of Ferrara’s history and the records of its chapel, but also because of a famous letter that tells us the somewhat unusual story behind Josquin’s hiring. In late 1502, Duke Ercole received a letter from Gian di Artiganova, one of his singers at court. The letter in part reads as follows:

I hereby inform Your Highness that the singer Isaac has been to Ferrara and has fashioned a very good motet, and finished it in only two days. From this one can reliably conclude that he can compose very quickly and is a fine man besides . . . He seemed to me far more suitable to serve Your Highness than Josquin, since he is more sociable with his colleagues and composes new things more quickly. It is true that Josquin is the better composer, but he writes only when he pleases, not when he is requested to, and has demanded 200 ducats in salary, while Isaac is content with 120. Your Highness can now choose between them at pleasure.

Gian was referring to Henricus Isaac, one of Josquin’s great contemporaries who most notably composed for the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian. Isaac was certainly a more prolific composer. He left us a large number of concise Mass settings in the “German” style, which alternated with plainchant; he composed the earliest set of polyphonic Propers for the Cathedral of Constance; and two of his motets, as commissions for important events, refer by name to Emperor Maximilian and Pope Leo X.

And so the duke ignored the advice of his subordinate and hired Josquin. His faith seems not to have been misplaced: during his one year in Ferrara, Josquin composed more music than we can assign to any other single year of his life. Josquin famously composed a Mass setting into which he embedded a musical form of the duke’s name. The solfege syllables re–ut–re–ut–re–fa–mi–re (ut was the original syllable for what we now call do) form a musical figure for the words Hercules dux Ferrarie (Ercole, Duke of Ferrara), a technique called sogetto cavato; in Josquin’s Mass, the tenor sings this figure at different speeds throughout, around which the three other voices sing the Ordinary text in polyphony. In addition to one other Mass, the Missa Malheur me bat, Josquin wrote at least two motets in Ferrara: his Miserere mei Deus, an expansive setting of Psalm L; and the Marian devotional motet Virgo salutiferi. All four of these works number among the finest compositions of the period; we can be grateful that Ercole coughed up the extra eighty ducats.

We know that Josquin composed Virgo salutiferi in Ferrara because the motet sets a devotional poem to the Blessed Virgin Mary by Ercole Strozzi, the Ferrarese court poet at that time. Such motet settings of devotional or occasional poetry were not uncommon. Often written for five voices, the poems would usually be sung by four of the voices while the fifth voice, the tenor, sang a so-called cantus firmus: a plainchant or secular song drawn out in long notes as a sort of structural backbone. Already Josquin had written some of these. His motet Huc me sydereo, for example, sets a poetic text about the Passion built around the plainchant cantus firmus Plangent eum, a Lauds antiphon for Holy Saturday.

Virgo salutiferi combines Strozzi’s poem with the plainchant Ave Maria gratia plena, but the cantus firmus is assigned to two voices instead of one—the usual tenor plus the superius, or top line. The two-voice cantus firmus enters only periodically with short phrases, leaving the remaining three voices to carry the bulk of the text and music. Most impressively, when the cantus firmus voices enter, they sing the Ave Maria chant in exact canon while the polyphony continues around them.

Anyone who has sung the round “Row, row, row your boat” with friends is familiar with canons and the delight they bring. Canons are not necessarily difficult to compose, especially two-voice canons. A composer writes one phrase at a time, creating new music in the first voice over the repetition of the previous phrase in the second voice. In Virgo salutiferi, Josquin did not have that option, because his canon is based on a tune that already existed in the Ave Maria chant; he could only adjust the duration of individual notes in the chant to allow the melody to interlock with itself. Constructing one such combination would have been impressive enough; in Virgo salutiferi, he built three.

The result is exhilarating. The three “free” voices begin the motet, singing the opening stanza of Strozzi’s poem with clearly demarcated musical lines; at the end of the stanza, the tenor sneakily enters with the first statement of Ave maria, buried within the polyphonic texture and easily missed on first listening. The canonic superius follows the tenor soon after; at one octave above, easily the highest voice in the texture, the chant becomes unmistakably audible over the music that continues below. Josquin pauses the poetic text while these statements of Ave Maria proceed, vamping the free voices on the previous word or phrase until the cantus firmus clears out and they are permitted to continue. The cantus firmus creates the illusion of structural force with its regular, canonic presentation, when in reality the three voices singing the poem are in charge. This tension permeates the motet, with the free voices ultimately winning out as the canon gets faster and more closely spaced in each of the motet’s three parts. Strozzi’s poem and Ave Maria finally collide and fuse in the same rapid music and rollicking “Alleluia” at the climactic ending, even as the exact canon continues right up to the last note.

Josquin never planned to remain in Ferrara. Barely a month after his arrival, he engaged in a complex financial transaction known as a quadrangular permutation of ecclesiastical benefices. Josquin, like most of his singer-composer colleagues, was an ordained priest. Singers at well-connected courts were among a privileged few who could obtain exemptions from the standard requirements for holding a benefice, such as physical residency at the position, and caps on the number of benefices one could hold simultaneously. This complicated and arcane network of ecclesiastical money was the lifeblood of musical careers in the second half of the fifteenth century.

The quadrangular permutation involved a four-way exchange of positions among Josquin and three colleagues; the long and short of it is that, in 1503, Josquin arranged it such that he gave up a benefice to one singer in exchange for a different benefice from another. He obtained the position of provost at the collegiate church of Notre Dame in Condé-sur-l’Escaut, today a sleepy French town tucked up against the Belgian border. Condé was the village of Josquin’s youth; whether or not he was born there, he considered it home. An outbreak of the plague in Ferrara forced his early return to Condé in spring 1504, where he would serve at Notre Dame until his death exactly five centuries ago, in 1521.

In this, Josquin followed what was a very common career path for the most successful composers of the late fifteenth century. For reasons that remain unclear, nearly every composer of repute from Josquin’s time was born in the same zone of roughly one hundred square miles that had as its southwestern corner the great prince-bishopric of Cambrai. Singers of promise obtained training in polyphony at one of the great choir schools, such as those at Cambrai or Tournai. After taking minor orders, they would head south, often to the well-paying and ecclesiastically significant courts of Italy; for example, during the years Josquin sang at the Sistine Chapel, most of his colleagues there were also from the Low Countries. At some point, these priest-singers would take their final vows, often returning to the north.

As provost in Condé, Josquin had very different responsibilities from those of a singer or maestro di cappella. Nevertheless, he appears to have found plenty of time and energy to compose, churning out at least three more polyphonic Masses, several French songs, and a batch of large motets for five and six voices. Like the Virgo salutiferi, the motets show an interest in a canonic two-voice cantus firmus and suggest a devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Much of what I am about to suggest should be qualified by an important point, one which accompanies all attempts at dating and collating music from this period. Among the dozens of music manuscripts that survive from the late fifteenth century, we have just three autograph copies; everything else comes to us second, third, or fourth-hand. Music was often printed without dates, unlike in the sixteenth century, much less the eighteenth, when composers’ manuscripts were frequently dated. Our chronologies of fifteenth-century music are thus necessarily speculative.

How does this affect our historical understanding of Josquin and his career? His greatness was widely recognized before many important philological tools for analyzing sources and documents from the period were developed in the last century. As such, we are uncertain not only about when certain of Josquin’s pieces were composed, but whether Josquin composed many of them at all. Any chronological assessment of his career is provisional at best.

Still, one cannot ignore that, in the fifteen years that followed Josquin’s return to Condé, six motets all but certainly by Josquin turned up in various corners of Europe: all of them are devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary; all of them are for five or six voices; and all but one of them are based on a two-voice canonic or quasi-canonic cantus firmus. The musical and devotional aspects explored in Virgo salutiferi therefore came to define Josquin’s composition of motets for the rest of his life.

In one of these works, O virgo prudentissima, Josquin used essentially the same procedure seen in Virgo salutiferi, setting a fifteenth-century Marian poem by Angelo Poliziano around canonic statements of the antiphon Beata mater. He took a slightly different approach in Inviolata integra et casta es Maria, a five-voice setting of a chant for the Feast of the Purification, in which two voices proceed in canon from start to finish with fewer pauses in between phrases. Inviolata is unusual among cantus-firmus motets in its setting of the same text in the cantus firmus and the free voices. Josquin apparently invented this approach with his other Ferrarese motet, Miserere mei Deus; Inviolata, by combining this with the canonic approach of Virgo salutiferi, therefore synthesizes the two Ferrarese motets into a new structural type.

Yet Josquin took the possibilities of these various structural approaches even further in three of his grandest Marian motets. Preter rerum seriem, probably the first motet he composed after leaving Ferrara, sets a Marian Sequence that was often sung at the Christmas Midnight Mass. The motet begins with the lowest three of the six voices, one of them singing the first line of the plainchant in long notes while the other two decorate it with unrelated, quick-moving polyphony on the same text. At the end of this first line of text, the three voices cadence and the top three voices enter, singing exactly the same music we just heard but one octave higher. The lower three voices do not stop; they continue with new, decorative polyphony that masks the repetition. The effect is that of a canonic cantus firmus similar to Virgo salutiferi, but there is in fact no canon: the voice which had sung the cantus firmus first breaks into free polyphony, leaving only the superius with long notes. This alternation—a quasi-canon, if you will—persists for the duration of the motet, each line of the Sequence repeated in similar fashion. Sometimes, Josquin has the first trio remain silent when the repetition occurs, creating a polychoral effect; other times, they continue through the repetition. This technique serves to emphasize the plainchant while providing Josquin with a structure on which to build his particular style of repetitive, combinatorial counterpoint. Josquin replicates this approach in Benedicta es celorum regina, with a freer approach to the alternation between voice groupings; and O virgo virginum, which moves between this quasi-canonic repetition and through-composed sections.

I ask the reader’s pardon if this description seems unnecessarily technical. Its importance to this music leads us to a larger observation about beauty and aesthetics in the premodern era. Despite the occasional moment of indulgence, Josquin and his contemporaries rarely exemplified the sort of text-music relationship we have come to expect since the seventeenth century. Josquin’s aim in these motets was not the depiction, expression, or elicitation of emotions akin to the “rhetoric” or “affect” pursued by composers of later periods; rather, he sought beauty in the balance between form and variety within the context of contrapuntal, structural, and generic norms. The genius of Josquin’s motets therefore lies in the creativity Josquin brought to the standard formulas of the period, as well as the clarity, transparency, and logic of his compositional design.

Yet one extra-musical element pervades this discussion of Josquin’s late motets: a constant turn back to the Blessed Virgin. Poetic and liturgical devotions to the Blessed Mother were the locus of some of Josquin’s most remarkable compositional achievements and innovations. Nor was this limited to these later chapters of his life. Shortly before going to Ferrara, Josquin composed one of the first polyphonic settings of the Stabat mater, again for five voices with the secular song Comme femme desconfortée—“like a woman in distress”—as its cantus firmus. Josquin excised strophes from the hymn such that his setting was perfectly symmetrical, the first part describing Mary’s witness of the Passion and the second part invoking her intercession. His short and otherwise workaday setting of Missus est Gabriel angelus from the same period tells the story of the Annunciation, but with a breathtaking quotation of the Ave Maria plainchant at the moment in the text when Gabriel addresses Mary with those words. The earliest work we have at all by Josquin, the famous Ave Maria . . . virgo serena that he likely composed in the 1480s, was among the first motets of its kind in presenting a simple rhyming devotional text with utter transparency and simplicity.

But his most personal address to the Blessed Mother is found in his Illibata Dei virgo nutrix, yet another five-voice motet perhaps composed in the 1490s while Josquin was singing in the Sistine Chapel. The motet sets an anonymous Marian text, the first half of which spells out Josquin’s name in the form of an acrostic:

 I   llibata Dei virgo nutrix,
O  lympi tu regis o genitrix,
 S  ola parens verbi puerpera.
Q  ue fuisti Eve reparatrix,
 V  iri nephas tuta mediatrix,
 I   llud clara luce dat scriptura.
N  ata nati alma genitura,
 D  es ut leta musarum factura
 P  revaleat ymis, et suave
 R  oborando sonos ut guttura
 E  fflagitent, laude teque pura
 Z  elotica arte clament ave.

The cantus firmus is a repeated three-note figure on the solfege la-mi-la, referring to “Maria.” Toward the end, the main text reads, “Hail to you, sole beloved, console them / Who sing ‘la mi la’ to your praise,” at which point the free voices join the tenor on this sogetto cavato for Mary. We have Josquin’s name embedded in the text, but never sung explicitly; the singers addressing the Blessed Mother directly, asking for her intercession; a cantus firmus that repeats Mary’s name in musical form, at the end echoing in all the voices.

Did Josquin have a special devotion to the Blessed Mother? We cannot know for sure, but there is no doubt that he afforded her pride of place in his motet output. Nor was this necessarily a matter of course, even in an age when most music was written by priests for use in sacred spaces: none of Josquin’s contemporaries show any comparable concentration of Marian themes or imagery in their oeuvres. To the extent that Josquin did not write Marian music, most of those motets are small-scale settings of liturgical texts, such as his Tract settings Domine non secundum peccata and Qui habitat in adjutorio, or his scriptural settings such as Liber generationis Jesu Christi and In principio erat verbum. The same is true of his Mass settings, where one would not expect to find a special concentration of Marianism. By contrast, poetic pieces such as Illibata and Virgo salutiferi are devotional, not liturgical; when he composed settings of liturgical texts such as Preter rerum seriem and O virgo virginum, recall that he was a provost, not serving in a musical position at all. It seems significant that in these freer circumstances, he consistently turned back to texts dedicated to Mary.

This brings us back to Gian’s letter to the Duke of Ferrara, in which he observed that Josquin only composed what and when he wanted. This letter has mostly been read as evidence that Josquin demonstrated a “Beethoven complex,” fiercely devoted to his art and unwilling to allow any incursion upon his creative freedom. But what if we read it as support for a tenuous observation—that, in placing Mary at the center of his composition, Josquin was expressing, in the way he knew best, a devotion close to his heart?

The year before he died, Josquin composed a paired Pater noster and Ave Maria. In his will, he endowed performances of this music in front of his house in Condé during the regular processions there. Josquin, not unlike many of his contemporaries, saw a link between his musical gifts, the public religious observances of the city, and the journey of his soul toward heaven. We know precious little about what Josquin was like—as a man, as a priest, as a Catholic. But as Catholics ourselves, we have the special gift of uniting our souls with his, reprising the beautiful offering of his music to increase our own devotion and, most worthily, giving glory to the Queen of Heaven.

Brett Kostrzewski sings, plays, and studies old music in Boston, Massachusetts.

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