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The First Universal Composer

Josquin des Prez: Proceedings of the International Festival Conference, Lincoln Center, June 21-25, 1971

edited by E.E. Lowinsky, in collaboration with Bonnie J. Blackburn
Oxford University Press, 728 pp., $52.00

Josquin Desprez: Missa La Sol Fa Re Mi and Motets, Chansons, and Instrumental Music

capella antiqua (München), conducted by Konrad Ruhland. two records, Philips 6775 005

With the publication of E.E. Lowinsky’s Josquin des Prez and the release of excellent recorded performances of the “Lamentations of David,” the stature of Josquin (c. 1440-1521) as the first universal composer can now be recognized by the general audience. That his contemporaries were aware of his greatness is attested by the large numbers of manuscript copies of his works found in libraries from Czechoslovakia to Portugal, Uppsala to Palermo, and by the preponderance of his works in the first volumes of music ever printed (seventeen of his Masses alone in three books: Venice, 1502, 1504, 1514). His popularity even survived the Schism, for he seems to have been a favorite composer of His Catholic Majesty, the Emperor Charles V, and definitely was one of Martin Luther.

In an often-quoted dialogue published in 1567, Ockeghem’s “rediscovery of music” is equated with Donatello’s of sculpture, while

Josquin, Ockeghem’s pupil, may be said to have been in music…as our Michelangelo was in architecture, painting, sculpture…; both one and the other have opened the eyes of all those who delight in those arts or are to delight in them in the future.1

The prediction continues to be fulfilled, because, as Professor Lowinsky writes,

Josquin’s chief significance in the history of music lies in his…evolution from a great contrapuntist to the first composer to put all of his musical gifts into the service of express[ing] human affections.

Hardly less remarkable than Josquin’s fame in his own age is the persistence of his reputation throughout the second half of the eighteenth century, when so many earlier composers, including J.S. Bach, suffered almost total eclipse. One of the new book’s essays examines—for the first time, surprisingly—the substantial body of Josquin transcriptions by Dr. Burney, the pioneer musicologist (and father of Fanny). Yet before Helmuth Osthoff’s two-volume monograph, 2 and prior to Lowinsky’s symposium and a very few recent recordings, only those people able to hear music from reading scores could understand why, with Monteverdi, Josquin is one of the giants of his art before Bach.

If Josquin’s compositions are known, his life is not. Though recent research opens up fascinating new probabilities, it does not greatly expand the exiguous number of conclusively established facts. The discovery, in 1956, that Josquin had been employed in the choir of the Duomo in Milan at an earlier period than had been assumed necessitated the revision of his birthdate to at least a decade earlier. Since this revelation, Professor Lowinsky and others have explored the vast Archivio di Stato in Milan, as well as the Archivio Segreto Vaticano, finding data which change the picture from that of Josquin the unknown and underpaid singer to that of the composer and musician whose talents were recognized and remunerated by benefices and sinecures.

In the biography as reconstructed by Lowinsky, a central figure emerges in the person of Ascanio Sforza, Josquin’s patron, whose musical discernment no longer need be questioned. Seeking clues to Josquin’s career in the study of Ascanio’s, especially after he became cardinal, Lowinsky offers an absorbing history of the politics surrounding the papacy at the end of the fifteenth century. His assumption that Josquin remained with Ascanio during his term in exile, and later, now appears to be the only plausible explanation of the composer’s unknown years (1479-1486). Yet so far as direct information about him is concerned, the period remains a blank.

The date of only one composition, the Déploration de Johannes Ockeghem, 1497, can be fixed with certainty,3 and though publication provides a terminus ad quem, Josquin, according to the contemporary theorist Glareanus, constantly revised and delayed submitting his manuscripts to the printer. Another of Professor Lowinsky’s attributions which seems reasonably certain is that Fama, malum was composed in 1489 for the wedding of Gian Galeazzo Sforza, the Duke of Milan. Leonardo da Vinci planned the nuptial festivities, which included a scenic representation of Mercury flying from heaven and introducing Fama, and a chronicler noted that this spectacle was accompanied by the singing of a “carmen Latinum,” which would fit Josquin’s—and Virgil’s—Fama. The only evidence for his collaboration, however, is circumstantial, namely that he was probably with Ascanio and definitely not in Rome, but it is an exciting hypothesis that Josquin may have known and worked with Leonardo.

The failure to establish a chronology for the composer is due not only to the difficulty in tying his compositions to historical events but also to that of interpreting his stylistic development, and no theory has been, or could be, proposed for Josquin comparable to the famous study suggesting that changes in Dufay’s mensural practice are a basis for dating his masses.4 Scholars have decided that Josquin’s later music is less angular than the earlier, characterized by less frequent rhythmic change and syncopation, by fewer cambiata figures (the resolution of a dissonance not stepwise, as required by the rules of counterpoint, but in a leap), and by more elaborate canonic techniques and more explicit relationships between words and music, with individual words inspiring musical symbols or configurations. For Professor Lowinsky, the later style is also distinguished by “bold modulation,” even though this is untrue of other composers, notably Orlando di Lasso, who wrote the Penitential Psalms and the Sibyllae while in his twenties, but was chromatically less venturesome with age.

Yet such analyses of style in Josquin’s case are tendentious, inadequate to support a proposition that, for example, his music became simpler as he grew older, or, the opposite, that it developed greater complexity; a “late” motet, proven to be an early one, would destroy the whole chronological edifice. Even such general and accepted criteria of an artist’s maturity as deepening powers of expression and increasing technical mastery do not apply in all cases and especially not in that of a composer from a remote historical period.

The contributors to Lowinsky’s volume present more puzzles than they solve in dealing with Josquin’s life after his work for Ascanio, and the one new item of any consequence in Lewis Lockwood’s essay on the composer in Ferrara concerns Adrian Willaert, who was not previously known to have worked there before going to Venice. Lockwood ponders the question of whether the “Josquino” in the service of Cardinal Ippolito d’Este in 1516-1517 could be Josquin des Prez, but, without giving any reason, even that of old age, decides in the negative. Still, in exactly those years Josquin des Prez’s music enjoyed a vogue in Ferrara. And what are the odds that two contemporaneous musicians bearing the same uncommon foreign name were in one of the few places where Josquin des Prez certainly lived?

The mystery surrounding Josquin’s employment and whereabouts during the final period of his life is even greater, since by this time his music was esteemed throughout Europe. In Blois in 1501, Ferrara in 1503, Condé-sur-I’Escaut in 1504, he spent the next seventeen years, according to Lowinsky, “in a quiet Netherlandish town.” But is it possible that the greatest musician of his time lived in proximity to Marguerite of Austria’s court at Malines without being a part of it, particularly since she was a renowned musician, and is still celebrated for her chanson books5 containing pieces by Josquin? Yet “there is no evidence of any contact with Marguerite,” 6 Herbert Kellman writes, suggesting instead that as Josquin was incontestably “a composer of Louis XII,” the French connection will prove the more rewarding subject for investigation.

If Josquin’s personal association with the Hapsburgs were “minor,” as Kellman concludes, the same was not true of the music, at least posthumously. In an inventory of Philip II’s chapel choir books in 1598, Josquin is more extensively represented than any other composer, and in Hapsburg Spain long before that date, a large portion of his works, including Masses, was intabulated for vihuela. While still Marguerite’s ward, Charles V may have heard music by Josquin, and surely did hear it after becoming emperor, for his court composer was Nicolas Gombert, Josquin’s pupil. When Charles entered Cambrai in 1540 the choice of Josquin’s Praeter rerum seriem for the celebrations must have been the monarch’s own, at least indirectly. His love of music was genuine, in any case, and his musicianship apparently of a high quality. He played a portative organ on his travels, and the reports of his last years in the Jeronymite monastery at Yuste7 describe him listening to Flemish polyphony sung by fifteen or so of the order’s best musicians transferred there for this purpose.8 Their wrong notes and faulty intonation were sometimes corrected by Charles himself, and it is awesome to imagine Josquin’s music being sung in the wilderness of Estremadura, supervised by the ex-ruler of the Holy Roman Empire.

Josquin des Prez is comprised of thirty-three studies of the man and his work. Some of these are for the specialist, but many of the others will interest general readers, as for example Arthur Mendel’s explanation of the uses of the computer in analyzing Josquin’s music to determine “the percentage of full triads in harmonic textures” and the relative frequency of “profiled motives [and] symmetrical phrase structures.” As Mendel observes, the machine cannot provide statistics about the presence of “ecstatic fervor” or of “gentle piety and unworldliness”; yet he does not dismiss this type of subjective statement as entirely worthless, since it may provoke either corroboration or disagreement from other listeners. But won’t the computer’s black-and-white “criticism” inevitably challenge the purplish variety?

The discography in the Lowinsky book is useful to general readers, too, though out-of-date and discouraging in that the repertory proves to be limited to war horses. Thus eight recordings have been made of one Mass, but none at all of twelve others, and while a single motet appears in fourteen complete and twelve incomplete versions, more than sixty have never been recorded. The compiler, Nanie Bridgman, expresses the hope that “some enterprising person will undertake an edition of Josquin’s Opera omnia in sound.” But the spurious must be separated from the authentic and solutions found for numerous and perplexing performance problems before a “complete recording” would be desirable. Ms. Bridgman also comments on vocal malpractices, quoting Franchinus Gafurius,9 who had known Josquin personally and was his successor in Milan:

Avoid a wide, ringing vibrato, since these notes do not maintain a true pitch, and, because of their continuous wobble, cannot form a balanced concord with other voices.

Disregarding this advice ruins most performances even today, especially those in the three records boxed with Lowinsky’s book, which he considers to be invaluable. These are a product of the conference’s “workshops,” but, though well-intentioned, are of such poor quality as to add more fuel to the argument that musicologists and musicians are different species. Ms. Bridgman further warns against introducing dynamics and fluctuations of tempo; yet simply because Josquin did not write “più piano” and “poco vivace” is no proof that he never inflected his music with these means. In the Philips recording of Planxit autem David, the phrase “in morte quoque” is softer than the previous one, and at a reference to swiftness the movement quickens slightly, but both effects seem natural and judicious.

The book’s most peculiar essay, its subject wholly tangential, is Ms. Perer’s “Art and Architecture in Lombardy in the time of Josquin des Prez.” Why Lombardy, the reader may wonder, since Josquin also lived in Rome, Ferrara—where the Schifanoia frescoes contain possible links with his Fortuna (in classical mythology, Venus turns the wheel)—and Condé-sur-I’Escaut, where he would not have been far from Hieronymus Bosch? “In what kind of artistic environment did [Josquin] spend his most impressionable years?” Ms. Perer asks, but clearly these were his childhood ones in the Low Countries, rather than the period of the oltremontano in Milan. In his native Flanders, or northern France, moreover, the apprentice musician might have watched the making of tapestries and the endless combining of three vegetable dyes, which is at least analogous to the weaving of voices in polyphony and the infinite juxtaposing of the same few harmonic colors.

Instead Ms. Perer imagines Josquin spending “long hours…meditating on…the truth and reality [of the art in the Portinari Chapel],” standing before the Game of Tarot10 in the Palazzo Borromeo, and observing the construction of the Duomo, in the midst of scaffoldings, building yards, tool sheds, piles of stone. She takes the composer to Castiglione Olona, in order to relate Masolino’s linear perspective to that of Josquin’s music, this following Alberti’s theory of proportion and the correspondence of the parts in music and architecture in a mathematically structured universe. Obviously Josquin might have been affected by his experience of the visual arts, but the only irrefutable deduction from his work is that he certainly was by the verbal ones, being the first composer to consider the text of primary importance, not only in meaning but also in the rhythms and sounds of words.

For those who believe that the findings of musicology should be made functional, the most edifying section of Josquin des Prez is the forum on problems of interpretation, even though the subjects change abruptly, the participants cavil at and contradict each other, and the discussions are inconclusive. Professor Lowinsky stands above this melee, by virtue of his talents as a moderator, his vision as a ground-breaker,11 and his expertise in such matters as musica ficta and text underlay; his qualifications to direct the conference, and to edit its proceedings, are never more apparent than in these open meetings.

The questions touch on such pertinent subjects as ornamentation, tuning, instrumental doubling in the vocal music,12 and whether, in a conflict between a natural and a flat, the literalness of a Gregorian chant should be sacrificed to consonance; the chants, Lowinsky reminds the assembly, are found in many variants, and, in any case, should not be thought of as inviolable. Then casuistry takes over with the posing of the non-problem that if a work by Dufay were given together with a group of motets by Josquin, should Dufay’s double leading tones at cadences be kept, or should his music be Josquinized? One of the performing musicians sensibly answers that Dufay’s style should be observed in his piece, Josquin’s in his, whereupon a musicologist irrelevantly remarks that the Dufay “sounds very pleasing with the leading tone in the superius only.”

Absalon fili mi inevitably enters any discussion of Josquin, for this motet, opening the door to the whole of harmonic space, changed the history of music. Yet the conferees only cover the same old ground: Absalon was probably not intended for the church (though laments were used liturgically on the Saturday before the seventh Sunday in Pentecost) and undoubtedly should be performed in the low range of the British Museum manuscript (the oldest and most reliable version) rather than in one of the ninth-higher German printed ones (Augsburg 1540, Nuremberg 1559), which, Dr. Kirsch notwithstanding, are different. “The German version comes out clearer,” Ludwig Finscher says, and Lowinsky rightly replies that lucidity was not Josquin’s main purpose. But that all transparency need not be lost in the somber colors of the low voices is proven in a new recording13 at the notated pitch, in spite of an otherwise wretched performance, coarse in tone quality and dragging and unsteady in tempo.

The musicologists neglect to say that Absalon was not composed to demonstrate that the world of tonal harmony is round and circumnavigable by modulation through successive dominants, but to satisfy an expressive purpose; and if the circle of falling fifths parallels the descent into hell, the jolting of strange and unexpected keys may also have been intended to represent the turmoil in David’s soul. But the music contains more than this, above all in its unprecedented vividness: the wailing on “ultra“; the anguish in the deceptive cadence on “plorans“; the bitterness of the cry “Absalon!” in the only time that all four voices utter it together (made still more harsh by a sesquitertia rhythm in one part); and, most astonishing of all, the seventh chord on “non” (for this construction is not a mere passing dissonance but a harmonic pivot). The direct appeal of Absalon to us, and its independence from its contexts—though these must be understood fully to appreciate Josquin’s achievement—result from this musical imagery, just as Dante’s similes (of the “old tailor peering at the eye of his needle,” for example), leave behind the world of De Monarchia and leap over six and a half centuries.

Planxit autem David is the only one of Josquin’s truly great works available in a recording that can be recommended without significant reservations.14 A dramatic narrative in four parts, like Heinrich Schütz’s sinfonia sacra, “Esging ein Sämann aus…,” Josquin’s motet resembles a litany in that question-like, unresolved (first-inversion) cadences are followed by pauses and by responses in the F Ionian tonic. The dialogue concept is extended to the alternating of parallel and contrary motion, wide-interval and step-wise progression, major and minor (into which the ancient modes have been assimilated), choral and linear—this last also constituting a kind of peristalsis of retarded, then of forward movement. Other marks of Josquin’s style are manifest, too, such as paired imitation and the distribution of the thematic material in all four voices.

But Planxit autem David is unique in its dramatic silences and dissonances. The harmonic clashes are not associated with single words—an exception is “super vos” at the beginning of Part Two—but express the mood of the entire piece, and the listener cannot fail to hear the parallel seconds and parallel sevenths, and the two instances of three dissonances in succession.

Josquin exploits the sounds of words, obtaining an expressive staccato on “sic” and “ego,” “coccino” and “incircumsisorum,” by setting the plosives to detached notes. The crossing voices on “in excelsis” imitate weeping, and when the daughters of Israel are bidden to mourn for “Sa-ul,” the second syllable positively ululates. Meanings of words are symbolized by such devices as an octave leap upward at “valde,” and by a duet when David’s brotherly feeling for Jonathan is recalled.

Israel” and “filiae Israel” are identified with a three-note dotted figure and with triple meter, the perfectum; this is rhetorical, and the feminine connotations of the triplum, introduced at the mention of annointing, are the same as in the music of the flower maidens in Parsifal. The changes in meter are extraordinarily subtle. The second switch to three is partly obscured by a hemiola, for instance, and the resulting accent on the weak part of the beat suggests a dance.

The inventions in this great composition cannot be discussed in isolation, but the two most affecting must at least be mentioned, the suspended fifth’s eventual subsidence on the third at the ends of movements and the introduction of the Good Friday lamentation tone, especially in the superius at the climax of the motet, the ending of Part Three. But while this chant has no significance for today’s secular audience, Josquin’s contemporaries would have recognized the melody and have been stunned by its meaning.

Scire gaudere est.

  1. 1

    Cosimo Bartoli, Ragionamenti Accademici, Venice. Bartoli translated many of Alberti’s Latin writings into Italian, including De Re Aedificatoria.

  2. 2

    Josquin desprez, Tutzing, 1962 and 1965.

  3. 3

    Lowinsky’s arguments that the Duke Hercules Mass was written in 1487, Absalon fili mi in 1497, are persuasive but lacking in documentation. The De Profundis was probably composed in 1515 for the funeral of Louis XII, but music for such occasions was sometimes adapted from earlier work (as was Bach’s Trauer Ode).

  4. 4

    See Charles Hamm’s A Chronology of the Works of Guillaume Dufay (Princeton University Press, 1964).

  5. 5

    Martin Picker, The Chanson Albums of Marguerite of Austria (University of California Press, 1965).

  6. 6

    J.Rifkin assures his album-note readers (Nonesuch Records, H-71216) that Josquin “maintained a close contact with the court of Marguerite of Austria” and conjectures that Absalon fili mi was composed for her. But Lowinsky’s argument that this crucial opus was intended for Pope Alexander VI after the murder of his son, Juan Borgia, is convincing, and surely the Biblical text is less appropriate for Marguerite than for a grieving father.

  7. 7

    See Sterling’s The Cloister Life of Charles V, 1852, and Robert Stevenson’s Spanish Cathedral Music in the Golden Age (University of California Press, 1961), pp. 176-177.

  8. 8

    Did the emperor pick the singers himself? After all, Charles VIII of France, after invading Italy in 1494, personally auditioned wind instrument players for service in Florence.

  9. 9

    Gafurius’s Practica Musicae (1496) is available in an English translation by Irwin Young (University of Wisconsin Press, 1969).

  10. 10

    The illustrations include a small reproduction of this picture, sometimes attributed to Pisanello. For a color photograph of it see Italo Calvino’s Tarots, the Visconti Pack in Bergamo and New York (Parma, 1975; English edition published by Rizzoli International, 1976).

  11. 11

    The title of Lowinsky’s epochal Secret Chromatic Art in the Netherlands Motet (New York, 1946) may have seemed to promise a musicological “thriller” when the book first appeared, and the text does contain references to “smuggled modulations,” “diatonic camouflages,” “hidden contrapuntal devices,” but his thesis is based on rigorous technical analysis. Simply stated, chromaticism, considered subversive by the Inquisition and the Council of Trent, went underground, thereby necessitating the application of musica ficta in performance. Secret Art established Lowinsky as music’s iconographer. its Panofsky or Gombrich, yet the book has not won unanimous acceptance (see Wangermée’s Flemish Music, Praeger, 1968), and the 1969 Josquin supplement included Lowinsky’s decoded version of Fortuna dun gran tempo only as an insert alternate. The usual criticism of Secret Art is that its musical examples are inadequate—too few and from minor composers—and that the evidence from ecclesiastical history of the need for these clandestine musical practices is insufficient. Lowinsky’s later writings, especially in his edition of the Medici Codex of 1518, contribute more than anyone else’s to the knowledge of cinquecento chromaticism.

  12. 12

    The performance of six of Josquin’s Marian Motets by the Monteverdi-Chor, Hamburg, conducted by Jürgen Jürgens (Archiv 533 110), is a powerful argument against using instruments, and Jürgens’s justification that “the a cappella tradition was cultivated in the Sistine Chapel only” is both untrue and no reason not to do the same elsewhere. His colla-parte orchestration, which includes pommers, dulcians, and, so it seems, bazookas, overweights the music and impedes the flow. Furthermore, the voices meander in pitch even more disastrously with instruments than without them, perhaps because an accompaniment makes tuning to each other more difficult for singers. At one place in Missus est Gabriel when the upper two lines are alone for only a few measures, the pitch sags to the extent that the re-entry of the bass instrument seems to be in another key.

  13. 13

    Nonesuch Records, op. cit. J. Rifkin writes that “the words ‘sed descendam in infernum plorans…’ call forth one of Josquin’s most remarkable harmonic inventions leading through the series of fifths to the previously unheard of tonal realm of Bb minor.” Actually the music enters the realm of B-flat minor sooner than that, nor does the piece end in this tonality, since the third of the triad is omitted

  14. 14

    Qui velatus, on the same side of this Philips recording, is no less superbly sung, and the purity of sound, especially at “Qui jacuisti mortuus,” is unforgettable.

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