Josquin in perspective

The era of Josquin Desprez was one of the most creative and decisive for Western music as a whole, and so although a biographical sketch can certainly be informative, a broader discussion of the forces shaping our perception of Josquin today is also worthwhile. First of all, precisely what made this era so decisive, beyond the high level of creativity displayed in all areas, was the advent of real music printing. Josquin's historical position is consequently defined as clearly as anything by his appearance as the first featured composer in print. Petrucci obtained exclusive rights in Venice for his process to set polyphony in movable type in 1498, and was able to issue his first publication in 1501, an anthology of chansons. In 1502, his second publication was devoted to Josquin's masses. This is the seminal choice among the broader choice by subsequent generations to prioritize Josquin's music above his contemporaries, and it merits closer examination. The dominance of the Franco-Flemish style in the Renaissance as such can be separated from Josquin's more specific preeminence. If the former is based primarily on structural grandeur, the latter is based on more personal decisions.

That Josquin was at the height of his fame in Italy at the time Petrucci issued his landmark publication nearly goes without saying. The highest profile appointment of his career was to the Este Court in Ferrara in 1503, and the discussion surrounding it suggests that Josquin was not an unequivocal choice. Once that choice was confirmed in the wake of Petrucci's publication, Josquin's future reputation was more or less determined. To reinforce the point, Petrucci's publishing activities, which included two more volumes of Josquin's masses, continued only until 1520, or right about to the time of the latter's death. But what motivated these specific decisions? In the case of the Ferrara appointment, the most lavish in Europe to that time, it is well-known that the applicants included Josquin and Isaac, and that the "better composer" Josquin was chosen over the "more amiable" Isaac. Such an assessment is difficult to dispute, as Josquin was clearly the more distinguished composer. The two men of his generation who might have had higher claims were La Rue & Obrecht, and of course the latter followed Josquin at Ferrara, making a neat connection. The younger Obrecht was undertaking his first appointment in Italy, although his second visit to Ferrara, and died of the plague shortly afterward. This event indicates two significant points with respect to our topic: Obrecht died prematurely as the younger composer, and Josquin was evidently quite astute to leave Ferrara so soon. We might deduce that he was similarly astute in his other personal decisions.

There is no question regarding Obrecht's large-scale mass cycles being more architecturally impressive than Josquin's. What Josquin had is a more straightforward eloquence, especially in his response to text. This is especially true in his motets, in which the individual texts elicited individual formal schemes, and the settings themselves do seem to "bend to his will" as Luther remarked. Whatever his modern apologists may say, Josquin's masses are not as impressive in either sweep or formal layout, and certainly cannot match the succinct eloquence of his motets. For Petrucci, however, Josquin's response to text must have been paramount, heralding as it did both the austerity of Palestrina and the madrigal style of the younger generation. Petrucci was surely cognizant of the historical impact of his process, and the humanist text setting of Josquin reflected the spirit of his age more directly than did the architectonics of Obrecht or the "subtilitas" of La Rue, even if they may have continued the Franco-Flemish style of Ockeghem and his colleagues most directly. Josquin was more conditioned by Italy, or at least the Italy which was to come, and Petrucci the businessman recognized this. Why masses over motets? Masses can be used for more occasions and would sell better, especially in Josquin's often straightforward settings.

Josquin's position with respect to La Rue is perhaps less clear than with respect to Obrecht, owing largely to the neglect which La Rue has suffered today. He is a difficult composer for many to appreciate, principally because his music reflects so many different concerns. It is anything but straightforward, with complex technical processes concealed in deceptive eloquence, wrapped in a package of charged interaction as in Ockeghem's works. For La Rue, simple word painting was not artful enough, unless it was charged with layers of meaning and approached in subtle fashion. Correspondingly artful interpretations of his music have lagged considerably, but in his day, La Rue was the leading composer of the Hapsburg court in Burgundy, still the most distinguished cultural oasis in Europe, albeit now rivaled by a rising Italy. Studies of Josquin's interaction with the Netherlands' court during his final decades at Condé have rested upon La Rue's continued preeminence there as evidence of the former's relative lack of contact. The implication is that La Rue would have been immediately overshadowed, had Josquin fully involved himself. I think not. The idea reflects a prejudice against the more subtle artfulness of La Rue, as well as toward a future-oriented appraisal which would have been very out of place in a Burgundy looking back on its glory days. Of course, Petrucci would not have chosen La Rue, a composer who did not work in Italy nor really reflect its humanist tendencies, for his first dedicated volume. Josquin it was.

Regarding Josquin's landmark pervasive imitation technique, a few questions naturally present themselves. What made it so popular? First of all, it was a straightforward structural principle which can be grasped relatively easily. Of course, it can still be used more or less artfully, but what it did was reduce the number of different structural principles at work. It gave composers an orientation, and together with the developing principles of syllabic text setting, reduced the scope of choice necessary for a serviceable composition. The benefits to second- or third-rate composers are obvious. The technique went on to form the basis for the harmonic theory of Zarlino and with it the antecedents of functional harmony. In short, it defined the parameters of later counterpoint. Earlier, I called it the "first step toward the sound bite" and it does facilitate that, at least in the hands of more banal musicians. For Josquin, pervasive imitation was different, it was a technique capable of supple musical shaping and artful articulation. If may be strange to describe the ancestor of the fugue as "supple," but that is precisely the quality which gives Josquin's music its distinctive character. Like any technique, it has had both its successes and its failures; it can certainly be transcendent in the hands of a great master. Was imitation-the-idea an outgrowth of humanism? Perhaps, but if so, it was a fortuitous one, as canonic technique had been well-cultivated in the Franco-Flemish style already. Might one make an analogy between Josquin & Beethoven, in that Josquin's structural techniques are usually more memorable than his melodies? Yes, and this is exactly the sort of priority which allows one to reshape an era, because it spurs the genius and non-genius alike.

Administrivia: To continue the move away from politics, a companion article beginning a series on Dufay will follow directly next week.

To TMM Editorial index.

Todd M. McComb