Few great composers of the past are more elusive than Josquin Des Prez. No sooner had the facts of his life and achievement been established by pioneer musicologists such as Helmuth Osthoff and Edward Lowinsky than those same facts somehow began to melt, to trickle away through our fingers. There was a time, not many years ago, when at least the outline of Josquin’s biography was felt to be secure. Now much of that biography seems far less certain, and there is a nagging suspicion that the documents which might have told us more in fact no longer exist. For how many years did Josquin live and work in France? What truth is there in the reported sighting of him at the court of Hungary? During his last fifteen years, for whom was Josquin composing? Had we been dealing with a lesser talent, those questions might have been allowed to pass. But Josquin bears the reputation of being a towering genius of his age, music’s equivalent to Leonardo da Vinci or Michelangelo. How dearly one would have liked to know more about the man, beyond what the sound of his music can tell us.
The works themselves are full of problems. Again, there was a time when one could hold up a hefty pile of music and say with confidence ‘all this is by Josquin’. But the pile is dwindling: it is full of forgeries and misattributions. Even pieces that were once regarded as the epitome of Josquin have been removed. What was probably Josquin’s best-loved motet, Absalon fili mi, has recently been given instead to Pierre de La Rue. Of the works that remain firmly credited to Josquin thankfully there are still plenty of them virtually none can be dated precisely, and a dispiritingly small number are even loosely connected with the known facts of his life. As if the problems of biography, attribution and chronology were not enough, searching questions are now being raised even about the notion of Josquin as ‘towering genius of his age’. How did he acquire that reputation? Does he (and did he ever) merit it? At what point does the reality of Josquin turn into Josquin the myth?
All this negative information serves to introduce the more positive things that can be said about the three works on this recording. First, all three seem to be quite securely by Josquin. Second, they clearly come from different periods of his life. The Vultum tuum deprecabuntur cycle is early, composed for Milan Cathedral probably during the time Josquin spent there as a singer between 1459 and 1472. Planxit autem David is a more mature work; a date nearer to 1500 has been suggested, although nothing certain is known about the circumstances of its composition. Later still probably among Josquin’s very last works is the Missa Pange lingua; it could easily have been written in the seven years preceding his death in 1521. Third, no one will question the exceptional craftsmanship and artistry of all three works. As long as music of this quality continues to be attached to Josquin’s name, one need have no doubts about the stature of the man.
Josquin cannot have been much above the age of thirty when he wrote the motet cycle Vultum tuum deprecabuntur, and it may be a symptom of his still modest status as a singer at Milan and his relative inexperience as a composer that the work conforms so closely to established models. Like similar cycles written for Milan Cathedral by Compere, Gafurius, Gaspar van Weerbeke and others, the Vultum tuum deprecabuntur motets were intended to accompany the celebration of Mass, not as interludes but rather as a simultaneous sacred ‘concert’: in some of the Milanese cycles the various motets have actually been labelled ‘loco [= in place of the] Introitus’, ‘loco Gloria’, ‘loco Credo’, and so on. Strictly speaking, such substitution did not interfere with the liturgical act: provided that the celebrant spoke the correct liturgical texts, the choir was free to perform whatever it liked. In practice, few churches outside Milan adopted this curious practice. Although parts of Vultum tuum deprecabuntur found their way into the repertoires of other singers, there is no reason to believe that they were used in the Milanese fashion; most of the motets in the cycle address the Blessed Virgin Mary, and they could easily have been put to other devotional purposes. So scattered have the constituent parts of the cycle now become that their intended order is in some doubt. This performance follows the reconstruction by Patrick Macey, including the ‘little’ Ave Maria as the Offertory substitute and Tu lumen as the Elevation motet neither being previously associated with the cycle.
Far less is known about another of Josquin’s motet cycles, Planxit autem David. With a few minor modifications, the words are Biblical David’s lament for Saul and Jonathan and they have no obvious connection with the liturgy. Given the highly charged nature both of the text and Josquin’s sombre music, some sort of political allegory seems highly likely, but the work has not yet been linked with any specific event or person. Unlike the various motets in the Vultum tuum deprecabuntur cycle, which are musically independent from one another and were meant to be sung at different points in the Mass, the four movements of Planxit autem David are thematically related and must be performed one after another. Not only is the text a single continuous narrative; Josquin binds together the cycle by quoting the Gregorian reciting-tone for the Lamentations of Jeremiah in the first, third and fourth motets, each time at the words ‘How are the mighty fallen’.
Plainchant also lies at the heart of the Missa Pange lingua, but in this case the foundation melody, the Corpus Christi Hymn ‘Pange lingua gloriosi’, has been so thoroughly absorbed into Josquin’s music that only the sharp-eared will be alert to its presence. Where many Masses based on chant keep the parent melody in the foreground, Josquin instead uses its contours to govern only the progress of the melodic lines, with all manner of infilling and rhythmic elaboration added to camouflage its essential shape. Possibly the appeal of the work to modern audiences it is Josquin’s most performed Mass lies precisely in the way its variety and unity are kept in equilibrium: for all the music’s richness of invention, everything is contained within clearly perceptible bounds of possibility. Only the very opening of the Hymn melody stubbornly retains its identity: it sets each of the five movements in motion, and sometimes recurs at major structural divisions in the text: at ‘Qui tollis peccata mundi’ in the Gloria, for example, ‘Crucifixus’ in the Credo, and at the head of all three invocations of the Agnus Dei.
John Milsom © 1992
dawniej CDA 66614