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27 January, 2021

Father of the Renaissance

Our debut recording on the Decca Classics label is devoted to the wonderful music of Josquin des Prez, marking 500 years since his death in 1521. He was unquestionably a star in his own time: no lesser figure than Martin Luther called him “the master of the notes: they must do as he wills”, whilst for the theorist Glarean, “no one has more effectively expressed the passions of the soul in music… his talent is beyond description”. His music was key to the development of the high Renaissance style, and an important influence on later composers such as Palestrina, Lassus, and Victoria. So what is it about Josquin which exerted such a spell on the generations which followed him – and which still speaks so eloquently to us today?

Much about Josquin’s biography and career remains shadowy: it’s not always possible to pin down where he was working, and – with a few exceptions – the chronology of his works can only be attempted on stylistic grounds. Even his full name (Josquin Lebloitte, dit ‘des Prez’) and birthdate (c.1450) were, until recently, the subject of some doubt. Born in what is now the far north of France, he sang as a boy (alongside the composer Jean Mouton) at Saint-Quentin. In 1477 he is listed as a singer at the court of Duke René of Anjou at Avignon; it’s possible that he was transferred from there to Paris in 1481, in which case he would have sung at the Sainte Chapelle. After that he seems to have been in the service of the Sforza family in Milan, and in 1489 he joined the choir of the Papal Chapel in Rome, singing in the Sistine Chapel until 1494 or 1495. His next move is again unclear – he may have returned to Sforza service, or worked at the French court – and we next find him briefly in the service of Duke Ercole I d’Este in Ferrara in 1503-4. He then returned to his native northern France, becoming Provost of the church of Notre Dame at Condé-sur-L’Escaut, where he remained until his death on 27th August 1521.

Ercole I d’Este, by Dosso Dossi (d.1542)

What is clear is that Josquin’s music was held in the highest esteem by his contemporaries. Duke Ercole’s talent scouts left wonderful letters arguing both for and against his appointment in Ferrara: on the one hand, Girolamo de Sestola writes “I believe that there is neither lord nor king who will now have a better chapel than yours if Your Lordship sends for Josquin… I want to place a crown upon this chapel of ours.” On the other, Gian de Artiganova recommends the appointment of Heinrich Isaac instead: “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.” That His Lordship decided in favour of Josquin, exorbitant salary and all, attests to his renown.

Ferrara, 1494

The development of music printing, just then taking wing, did much to cement Josquin’s reputation. The Venetian printer Ottaviano Petrucci opened each of his first four motet anthologies (beginning in 1502) with a work by Josquin, and later issued his masses in three volumes – the first ever music publications devoted to a single composer. Manuscripts and prints from Germany to Italy to Spain attest to how widely his music was distributed during the middle years of the sixteenth century. Glarean, writing in 1543, holds him the equal of Virgil; Cosimo Bartoli, in 1567, places him on a par with Michelangelo. In the years after Josquin’s death, hundreds of works were hopefully – or unscrupulously – attributed to his pen, presumably because the association would help sell copies; the German editor Georg Forster, writing in 1540, reports “an eminent man” (quite possibly Luther again) commenting archly that “now that Josquin is dead, he is putting out more works than when he was alive!”

Josquin’s Ave Maria / Virgo serena, printed at the head of Petrucci’s 1502 Motetti A

And so to the music. Josquin’s style emerges out of what we might provocatively call a pre-Renaissance tradition: one which does not generally seek to appeal directly to our emotions via rhetoric or overt word-painting, but rather makes its effect through dazzling contrapuntal technique, and more abstract forms of structural device and symbolism. (This may be why some people find they connect more readily with the more straightforwardly rhetorical music of Lassus, Victoria, or Byrd: it seems to speak a language which is more familiar to the modern ear, and hence can more easily push our emotional buttons.) Josquin was able to fuse the technical and structural rigour which he inherited from the Franco-Flemish tradition (including his teacher Ockeghem) with the directness and simplicity of the music he encountered in Italy, achieving an amazing clarity and lucidity of style – nowhere more clearly heard than in the celebrated Ave Maria / Virgo serena, featured on our recording. His extensive use of short points of imitation (snatches of melody, repeated by each voice part in turn) as a means of structuring longer spans of music was hugely influential, becoming the single most important organising principle in the music of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. No longer was it necessary to structure a work around a pre-composed cantus firmus voice, as had been the fashion for centuries (though Josquin himself often still did so); instead, each new line of text could have its own point of imitation. This innovation allowed composers to respond far more nimbly to their texts, crafting each new point to capture its expressive nuance. This was the true gateway to the high Renaissance style, whose expressive power is founded above all on contrast, colour, and constant sensitivity to the possibilities of word-painting, rather than on abstract structural techniques.

Josquin himself often combined both approaches, employing a large-scale structural device as well as smaller-scale imitation. On our recording this is most clearly seen in the wonderful Missa Pange lingua, where the famous plainsong hymn is heard not as a cantus firmus (except in the final Agnus Dei) but is instead dissected, paraphrased and used as an endless source of melodic material. This is believed to be Josquin’s last mass setting – it is the only one not to appear in Petrucci’s volumes, which would place it after 1514 – and it finds Josquin at his most fluent and sophisticated. Other motets in our programme also feature structural ingenuity, be it the use of an ostinato figure (and obscure number symbolism) in the superb Salve regina a5, or canon in both the meltingly lovely Inviolata, integra et casta es Maria and the florid Virgo salutiferis, a work probably written for Ferrara which includes the plainsong ‘Ave maria’ as a canonic cantus firmus. The secular works we perform are less tightly structured, as you would expect: free imitation pervades the chanson Vivrai je tousjours, a tale of frustrated love, whilst the light-hearted El grillo (‘The Cricket’), probably a product of Josquin’s Milanese years, is simple and homophonic in the best Italian fashion.

Our programme is completed by two works written in memory of Josquin. The first – O mors inevitablis, by the Flemish composer Hieronymus Vinders – sets a lament for Josquin, believed to have been displayed alongside a portrait of the composer in a church in Brussels. The portrait is lost, but the famous woodcut of the composer was almost certainly derived from it. Vinders employs a wonderfully rich texture of seven low voices, two of which intone the plainsong ‘Requiem aeternam’. The second memorial work is altogether more unusual: an elaborate motet by Jacquet de Mantua called Dum vastos Adriae fluctus, published in 1544. Shoe-horned into the text are references to the titles of five of Josquin’s most famous motets, two of which – Salve Regina and Inviolata – are heard on our recording. Jacquet’s music quotes the most immediately recognisable features of each of these pieces at the appropriate moment, thereby producing a medley of some of Josquin’s greatest hits. The implication is that these pieces would have been familiar to any self-respecting musician of the mid sixteenth-century – in itself an indication of the stature of this fascinating composer.

Andrew Griffiths

Woodcut of Josquin