Josquin's works, part 1

Whereas the form of Obrecht's works yields a perception of spaciousness and architectural vistas, Josquin's command of form achieves something profoundly different. Josquin was hailed for his attention to text, and it was from the texts he set that he derived his greatest formal successes. A sense of poetic & rhetorical form shines through, in the flexible textures and effortless momentum which animate the music in step with the words. Josquin's contribution to formal development in this generation was analogous to Obrecht's in two important ways: A move toward lighter textures, and a sense of the work as a whole: i.e., a beginning, middle, & end. However, whereas the energy of Obrecht's music builds almost relentlessly from beginning to end, Josquin's sense of form is far more episodic, meandering in its tension with the course of the text. Its genius is in the way in which it never seems stagnant, despite not seeming to have a clear drive to anywhere in particular. Obrecht asks us to scale mountains, but Josquin takes us through a series of meadows. When we reach the end, the trip seems satisfying. Of course, Josquin's work is not known for its persistent sunniness, and so the episodes vary considerably in mood. Indeed, Josquin himself was known as a melancholy individual, and his method of working was sharply critical. He revised & revised, perhaps keeping works to himself for months, attempting to achieve their perfect articulation. It is no wonder that they do not possess a breathless sense of moving forward. One might best characterize Josquin's music as balanced in this regard.

It is easy enough to discuss the fortuitousness of his circumstances, or the way in which he orients views of his contemporaries, but in starting from a contrast with Obrecht, I want to let Josquin emerge from his own context, rather than from the long view of music history. It is not so easy to discuss his specific works without largely rehashing received wisdom. Readers here already know Josquin's great works, for the most part. Yet, they do continue to be reevaluated, and a new critical edition is still underway. If the polish of Josquin's mature style is due to constant revision, his personal life seems no less calculated. As opposed to some other composers of the era, Josquin seems to have had no business problems or other transgressions. He seems to have managed his affairs very carefully, and the temperamental character with which he is sometimes portrayed is balanced by conscientiousness, moral and otherwise. Josquin worked hard for his success, so we like to believe that he deserved it. In fact, one cannot escape a "laborious" image, in which Josquin's initial musical attempts were simply not very good. His own advocates today point out the awkwardness of many of his works, using that as a reason to place them early in a hypothetical chronology. Josquin apparently learned to spend more time polishing his music before releasing it, and so such a chronological paradigm makes sense for him. Of course, in the case of some works, Josquin may simply have been under time constraints, or not been quite up to the task. In another sense, the fact that portions of his oeuvre have brought apologists allows us to underscore the image of Josquin as a modern composer. More than that, though, if technical mastery is to remain a criterion for accepting a work as authentic, which are we really seeking: Josquin the man, or Josquin the image?

While such concerns go to the core of intellectual foundations, and views of this era as a whole, they certainly do not leave us bereft of individual masterpieces to consider in Josquin's output. While this series of articles has adopted the mass as symphony paradigm, in part to make a contextual ordering more manageable, nowhere is that notion more strained than in the works of Josquin himself. His episodic sense of form has already been noted, and indeed Josquin's urge to give different mass sections different textures & impetuses — as based upon their texts — makes it only too easy to extract those sections to stand on their own. Such practice was common in the sixteenth century, including contrafacta, especially in Germany. Moreover, the fact that the mass keeps the same text meant that Josquin could not easily use his greatest formal asset — letting the text determine the musical form — at least not if he wanted to use that as the basis for originality. Some masses seem to be "studies" for others, and again the progress-oriented paradigm is difficult to escape. We think of Josquin as refining the sometimes stiff character of his first L'homme armé mass into the more pliable & internally animated mastery of his second. A presumably early mass such as Missa Di dadi already shows Josquin's interest in the barest of material, a formal concern seemingly consummated with his triumphant Missa Hercules Dux Ferrariæ, a personal consummation confirmed in his appointment to the spectacular Ferrara post. Minimalism goes in one direction with the Missa La sol fa re mi and its heavier reliance on even slighter material, and in another in the stark textures of the Missa Pange lingua. In a relatively mature work such as Missa Malheur me bat (arguably an early parody mass), we still see Josquin rely on an increase in the number of voices at the end to mark a sense of conclusion. Josquin was very interested in conclusiveness, and work-as-a-whole form, but it is sometimes difficult to resist the conclusion that his cycles do not really go anywhere, and that he makes up for it by an otherwise unmotivated dramatic ending. The increase in voices somehow seems more organic in the Missa L'homme armé sexti toni, though, and the Missa Malheur me bat can be seen as both another study for it and an attempt to copy Obrecht's formal drive.

Of course, at their best, Josquin's mass settings feature some of his most elegant counterpoint, almost seeking to pare away the banality of additional voices in hauntingly stark duets. There is a sense of "inner world" here, which is not necessarily found in a destination. Among the masses, that on Ave maris stella may be the most perfectly un-self-conscious in this way. The combination of warmth and mastery is notable, especially as Josquin's otherwise greatest masses (Missa L'homme armé sexti toni, Missa Pange lingua) seem to have a tortured quality beneath the surface. Josquin's perfectionist nature usually shines through, again underscoring his position as a modern composer, an artist whose personality defines his work. Josquin felt the weight of history, nowhere more clearly than in his L'homme armé cycles. We can also feel his triumph, however, as the luminosity & perfect balance of the second setting transfigure the mass form. Josquin went on to put that sense of elegance & fidelity to a less unified cycle in his Missa De beata Virgine (apparently his most popular, suggesting that the public was not necessarily so receptive to his most severe moments, at least not immediately), and then into the stark serenity of the Missa Pange lingua. Emblematically, one thing Josquin never does in these later settings, though, is prioritize abstract ideas over text declamation. They retain a strong sense of rhetoric.

I will continue this discussion directly next week, turning to the motets & chansons.

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Todd M. McComb