Josquin's works, part 2

If Josquin can be said to have struggled with the "symphonic form" of the mass, it is only for the stated reasons. Given the chance to select his own texts, his mastery & success are evident. His Ave Maria can almost be considered the pivotal statement of the era, with its perfect formal progression and carefully arrayed paired imitation. Yet his motet settings also contain a wealth of variety. While four-voice compositions are prominent, they are not overwhelmingly so, as in his mass output. Writing for five & six voices is important, and there is even an example for three (Ave verum corpus). There is even more variety of disposition, if we include the contrafacta. While there was no clear theme to Josquin's choice of cantus firmus in his masses, and some motets do use secular tunes (most impressively in the electric Stabat mater), there is more reliance on plainchant here. There is also an important thread of free composition, exemplified in Ave Maria, perhaps not coincidentally already set freely & compactly by Ockeghem.

It is essentially impossible to survey all of Josquin's best motets in a space such as this. Moreover, some of the best are not particularly easy to obtain on recording, and a few items which have drawn scholarly praise have not appeared on recording at all. Given Josquin's reputation, the latter fact is shocking, and only serves to underscore how much better our understanding of this entire body of music could be. Those disclaimers aside, several prime examples can be discussed. If we can perceive some motivation in Ockeghem's work behind the 4-part Ave Maria, Josquin's settings of Salve regina (his only securely attributed motets on the same text, the less famous Ave Maria using a related text) are totally divorced from that by the older composer. The 4-part setting is one of Josquin's sunniest motets, the short interlocking phrases projecting a wonderful buoyancy and tunefulness, while the 5-part setting is one of his clearest uses of ostinato technique. The same wave-like quality is put to rather different purposes in the extensive 5-part Miserere mei, Deus. There, an overlapping episodic structure, based on an ostinato with slight variations, animates one of Josquin's longest & most relentless motets, including some wondrously upbeat sections. Among works which evoke a more old-fashioned style, the 5-part Illibata Dei virgo nutrix is particularly prominent, containing as it does an acrostic on Josquin's name. It may also inaugurate one of his most successful techniques, the gradual restatement of the cantus firmus in shorter note values, eventually coinciding with the other voices by way of climax. This technique meets something of a consummation in two of his most elegantly successful 6-part creations, Ave nobilissima creatura & O virgo prudentissima. The latter, a setting of a Latin poem by contemporary poet Poliziano, shows the plasticity of texture & poised internal momentum of which Josquin was capable at his best. The 5-part Stabat mater might be even more impressive, showing a liveliness and resulting energy level that Josquin often eschews. The use of Binchois' achingly beautiful Comme femme desconfortée serves to tie this work more strongly into the whole repertory of the period. Although freely composed, the 6-part Praeter rerum seriem presents a number of plainchant melodies in wonderfully balanced fashion, also illustrating Josquin's general concern with metrical variety to a high degree. The overall arc of the work yields a transcendent vision. Of course, Josquin also wrote more somber & restrained settings, perhaps best exemplified by the late 5-part De profundis, in which his increasing economy of style projects a sense of serenity.

While not quite of the stature of his best motets, Josquin's output in the chanson genre is also significant. Indeed, in his best works, he seems to have approached the setting almost as a little motet, incorporating similar technical sophistication and a fluid approach to form. Josquin's generation was the first to largely eschew the dominant fixed forms, and his sense for text helped set a standard in the style. Although many of his works continue the traditional 3-part configuration, his secular output includes many works in four, five, and even six parts. There, it is especially evident that similar concerns to those found in the motets occupied him. However, establishing a sequence of development is even more difficult. Differing priorities and stylistic orientations coexist closely in Josquin's secular work, and the sources are less voluminous & securely attributed. Even as emblematic a work as the through-composed 4-part Adieu mes amours survives with an incomplete text, and may have been instrumental in conception, as many of Josquin's secular works may have been. Certainly such works as the 3-part Ile fantazies strongly suggest this trend. Moving on to works with texts, among Josquin's most elegant settings for more parts in the new style are Douleur me bat and Parfons regretz, both in five parts and both built on canons. Here, the melancholy character of his personality fuses well with the texts and structural emphasis. With the same mood, but a non-canonic imitative structure, perhaps Josquin's most copied chanson was the clearly declaimed 4-part Mille regretz, presumably a late work. A somber & detached mood does not thoroughly dominate his secular output, however, as Josquin participated in the trend toward use of rustic & theatrical tunes, part of an unaffected style which would eventually climax with the generation of Rabelais. For instance, the 6-part works show no real uniformity of style, with the rollicking Allégez moi offset by the more classically-balanced Nymphes, nappés, the latter including a sacred cantus firmus in canon. Of course, the combination of sacred & secular occurs most famously in his 5-part Nymphes des bois, deploration on the death of Ockeghem. (Note that this sequence of secular examples yields only twenty minutes of music.)

Various other stylistic trends in Josquin's music can be discussed, including his borrowing in the secular works and elsewhere. Nonetheless, the present sequence must stop with barely a listing of his most compelling works. Regret is obviously a prominent theme, especially in the secular works, where we can see Josquin participating in musical trends more than initiating them. Such an assessment does nothing to detract from the evident command of his best settings, but it does serve a further sense of perspective. We also see that, as opposed to Obrecht, Josquin did take up every stylistic idea initiated by Ockeghem and his generation. He fits the "successor" label well in this sense, and of course it remains easy to define Josquin's stylistic development as the stylistic development. His own apparent quest for perfection supports such a view, but Josquin's music attains its perfection in its most singular moments rather than in a sense of expensiveness. It represents one such pole of expression, glorying in the moment & the smallest turns of melody.

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Todd M. McComb