Half a millennium ago a bored singer carved his name on the choirloft of the Sistine Chapel. This signature is probably the only autograph we have of the composer Josquin des Prez — if indeed it is his. Though in many ways Josquin remains a “ghost” (as Alex Ross referred to him recently in The New Yorker), his music is very much alive today. This year, the 500th anniversary of Josquin’s death, and the occasion has engendered a number of concerts, live and online, as well as new recordings of his music.
Josquin was famous in his time — Martin Luther called him “the master of the notes,” and he was compared to Virgil and Michelangelo. His music, along with that of his Franco-Flemish counterparts, is not only beautiful in itself and a crucial part of our repertoire, but also central to the music that came later: without Josquin, we would not have Palestrina, Monteverdi, or Bach — all of whom revered his accomplishments and developed his musical inventions.
From scant bits of documentary evidence, we can trace the outline of Josquin’s life — a choirboy in northern France, a singer at a court in Provence, then Milan and Rome, a master of music at the court of the Duke of Ferrara, and finally back to northern France as head cleric at a prestigious church, where he was buried 500 years ago. His tomb and the church were destroyed in the French Revolution.
Josquin arguably created what we know as Renaissance music, at once taming and enriching the intricacies of late medieval style. With Josquin and his contemporaries, music gained a new rhetoric of expressivity, in which the emotionality of his largely liturgical texts invested his highly structured music with great beauty. This 500-year-old music, composed for a very different time than ours, still delights and moves those who sing it and those who hear it.
Take, for example, his well-known Ave Maria (sung in the video below by the British ensemble Stile Antico). The sopranos begin by greeting the Virgin in an old chant melody, then the other lines join, one by one, in descending order. Then follows a sequence of increasingly rich polyphony. But among the complexity of intermingling lines, one never loses the structure of the text with its repeated “Ave” (Hail). Near the end, Josquin writes in expressive silences in order to prepare for his simple, homophonic statement, the essence of the prayer: “O mater Dei, memento mei. Amen” (Mother of God, remember me).
By the 19th century, Alex Ross notes, Josquin was “hailed as the equivalent of Beethoven: a defiant musical hero, asserting control over every aspect of composition.” In recent years, such hero-worship has been questioned, but it’s still worth making the comparison with Beethoven, who, like Josquin, knew the importance of silence. And like Beethoven, Josquin knew how to make a small musical motif (like the simple rising fourth in Ave Maria) the foundation for a big piece of music.
At the center of Josquin’s output are some 20-odd settings of the mass (the number varies from list to list). For decades, Peter Philips and The Tallis Scholars have been recording these substantial compositions. Fittingly, this year they completed the series. Philips commented to the Times that the group tries to “let the composer speak directly. You don’t need anything else” ... nothing, perhaps, I might add, beyond 30 years of hard work.
While Josquin wrote mostly for singers — that’s where the money was in the 1500s — his music was also played on viols and lutes even from the start (the early printings omit the words, so whoever bought them must have had instruments in mind, or else knew enough to write in the words themselves). In October of this year, the viol consort Nota Bene played a program of Josquin as part of the Linarol Consort’s Josquin 500 Festival in the U.K.: The music, even without words, was rich and expressive. This past weekend, the Bay Area’s Barefoot Chamber Concerts demonstrated the way a mixed (or “broken,” in 16th-century terms) consort — in this case, viols, vielle, organ, and voice — brings out individual lines with different instrumental timbres.
Last month, the British ensemble Gesualdo Six sang Josquin in San Francisco in a program that delivered his clarity and expressive power. The program, mingling Josquin and his contemporaries, emphasized the current push to hear his music in the context of other northern European composers. Owain Park, one of the Gesualdo Six’s basses and its music director, told me that the ensemble’s enforced isolation due to COVID-19 had allowed them to go deeper into the music, from which they created a CD aptly called Josquin’s Legacy.
It’s easy to think of Renaissance choral music as an aural equivalent of the visual beauty we see in in Botticelli or Fra Angelico — ”shining and austere, with the gentle radiance of a shaft of sunlight beaming through a window,” as Zachary Woolfe wrote earlier this year. 500 years later, we may well want that light to illuminate our own dark time.
But Josquin’s music also knows about darkness. He lived in a Europe wracked by pestilence and brutal wars. It is hardly surprising that so many of Josquin’s finest works have a deeply penitential tone, as in his motet, Miserere mei, Deus (sung here by Cappella Amsterdam). The refrain “Lord, have mercy” is repeated again and again in increasingly intense lamentation — and accompanied by lines of ever more inventive beauty.
That motet was probably commissioned by the Duke of Ferrara as a memorial to one of the darkest figures of the Renaissance — the Dominican friar Girolamo Savanorola, who tried to purge Florence with his reforming zeal and his bonfires of vanities. The Duke himself — an advocate for the friar, and a tenor — sang the line in which Josquin solemnly tolls Savonarola’s plea for mercy, written on the eve of his execution.
That this 500th anniversary falls in the midst of our own pandemic makes the shadows in Josquin’s music even more apparent. The Dutch ensemble Cappella Pratensis (“Pratensis” is the Latin equivalent of Josquin’s “des Prez”) alternated Josquin with readings from Savonarola. A concert by the Belgian Huelgas Ensemble presented Josquin as “steeped in melancholy and farewells.” The English Touring Opera’s music video Josquin: Mille Regretz featured singers dressed as monks in Goth eye shadow and Illuminati-inspired robes.
In a less grotesque way, a great deal of Josquin’s music deals with death, sometimes of course through scripture, but also in more secular ways. “Nymphes des Bois” is Josquin’s elegy for Johannes Ockeghem, sung here by Vox Luminis. It shows Josquin as a man of strong passions and friendships: in his solemn mourning, he urges himself and his friends — by name — to mourn the loss of their “good father.”
The Josquin 500 year has made it clear that we can’t understand Josquin without appreciating the deep connection he had with contemporaries like Ockeghem, Antoine Brumel, and Jean Mouton. Unlike them, however, Josquin had a “name with clout,” as Brandeis performer and scholar Sarah Mead told me. The clout was due partly to luck, partly to his inventive writing, partly to his careful career choices, but above all to his strategic positioning in the new medium of print: in 1501 Josquin’s chansons were well represented in the Harmonice Musices Odhecaton (100 songs of harmonic music), the very first printed music book; a year later, the first book of single-authored music came out from the same Venice press, making five Josquin masses available to all of Europe.
As a result of Josquin’s name-recognition, his contemporaries tended to ride on his coat-tails. One wry observer in the mid-16th century asserted that Josquin produced more music after his death than before.
One of “Josquin’s” most familiar pieces is Mille regretz, a beautiful four-part chanson about love’s sorrow. It is justifiably a favorite, melancholy and indulgent as a torch song. But it’s almost certainly not by Josquin. Questioning the authenticity of such a stunner probably won’t affect its popularity, but when other works are “de-attributed,” as scholars say, they risk being moved from center stage to some archival dustbin of “anonymous.” All the more crucial to understand Okheghem, Brumel, and Josquin’s many other Franco-Flemish contemporaries, argues Owain Park. Attribution matters, he told me, because it’s a tool for delving deeper into an individual composer’s style and how it compares to that of his peers.
Stanford’s Jesse Rodin studies the “Josquin canon” from a number of perspectives, including the vexed issues of whether a given piece should be de-attributed. Rodin runs The Josquin Research Project, which is assembling a database of scores with computer-based analysis. Rodin also directs the ensemble Cut Circle, which performs Renaissance music with spine-chilling intensity — based, predictably, on well-researched performance decisions. The group toured in Italy this summer, and will issue a belated 500th anniversary CD early next year — archly titled Josquin 501.
What’s ahead after 2021? Owain Park told me he hoped that interest in this period, and in Josquin, will not fade.
He added a teaser: next year Gesualdo Six hopes to mark the 500th anniversary of the death of Josquin’s little-known contemporary Jean Mouton. I’ll gladly stay tuned.