The Musical Mysteries of Josquin


The singer and composer Josquin Desprez traversed his time like a diffident ghost, glimpsed here and there amid the splendor of the Renaissance. He is thought to have been born around 1450 in what is now western Belgium, the son of a policeman who was once jailed for using excessive force. In 1466, a boy named Gossequin completed a stint as a choirboy in the city of Cambrai. A decade later, the singer Jusquinus de Pratis turned up at the court of René of Anjou, in Aix. In the fourteen-eighties, in Milan, Judocus Despres was in the service of the House of Sforza, which also employed Leonardo da Vinci. At the end of the decade, Judo. de Prez joined the musical staff at the Vatican, remaining there into the reign of Alexander VI, of the House of Borgia. The name Josquin can be seen carved on a wall of the Sistine Chapel. In 1503, the maestro Juschino took a post in Ferrara, singing in the presence of Lucrezia Borgia. Not long afterward, Josse des Prez retired to Condé-sur-l’Escaut, near his presumed birthplace, serving as the provost of the local church. There he died, on August 27, 1521. His tomb was destroyed during the French Revolution.

The murkiness of his existence notwithstanding, Josquin attained an enduring renown of a kind that no previous composer had enjoyed. In 1502, the Venetian printer Ottaviano Petrucci, the chief pioneer of movable-type music publishing, issued a volume of sacred motets, with Josquin’s four-voice setting of “Ave Maria . . . virgo serena” (“Hail Mary . . . serene virgin”) at its head. The piece must have cast a spell, and the beginning shows why. The highest voice, the superius, sings a graceful rising-and-falling phrase: G C C D E C. Each of the lower voices presents the motif in turn. After it arrives in the bass, the superius enters again on a high C, forming an octave pillar. A second phrase unfurls in similar fashion, then a third, with the voices staggered so that only two move together at a time. Eventually, the scheme changes, the texture thickens, and the descending order of vocal entries is reversed. About a minute in, all four voices coalesce to form a gleaming C-major sonority. The entire opening gives the illusion of breadth and depth, as though lamps have been lit in a vaulted room. Music becomes a space in which you walk around in wonder.

Interest in Josquin was strong enough that Petrucci released three volumes of the composer’s masses—settings of five sections of the Roman Mass (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei). Posthumously, the flood of publications only increased, to the point where an observer wryly said, “Now that Josquin is dead, he is putting out more works than when he was still alive.” Extravagant claims were made. The humanist Cosimo Bartoli described Josquin as the Michelangelo of music; Martin Luther called him “the master of the notes.” In subsequent centuries, performances of his works all but ceased, yet his name remained one to conjure with. In 1782, the historian Charles Burney declared that Josquin had achieved “universal monarchy and dominion over the affections and passions of the musical part of mankind.” For August Wilhelm Ambros, in 1868, he was the first composer in history “who makes a prevailing impression of genius.” In the twentieth century, the early-music movement brought Josquin’s scores back to life, and the revival continues five hundred years after his death. The Tallis Scholars, the best known of Renaissance vocal ensembles, recently completed a recorded survey of eighteen masses attributed to Josquin. Such groups as Stile Antico, Cappella Pratensis, Blue Heron, and the Huelgas Ensemble are participating in a Josquin festival in Antwerp in August. The “Ave Maria” is a staple of choirs around the world.

With Josquin began the cult of the great composer—a mind-set that has left a distinctly ambiguous imprint on classical-music culture. And his rise to superhero status brought with it a curious paradox. Although commentators across five centuries have agreed on Josquin’s preëminence, his works can easily be confused with those of other gifted contemporaries. Two anecdotes from the early sixteenth century illustrate what might be called the Josquin mirage, in which the lustre of his name warps musical perceptions. Baldassare Castiglione, in his treatise “The Book of the Courtier” (1528), made note of the composer’s snob appeal in aristocratic settings: “When a motet was sung in the presence of the Duchess, it pleased no one, and was considered worthless, until it became known that it had been composed by Josquin Desprez.” The opposite fate befell a piece by Adrian Willaert, one of Josquin’s most accomplished successors. When Willaert first came to Rome, he found that the papal choir was singing one of his motets, under the impression that it was by Josquin. When Willaert corrected the mistake, the singers lost interest in the work. Such stories help to explain why attributions to Josquin proliferated after his death: affixing his name to a score was guaranteed to stir interest. The same syndrome has long haunted Renaissance art, where an emphasis on the singular profile of canonical artists has led to violent debates over authenticity and a thriving marketplace in forgeries.

Well over three hundred pieces were ascribed to Josquin at one time or another. In recent decades, musicologists have been culling dubious items from the catalogue. This spring, I followed the work of two leading Josquin authorities, Joshua Rifkin and Jesse Rodin, who are preparing a drastically pruned list of likely Josquin pieces—a hundred and three in all. Some scholars worry that the deattribution process has got out of hand; the half-joking fear is that Josquin will end up disappearing almost completely, like the Cheshire Cat. Thanks to the pandemic-era phenomenon of the Zoom seminar, I was able to watch some of the deliberations, which kept raising bigger philosophical questions: How does an aura of infallibility come to surround a figure like Josquin? What becomes of the music that lapses into anonymity, just as “The Man with the Golden Helmet” seems to have fallen out of the Rembrandt canon?

There is nothing fake about that aura: Josquin was an astonishing composer, one whose contrapuntal dazzlements can make Bach look clumsy. But he dwelled within a comprehensively astonishing community of creative artists. To explore Renaissance choral music is to enter a forbidding forest of names: Dunstable, Power, Binchois, Dufay, Busnois, Ockeghem, Regis, Faugues, Compère, Weerbeke, Agricola, de Orto, Obrecht, Isaac, de la Rue, Mouton, Brumel, Févin, Richafort, Ghiselin, Gombert, Pipelare, Martini, Clemens non Papa, Morales, Willaert, Lassus, Palestrina. Every one of them wrote music worth hearing. The period bears witness to the emergence of composition as an art: Josquin becomes the patron saint of an essentially new profession that is struggling to gain the level of recognition long accorded to painters and poets. Distinct personalities materialize from the historical mist. We hear the sound of the self,
singing toward a kind of freedom.

The term “composer” began to enter general circulation only in the late fifteenth century. The practice of naming the authors of musical works was still catching on. Documents of the period usually call Josquin a cantore, or singer. Yet his rise to fame helped bring about a change in status. In 1502, a courtier to Ercole I, the Duke of Ferrara, wrote a letter evaluating candidates for a musical appointment. One of them, Heinrich Isaac, was “easy to get along with,” the courtier said; another, Josquin, “composes when he wants to, and not when one wants him to.” Also, Josquin asked for two hundred ducats, Isaac for much less. Ercole I hired Josquin.

Composers were a new phenomenon because written music was itself a relatively recent innovation in the long history of the arts. The earliest examples of fully decipherable staff notation, from the early eleventh century, record Gregorian chant; multivoiced sacred music was written down at Notre-Dame, in Paris, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Troubadours, trouvères, and other poet-composers produced a beloved corpus of song, though the words tended to receive more attention than the notes. The most formidable figure of the age was Guillaume de Machaut, who lived from around 1300 to 1377. Celebrated chiefly for his sung…


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