Despite being the unchallenged pre-eminent French composer around 1500 and arguably the greatest single influence on composers throughout the 16th century, tantalizingly little is known of Josquin’s life. He appears to have been mainly in Milan from 1459 to 1479, was in the Papal chapel 1486-95, was chapel-master to the Duke of Ferrara 1503-4, and then spent his remaining years as provost of Notre Dame, Condé.
Josquin used the most extraordinary array of devices in his music: the melodic use of liturgical chant; use of ‘cantus firmus’ for its symbolic significance; canonic doubling of the ‘tenor’ to give greater prominence and weight to the chant; and the quotation of secular melodies for reasons of associative significance. But it is in his treatment of words that his contribution was most radical—not only did he play a major part in focusing attention on the natural rhythm and inflection of a text, but he also stressed the importance of rhetoric. For example, dramatic changes of texture would automatically draw the listener’s attention to a new phrase and make it clearly audible. It is this submission of compositional procedures to the meaning and requirement of texts that is Josquin’s chief legacy to following generations.
In this program, specially created for Miller Theatre, the Consort presents a sequence of music by Josquin and other great composers, both contemporaries and followers, who were clearly influenced by the great man’s work. The featured works are characterized by beautiful harmonies, elegant counterpoint and inspiring sacred and secular texts—if one considers this repertoire alongside the stunning imagery of early Renaissance painting and sculpture then this probably will come as no surprise. Yet if the Renaissance is sometimes offered up as a movement that aspired to capture the order and elegance of Greek and Roman influences from centuries before, then this can sometimes overshadow the spirit of invention, discovery, and even revolution that was unleashed in the early decades of the 16th century.
We set the scene with Josquin’s five-part monumental and beautiful motet Inviolata, integra et casta es Maria, a fine Marian motet that is constructed, as so many such pieces were, around a ‘cantus firmus’ chant melody. However, Josquin, with customary skill, sets this as a canon to be sung at an interval of a fifth by the ‘tenor’ and ‘quintus’ voices with the other voices weaving intricate patterns above, in between, and below. With this piece and, indeed, with most of the composer’s work, there is little evidence as to where, when and for what occasion it might have been composed.
Patronage: The Ferrara Court
Many of the great Italian courts at the end of the 15th and beginning of the 16th centuries had been founded on the spoils of war, through political intrigue or simply through shrewd financial dealing, yet one of the most significant measures of their standing relative to each other was often considered to be their displays of cultural brilliance. Numerous great Renaissance painters in Italy enjoyed the patronage of wealthy employers, but one Duke above all seemed to place a special emphasis on bringing musicians to his household and his chapel, namely Ercole I d’Este of Ferrara (1431-1505). Appointments to positions in the capella
in the early years of Ercole’s dukedom included Johannes Martini, Jean Japart, and Johannes Ghiselin, all fine composers if not necessarily the very best of their generation. But when a position opened up at court in 1503, Ercole found himself with a once in a lifetime choice between two candidates: Heinrich Isaac or Josquin Desprez. The Duke did not lack for advice, with two of his agents offering contradictory advice. Girolamo de Sestola wrote that “I believe that there is neither lord nor king who will have a better chapel than yours if your lordship sends for Josquin,” while Gian de Artiganova countered that “It is true that Josquin composes better, but he composes when he wants to, and not when one wants him to, and he is asking 200 ducats in salary while Isaac will come for 120—but Your Lordship will decide.”
The framing of the arguments for and against each composer has sometimes been used to suggest that Ercole settled on his eventual choice of Josquin based entirely on reputation. However, the possibility that this was a decision made instead for purely musical and personal reasons should not be discounted. One of Josquin’s most famous motets, Miserere mei, Deus, was written “at the earnest entreaty of the Duke of Ferrara” and it has been suggested by musicologist Patrick Macey that Ercole himself sang the tenor line. Moreover, the Missa Hercules dux Ferrariae, most likely written some years after Josquin’s departure from the Ferrara court in 1504, was not only dedicated to Ercole but was also based on a melodic motif taken from the syllables of the Duke’s name.
Josquin’s successor at court was the Flemish composer Jacob Obrecht, who was born in Ghent in the household of a city trumpeter and who became a choirmaster in Bruges, Cambrai (from where he was dismissed following financial irregularities) and Antwerp. Sadly, both Ercole and Obrecht fell victim to the plague in early 1505, and it was the former’s older son, Dule Alfonso I, who appointed the French composer Antoine Brumel to succeed Obrecht.
Mater patris et filia for three voices is a small-scale motet by Brumel’s standards and yet it contains much of the composer’s characteristic sequential and imitative writing, while Obrecht’s Parce Domine is a setting of a text associated with Lent. De profundis clamavi is a masterful setting of Psalm 129 by Josquin, with the appended lines “Requiem aeternam…,” “Kyrie eleison,” and “Pater noster.”
This selection of pieces, that may well have been sung at the most musical of all the Italian courts and the style in which they are written, places considerable and varied technical and musical demands on the singers and testifies to the skills required by the professional musicians employed at court. However, even during the early years of the 16th century and before Josquin, Obrecht, and Brumel arrived in Ferrara, a seismic change was under way just 75 miles away that was to have profound effect on the direction that composition was to take and the nature of future music-making, not only in the next few decades but also in the centuries to come.
Following the invention of the printing press around the year 1450, considerable efforts were made to find ways of expanding its uses and develop ways of printing music. By 1475 printers in Germany and Italy had mastered the simpler notational forms of Gregorian chant, but the few isolated instances of printing polyphonic music before 1500 were limited to wood engravings of brief examples in literary works and treatises. However, in 1498 Ottaviano dei Petrucci (1466-1539) submitted a petition to the Doge of Venice requesting the exclusive privilege of printing canto figurato (measured music) in the Venetian dominions for 20 years, explaining that he had perfected a method of doing “what many, not only in Italy but elsewhere, have long attempted in vain.” Having been granted the rights, three years elapsed before Petrucci published his first book, a period presumably taken up with the casting of type for the notes, rests, clefs, and proportional signs, as well as the editing of the texts to be printed. On May 15, 1501 he issued his Harmonice musices odhecaton A, consisting of a volume of 96 pieces. The volume, which contained works by composers from all over Europe, was dedicated to Petrucci’s patron, the Venetian nobleman Girolamo Donato, and its importance is magnified by the fact that a number of the pieces in it, and in the ensuing volumes, have not survived in manuscript form and are now only known to us today thanks to Petrucci’s ground-breaking work. Petrucci’s invention also caused a significant social shift. From a position where court and church music had essentially been the preserve of the rich in secular circles and of the highly educated in sacred institutions, it was now possibly for anyone to purchase music that could be learned, performed, and shared in domestic settings. It became widely recognized that there were significant financial gains to be made from publishing attractive pieces that could be performed by amateur musicians so, while many composers continued to write music of great sophistication, there was also a clear motive for them to produce simpler music at the same time. The specialist music publishers who emerged on the back of Petrucci’s work, such as the Venetian Andre Antico and the Frenchman Pierre Attaignant, who secured the rights to publish a whole range of music in France, enjoyed great commercial success, and their lead was in turn followed by the great English composers Thomas Tallis and William Byrd who were awarded a monopoly on music publishing in England by Queen Elizabeth I that lasted for much of the second half of the 16th century.
The three pieces to be performed in the section appear in Petrucci’s first volume and perhaps heralded what was to come: each is exceptionally beautiful without asking the most taxing questions of the singers. Frustratingly little is known about the life of Hayne van Ghizeghem. A Franco-Flemish composer, he was born sometime around 1445 and it is known that he was at the Burgundian court from at least 1457 until 1477, but it is most likely that he lived at least until 1490. Jean Mouton’s reputation stands largely on the basis of his wonderful motet-writing and he could always be relied on to produce striking works for important ceremonial occasions, whether celebratory or mournful. This Missa Tua est potentia: Kyrie, however, is a setting that could easily be sung by any small group of proficient singers.
Explorations: New Worlds
The final two decades of Josquin’s life also bore witness to what historians have sometimes called ‘the expansion of Europe.’ While Europeans had certainly explored and engaged with other nations and civilizations over many earlier centuries—often not peacefully, it has to be said—the voyages of seafarers such as Columbus and Magellan opened up whole new vistas. The lure of finding undiscovered riches was compelling motivation for ambitious ventures, yet it was not the only aspiration behind taking such dangerous and demanding trips; by way of example, the Portuguese explorers who set sail with Vasco da Gama in 1497 were given the specific brief of seeking “Christians and Spices.” The pursuit of both was carried out with vigor and brutality in India and the Far East, yet it was recognized that pushing music to the forefront of missionary activity would not only present the best face of Christianity but might also encourage local people to convert. The presence of an organist, Frei Maffeu, and a singer, Frei Neto, during Cabral’s voyage of discovery to Brazil and the Indian Ocean in 1500 suggests this policy was preconceived. Specifically, when the Portuguese arrived in Goa, on the western coast of India, the musicians were welcomed and there is written evidence of an exchange of musical ideas, serving as a reminder that India was a country that already had its own distinguished musical heritage. Two pieces are presented here by the Portuguese composer Pedro de Escobar and it is easy to imagine that his music would have been ‘exported’ on these voyages. Absolve Domine is a beautiful short section of the composer’s Requiem Mass, and Virgen bendita sin par is a short sacred song of the type that is said to have been enjoyed by the great Mugal Emperor Akbar, a man of great intellectual curiosity, when sung by the Jesuit priests he had invited to attend his court.
It was in the final year of Josquin’s life, 1521, that Ponce de Léon, leader of the first large-scale attempt to establish a Spanish colony in what is now modern U.S., landed on the southwest coast of Florida. Once again, it is impossible to say precisely what music might have traveled with the ships and to estimate in what spirit it was offered, but it is certainly conceivable that the music of the young Cristóbal de Morales, whose works were regularly sung in South American venues in ensuing decades, was amongst the first to be heard on the western side of the Atlantic Ocean.
Church and State
The final years of Josquin’s life overlapped with one of the biggest upheavals in Europe’s religious and political history. In 1517, a young Doctor of Theology nailed his 95 Theses to the door of a church in the German town of Wittenburg. The central argument that religion should be determined purely by the scriptures rather than by religious traditions set the author, Martin Luther, against the whole church establishment and, unsurprisingly, in 1521 he was excommunicated and declared an outlaw of the state. Of course, Josquin did not live to witness the struggles and turbulence of the Reformation, and yet there is some suggestion in his music that he may have just possibly had sympathy for this new cause in his choice of texts for earlier sacred motets written by humanist scholars, including Mapheus Vegius and Angelo Poliziano. In contrast, however, Luther’s admiration for Josquin is on record, not least in his declaration that Josquin was “the master of the notes, which must express what he desires,” whereas “other composers must do what the notes dictate.” In this section, the Consort sings Luther’s own Non moriar, sed vivam (a modest piece, but not without merit) and a beautiful song in five parts, Incessament mon povre cueur lamente, that has often been credited as the work of Josquin but which is more likely to be the work of another composer admired by Luther, Pierre de La Rue. Also included are two works by the German composer Ludwig Senfl, who enjoyed a regular correspondence with Luther and who clearly had sympathies for the protestant cause even if he was not in a position to acknowledge this publicly. Senfl is best known today as the composer of lusty secular songs—many of which involve the subject of beer!—but his beautiful setting of O admirabile commercium is testimony not only to his own very considerable all-round talents but also the compositional debt he owed to Josquin Desprez.
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