Josquin and his contemporaries

In a series last year, I discussed in some detail how I approach the polyphony of the era around c.1500, and the ways in which it can be viewed as central to Western music history. While such an orientation can be valuable, and the concept of assessment was broached, what we truly need is a way to order, and thus understand, individual works & composers today. Such a more detailed & subjective evaluation must be based strongly on a sense of meaning. In this case, contrapuntal style is an overriding arbiter of both meaning and quality, and so it is largely there that we seek to distinguish works & composers at the individual level. While it is relatively easy to place Josquin in broader perspective, his is still the name most associated with this era and this music. Any attempt to survey the landscape of c.1500 must grapple with both the reality of Josquin's music, as well as the subsequent mythologizing and propaganda. If we posit from the outset that the reasons Josquin's style was prioritized by later generations are not equivalent to arbiters of quality per se, we can immediately begin to develop a more finely nuanced view of the music of this generation.

First of all, with recent developments in research, Josquin's birth is now placed around 1455, making the idea that he was older than Obrecht and La Rue a tenuous one. Obrecht's birth is fairly secure in 1457/8, while La Rue's (around 1460) is at least as vague as Josquin's, based partly on the relatively late date of his major works. [Note 10/09/02: I forgot that recent evidence dates La Rue's birth to c.1452, despite writing of this in my own biography of La Rue!] By this chronology, Isaac could have been almost half a generation older than these composers, partially explaining the more conservative nature of much of his music, which begins to appear in international manuscripts already in the 1470s. Isaac's knack for light instrumental works is certainly notable, but when it comes to large-scale polyphony, I have been unable to perceive anything to place him in the very top rank of composers. His polyphony is either straightforward or derivative, and indeed he seems to have been quite content to write large volumes of functional settings according to an employer's will. His sense of craftsmanship might be compared to Bach's, and whereas his contribution to music history is notable, the individual value of his major works is generally not (it is easy to enjoy something such as "Angeli, archangeli," however, as it is a smattering of other motets by less well-known composers). Contrary to my assessment, some others have named Isaac as the composer of this generation second in line to Josquin. In the sense of straightforward writing which fits most easily into a future-oriented sense of music history, I can agree, but in terms of creating new techniques & textures, I cannot. The two ideas are nearly poles. Isaac does not challenge — or add to — our sense of counterpoint. Further appreciation of his music essentially implies a bolstering of Josquin's reputation.

Perhaps somewhat older, Agricola challenges not only our sense of counterpoint, but our sense of chronology. While it might be tempting to ignore contemporary reports of his age, and place his music according to its arrival on the international stage in the 1490s, his sense of form seems more akin to that of Ockeghem than that of his contemporaries. His counterpoint is some of the most far-flung written in that or any era, described slightly later as "dark" or labyrinthine, while his sense of form builds on the irrational designs of Ockeghem. Agricola had a tremendous musical imagination, and may have been one of the early pioneers of instrumental variation sets. His music has a bustling quality to it which seems to fit Renaissance urbanism, and while it did not fit the new vogue for lighter textures, it is also difficult to characterize as old-fashioned. His music represents a particularly intricate stylistic direction which was not followed, even within the present context. Leaving Agricola aside, it is important to understand that the next half-generation of composers generally worked with a simpler — more rigidly planned — musical texture than did other Ockeghem-era writers. Part of this trend can apparently be traced to Obrecht, whose reputation was established in the late 1480s. On the other hand, Josquin did not make a broad name for himself in international sources until nearly 1500, followed almost immediately by La Rue. In the next series of articles, I will discuss the individual styles of Obrecht, Josquin, and La Rue, in that order. I claim that no other composers of this generation (with the possible partial additions of Isaac & Agricola) can be considered to be of comparable stature.

Returning to chronology and contemporary placement, our assessment cannot help but be affected by our knowledge of who pioneered particular techniques. However, even if we construct an accurate chronology, there is no real reason to believe that we are aware of works in which a particular technique was actually used first. As likely as not, such an occasion was never even documented. This is one more reason to place aside a future-oriented assessment, and to try to assess the quality per se of individual works. Moreover, it seems essentially impossible to explain how e.g. Agricola's work fits into a historical narrative featuring Obrecht, Josquin, and La Rue. This is likely doubly true for music which is currently misdated based on misunderstood technical factors, and so we must accept that the richness of c.1500 contrapuntal invention probably precludes our being able to order its developments in any clear way. We can certainly speak about influence, and there we know that Josquin was privileged by the later sixteenth century (and indeed that Isaac had a very tangible subsidiary influence). When it comes to the other composers I am personally prioritizing, a discussion of influence must center on a c.1500 gestalt and the quality of their contributions to it. We might be able to characterize Obrecht as a "great" composer, based on his apparent structural innovations as taken up by Josquin and others, but any such claim for La Rue or Agricola would be skewed at best. They simply — or not so simply — wrote some of the finest examples of particular sub-styles of polyphony.

I have already rejected Isaac as lacking in meaning & character (and let me not overstate this, as it is a gross simplification), so of course one must ask: What relevance can be attached to the others? This is the heart of the matter, and an area I do find difficult to articulate, as witnessed by article after article of preparatory material. It is also a tentative process, not only because current research may overturn any number of other "facts" about these composers or their attributions, but because their music is so poorly known. While I certainly do not find recorded interpretations to be the end-all of anything, they are crucial to developing feedback and a richer mental image. That so little of this music has been recorded, not to mention that so much is so difficult to find in print, is more than a minor barrier to assessment. Of course, such a situation can change in a flash, as it did for Ockeghem. As I approach this discussion with trepidation, knowing that I am almost certain to be shown incorrect, I can only hope that it provides some spark in the direction of further knowledge & differentiation.

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Todd M. McComb