Josquin after five centuries

A discussion of new recordings around 2021

The "Josquin Year" in 2021 has recently passed, and that provides an impetus to do a sort of "state of the field" survey here. The New Josquin Edition (NJE) was actually completed in 2016, but that event didn't seem to bring much fanfare. Indeed, the desired clarity regarding Josquin's life & work doesn't appear to have emerged. Various complications & questions continue to present themselves in terms of e.g. refining a chronology or even determining authenticity. As the most famous composer of his era, then, attention to Josquin hasn't necessarily been rewarded with increasingly refined knowledge.

But such an assessment also overstates: Of course additional work on Josquin's life & work has brought new insights, even if questions remain. And my impetus here is not to revisit or critique scholarly efforts in that arena, but rather to evaluate the music being rendered into sound & provided to the public as recordings. In some sense, then, notions of "authentic works" etc. can fade into the background, in that performing & recording everything associated with Josquin can only increase knowledge & understanding — & lead to further evaluation of the music, in general, within the auditory domain. And I've really focused on sound here: There was a period, earlier in this broad project, when I spent more time with manuscripts & scores, but these days — especially around a growing orientation toward improvised music (especially elsewhere...) — I've often found it more worthwhile simply to listen. That continues to be my feeling here, that work directly on the scores needs to be supplemented by more listening & pondering of "musical results" to this point, i.e. a focus on practice. For such an affective focus, scores can even be a distraction.... (And, for the curious, the most recent general book on Josquin continues to be David Fallows' Josquin from 2011, although it was apparently reprinted, more affordably in paperback, for the Anniversary....)

So in terms of practice, the Anniversary brought new recordings, but not really new texts (although this is a counterexample, I suppose...). And I was particularly interested in hearing rethinkings of the material, some of which did appear, particularly in the more secular domain.... What didn't occur, though, was a truly "central" release for Josquin studies-in-sound, i.e. a Complete Motets edition or the like. We do have three series of complete mass cycles concluding around now, but of course most of those performances were already recorded.... Other than that, it's hard to say that the Anniversary brought anything approaching a definitive collection. (And note that complete recorded editions for other composers of this era are hardly unprecedented!) However, the Anniversary did yield around 15 original albums, and instead of lamenting what hasn't happened, here I want to focus on the positive contributions those albums make to the Josquin discography.

In that, I already reviewed the albums as they appeared — although I was probably too wrapped up in my usual concerns at various points, rather than trying to focus on the positives in this sense... — & so don't intend to re-review them here, although I do intend to summarize & perhaps to reframe. In this, I'm also taking a generous approach to the Anniversary, and will mention some other albums from the past few years as well. (I'm not revisiting the full, historical discography though!) I'll obviously be discussing albums that've already appeared, but it also seems possible that a "second wave" could consist of recordings made during the Anniversary year... so this might not be the end of the story. I'm also not intending to focus on attribution here, since as noted, a generous approach to recording material associated with Josquin seems worthwhile in this moment (although it's certainly not impossible that a focus on inauthentic works could distort one's view...). And it seems that many of the Anniversary releases weren't especially concerned with attribution either. There were also reissue collections, meaning various older recordings (often around older ideas...) repackaged into sets naming Josquin (although sometimes including material by various others): I've continued to try to note these for the FAQ, but don't intend to discuss reissues here. I'm mostly interested in new performances & new approaches.

So there are recordings to praise here.... I just want to be clear about that, even as I do feel an air of disappointment around the Anniversary. (I want to be honest about that too.) It seems as though a composer of Josquin's stature should simply have a more comprehensive discography. But then, what is it about Josquin that works against this outcome? I guess that becomes an increasingly tangible question. And confusion about his life & the boundaries of his output are one answer, but the NJE is complete (& in modern notation), meaning that interested musicians could simply start playing the thing, beginning to end.... Some of this happens. But, for instance, why aren't the groups that I've generally praised in performances of Josquin's contemporaries recording Josquin? Recordings of the latter often seem to involve a different set of interpreters: Some of this has to do with reputation, in that ensembles focusing on more than Franco-Flemish polyphony might single out Josquin as the one composer of the era to feature. And that's yielded far more Josquin albums by groups that mostly perform later music.... Yet, do these "more famous" musicians really prevent others from recording? It seems as though tackling Josquin brings an extra layer of pressure (even intimidation...) beyond this. So is that only a matter of (his) reputation? Or of the recording history (which is mostly forgettable, if you ask me...)?

Josquin's specific era was also the cusp of modernity — at least as I've come to view that transition [per Digression #2] — & so various revisions & mythologizing come to apply as well. (This is also why so many apocryphal pieces were attributed to Josquin.) Moreover, Josquin's colleagues have generally proven easier to localize & narrate, meaning that their works are more contextualized, suggesting or confirming more specific stylistic nuances. But now it appears that Josquin revised many of his major works, sometimes over many years, meaning that their contexts are actually less specific, more "of the era" in general, and of course dispersed geographically as well. In that sense, it starts to seem as though Josquin created a Josquin style, without further specificity.... (And while the results are certainly impressive in their own ways, a composer who is constantly revising also presents another picture....) Indeed, it starts to appear that Josquin was often writing for posterity. Or rather, perhaps he started writing for posterity after he inherited substantial family wealth. (Although his bio remains sketchy, some work does seem more functional, especially "early," whatever that comes to mean.) And such a notion also seems to compete with others suggesting a general lack of agency for premodern people: Josquin is sometimes narrated almost as a "victim," it now seems to me, i.e. as someone at the mercy of scribes & (later) publishers, but what if he published exactly what he'd been wanting to publish? The sense that Josquin "curated" his work, or at least some of it, tends to resonate most strongly with the mass cycles, which often seem to tackle multi-decade trends in hybrid ways....

There've also been various efforts at stylistic narration for Josquin, mostly (I'd say...) deriving from a retrospective view founded in the subsequent Counter-Reformation, i.e. an emphasis on Josquin's more austere & plainchant-based settings. But although his development of style in e.g. Missa Pange lingua or Missa de beata virgine is certainly worth noting, what the mass cycles (& motets) really seem to proclaim is variety! So Josquin tackled a variety of musical concerns, and the notion that there was a particular progression is often wrong. (There's a sophistication to the presumably later part-writing, but not a technical or thematic trend....) Josquin's presumed sense of "inwardness" can't be entirely dismissed, though, as he obviously took an interest in liturgical propriety. Was he even some kind of religious fundamentalist? He does come off as moralizing, on more than one occasion.... (And did the fact that he "had money" figure into this? One can hardly ignore the nexus between money & superior attitudes maintaining today....) There's a sense that he was musically conservative too, at least later in life, but some disputed works contest this assessment: It seems to me that Josquin's late musical conservatism was probably overstated, but that he did concern himself with religious trends (which, as trends, aren't inherently conservative...). His motets, in particular, set a variety of texts, and so take up some of the religious & other arguments of their day. (In this, Josquin was also particularly devoted to the Marian tradition, which was already a trend of his era [although see Digression #3]). Josquin was thus often an innovator in his motets, both contrapuntally & in terms of texts, while his mass cycles were more likely to stand at the end of traditions.

I've also developed a sense that Josquin was old-fashioned when it came to tuning: Many of his works (still) involve cadential open fifths, and so a strong suggestion of Pythagorean tuning. This issue remains relatively little explored, though, at least not in writing... [so see Digression #1]. Performances can be rather unspecific regarding tuning choices, but there's still the matter of musica ficta for this music, and that remains under discussion (as e.g. Peter Urquhart is releasing a lengthy new book on the subject) — including practically speaking in the music of the Anniversary recordings. There can be a basic tension in this work between horizontal & vertical factors in tuning: Whereas modern editors were generally quick to favor the vertical, e.g. Urquhart is continuing to emphasize the horizontal, and the latter — questions of line — are more my working priority as well. These & other factors then (often) pose various compromises when it comes to appreciating or recommending particular recordings. However, quality interpretations of individual works do tend to build on each other, finding new details & layers of meaning, taking from earlier efforts & the details they've already uncovered.... Josquin's music is rich in details, and when the singers come to have a real recognition of the relation of their lines to whatever else is happening, has happened & will soon happen, the sophistication of the interpretation comes to another level. Given the confused narratives of Josquin, though, such a level of understanding has proven difficult, and many performances of the major works end up with aimless passages. Still, there's a sort of iterative quality to interpretations of this work, throughout the broader repertory, and so not only for Josquin — even as his tendency to edit does appear to bring in more (un-spontaneous?) layers of detail to render. So the situation does improve, perhaps slowly. (And while Fallows' book already claimed that there were quality readings of most works, this is surely a matter of degree....) So it's one thing to be following the (modern) score faithfully, but another to bring a level of understanding tangibly to the ear....

And what's my motivation here [& see Digression #3]? The Josquin generation actually concludes the era of my main interest, i.e. the medieval era [i.e. per Digression #2], building on a wide range of 15th century counterpoint (which itself drew on various elements of the later 14th century...). It's a kind of final flowering, or at least an inflection point, as eras never actually end cleanly & various influences do continue to operate.... But it did also consummate a shift in mentality, i.e. around the Reformation & opening exploitation in the Americas — & indeed music printing. And I've also increasingly come to think of Josquin as conscious of a change of epoch, of trying to respond to that new situation. And so what am I really attempting to do in this essay? There's a survey of the recent releases, and of course an assessment of my preferences around those interpretations, but I also want to dive into the specific material more than I have to this point: I came to Josquin & Franco-Flemish polyphony with Josquin's reputation already established, and so a belief that other scholars would surely answer these questions about Josquin, and thus establish understanding of his music at a higher level. I thus concentrated on other composers, thinking Josquin himself would be well covered, and that I'd only need a little patience (& also, frankly, because some other composers' music made stronger personal impressions on me — in that Josquin's masterworks can lack immediacy, as I'd observe today). Now, instead of grousing, I guess I should put more personal investment into this broad project, and try to articulate some more detailed thoughts, particularly about the motets, which I intend to do below.... (That probably also means adding some questionable personal observations throughout this piece, observations that I might've otherwise kept to myself....) After all, even lacking landmark releases, incremental value is value, and I don't want my hopes for the Anniversary to numb me to the merits of its actual releases.

So I intend to freeze some thoughts in time right here, rather than in discussions (e.g. per the recommended recording lists, linked at the bottom of this page...) that I continue to update.

Songs & beyond...

Regular readers might recall that I spent a few years calling for new recordings devoted to Josquin's secular music: That call was already rewarded (coincidentally or not...) to some degree, such that I'd already changed my Anniversary "wish list" to the motets, but secular albums end up being some of the strongest of the Anniversary anyway.... (Now I'd say that, instead of being under-recorded himself, it's Josquin's contemporaries whose secular works, relatively speaking, are under-recorded: So let me call for more from those other composers to appear!)

Albums under this heading also involve a variety of repertory, not entirely chansons: Josquin's motet-chansons are some of his best-served works, for instance, and these programs like to include memorials to Josquin as well (I guess, since Susato already did it). But the chansons themselves, including both vocally & instrumentally, do start to come off more assertively & colorfully, indeed to move more into the realm of "individual interpretations" of the works (rather than simply trying to render the notes & rhythms...). The resulting variety also suggests an interrogation of secularity per se: After all [pace Digressions #2/3], this was a society suffused with the Christian religion, such that sacred & secular themes intertwined. (For clarity, then, one can speak of liturgical music per se, rather than sacred themes in general....) There's thus little clear thematic boundary, and of course musical material traveled between these domains anyway, such that the secular programs can come to suggest a broad concept of variation. (There're also various overlaps & reworkings involving colleagues, a sort of "world" of material that was endlessly reframed & varied....) And these notions of variation & reworking appear to continue past Josquin's own death, into later collections involving both his sacred & secular works, often together, meaning a sort of general secularizing, including via transcription.... The secular music thus comes to suggest a sort of broad transformation, ongoing transformation & instantiation of a general flow, a flow continuing into contemporary creativity.... (Well, not continuing, but revived, perhaps, as we know?) And many of the songs do involve creative texts as well — with the (presumably late) five-voice chansons thus suggesting a similar technical sophistication as the motets, at times, while also being more bound by (prior) courtly conventions — albeit across a wide stylistic range. But the smaller pieces also continue to resonate, especially through dedicated programs exploring their technical transformations....

So in some sense, I'm finding less to say here: These renditions take on both a more satisfying sophistication & point toward later historical ideas.... And so, moving on to summarize the three Anniversary chanson albums:

And then I want to turn to a couple of transcription programs: These turn even more explicitly to a sixteenth century (i.e. post-Josquin) style, but also illustrate the modes by which his music continued to be known. (The notion of a series of "points of imitation" that comes to maintain here also depends on tuning: With tempered fifths, there's simply less of a feeling of finality, with the music taking on a kind of linear flow, i.e. seeming to go on & on, almost in undifferentiated fashion....) This music is thus, actually, outside my main interests, but I do want to include it here: It provides more perspectives. (And the notion of secularity here, despite the liturgical music often being rendered, arises from the sort of thematic transition & interrogation that I sketched above....)

(And although these two programs do include motets, since they're not performed with the original forces, I'm not going to include them for the motet survey below.)

The Masses

The notion of the mass cycle as the symphony of its era has already been discussed by various writers, and so there's little to add about that here. In Josquin's case, it also apparently involved a desire to revise & to polish, i.e. to tackle the tradition (of which he obviously felt himself very much a part) in ongoing ways. Josquin seems to have idolized Dufay & Ockeghem, for instance.... And Josquin apparently sought to write masterworks in a variety of styles, although some mass cycles do seem to return to concerns of specific, prior works. But mostly, Josquin's masses are individual works that don't present an overarching theme: Perhaps this actually led to underrating them for a while, in fact, as many of these pieces don't fit into broad stylistic narratives. And as noted, there've certainly been attempts to trace (or even to construct...) broader stylistic themes running through this work, but the only real consistency seems to be in a desire to perfect whatever technique is being used.... Indeed, Josquin appears to have been very much a composer of his time, using a similar variety of technique & material, but also consciously striving to forge his own distinct style (& reputation). Moreover, Josquin seems to have particularly confronted prior tradition in his masses, as e.g. each begins in four voices, even as opinions as to chronology can vary (& although some include more voices for the Agnus Dei — as Josquin seemed to loved a big climax — only the Missa de beata virgine uses five voices prior to its end...). And actually, I have to wonder about the additional voices in the Agnus: What are the practical implications? Was it an impractical indulgence that Josquin was in position to embrace? Were there more actual voices, or might it have involved a split of parts previously doubled? I mean, most groups go for a "bigger" sound today, but maybe it's only supposed to be more intricate? (Another digression, not elaborated below....) Summary is thus difficult: We're basically talking about a set of individual masterpieces. But luckily, we have increasing options to listen!

Among the masses accepted by the NJE, all but the Missa Pange lingua (which is traditionally considered, consequently, to be later...) were published by Petrucci. They're clearly thus also Josquin's most "curated" work — even as subsequent scholarship was soon to prioritize the motets. And one of the factors is that the masses present more often as retrospective works, versus the more "prospective" motets, i.e. the latter in more voices, with different or varied texts.... (Of course, mass cycles generally use the same text: That's what defines the mass, and such consistency has also prompted a variety of musical approaches, including around various textual ambivalences....) With the masses appearing in comprehensive recording projects, though, that situation seems to have inverted in the 21st century: The motets are lagging, while the masses are being increasingly appreciated — perhaps including for their often more traditional character & ongoing exploration of prior traditions. (And the mass cycles might also have proven easier to embrace in large projects because of their relatively unsituated character: It remains possible to perform them all in the same manner....) At this point, the masses simply seem to be better served on record, forging a full picture of them thus seeming more practical than ever.... (And I should note that Josquin also wrote a small number of individual mass movements & other "ritual works," but these haven't seemed important, and so I won't be giving them their own discussion here....)

Finally, in terms of picking favorite recordings over the years, I've attempted to balance a number of factors, but one of the biggest was program: Different pairings can obviously yield a very different impression for an album as a whole. So one thing I've done for this project is to disarticulate album programs, and so to consider each mass performance individually. (One could certainly suggest that such a move has been a long time in coming, but what's really confirmed it for me is the changes in the music business & how people can access recordings online. In the old days, recommending an entire album was the only practical course.) And in the case of the mass cycles, since these are roughly half hour works, considering them separately is not especially unwieldy, although some do continue to be presented as surrounded by pieces in other genres — including plainchant. The latter has been motivated by a desire to present masses in their liturgical context, and can be worthwhile at times, but over the years, I've more often preferred to hear the mass cycles of the period as five movement works without interpolations. When the interpolations are other items of independent interest (i.e. motets), though, it does complicate matters — so I'll still be recommending some mixed programs. (What I'm ultimately evaluating is the affective response, and for me today, plainchant interpolations often end up feeling like waiting.)

The three mass cycles that have either recently concluded or will (hopefully) conclude soon don't tend to present much other than the masses themselves, though. As suggested, that's welcome to me, particularly for reference recordings. A brief recap:

Obviously the existence of these (mostly, nearly) complete series provides an excellent opportunity to transition to a more sound-focused response to the mass cycles: I've discussed more of my preferences elsewhere, but do want to present these as Anniversary releases here as well. So this is an accomplishment around 2021, although as noted, they'd all been underway for at least a dozen years.... The opportunity for ongoing listening has thus already paid off to some extent in greater appreciation of Josquin's output as a whole, but there's also still the matter of applying this experience to material by other composers....

And of course, things continue within the Josquin discography itself, as other mixed Anniversary albums including masses did appear as well (as listed chronologically, by release):

Released in 2018, but included here in order to expand the narrative a bit:

Motets: Survey & thoughts forward...

Finally, as already suggested, my sense of dissatisfaction around the Josquin discography, and hence the Anniversary, has most to do with motet recordings: Basically, there's no systematic coverage, no "central" release. Instead there're a variety of mixed, overlapping programs in different styles. And that can be enjoyable, but it seems as though a more comprehensive recording project would really help to take analysis of this music to another level.... And in my case, an orientation on the motets goes back to studying Gustav Reese's Music in the Renaissance (1954), where he positions motets as Josquin's greatest works. (For other composers, such as Obrecht, Reese highlights the masses, so he doesn't seem biased....) One basic reason has already been noted: The motets tend to be more forward-looking, including in moving to five- or six-part writing, but also in setting "new" texts (many of which are actually e.g. Biblical, but some of which were truly contemporary). These were thus more likely to be imitated directly by Josquin's successors (i.e. with less prior competition...) — including for their nascent ideas on word painting. Moreover, whereas the mass was obviously able to accommodate a variety of compositional styles, it retains a singular sense of "genre," while in some sense, the great motets forged their own genres: Subsequent composers would set e.g. Inviolata or Benedicta es with reference to Josquin.... (One can also parse these "genres" as new arenas for religious propaganda & debate, in what would continue to be a very contentious 16th century....)

Such a sense of multiplicity, including around genre for the individual texts, is also a challenge for performers in a couple of basic ways: The larger number of pieces in a motet program tends to involve a greater stylistic variety, and hence more preparation of individual pieces. (That's obviously already true of learning the texts alone.) And then, aside from this "complete" program (that I keep soliciting), there's the question of constructing an album: There've been e.g. general anthologies of Josquin motets, some thematic groupings, maybe (& this hasn't been done as much...) a collection of related settings by peers, of course the inclusion of motets in programs centered on a mass.... (There's also the issue of the different stylistic groupings among the motets precluding a unified interpretive stance.... I'm not sure how much of an issue this really is, but there would be practical issues to confront in any complete program, i.e. beyond what completeness means.) And beyond thematic groupings, there're technical groupings as well, although these tend not to have clear boundaries, given Josquin's interest in hybrid styles. In particular, Dufay already seems to have been a two-pronged influence on Josquin's motets, both in that the latter recalls isorhythmic construction in some of his major works, and that he also wrote pieces in a simpler, functional style perhaps recalling the former's three-voice harmonized chant settings (hymns). Josquin seems, likewise, to have wanted basically to enhance the liturgy with polyphony, and so it's unclear if all of his settings — especially all of the four-voice settings, as that'd become the new standard — are music of similar (high) stature. To help with these determinations, of course what we really need is to hear more, especially in consistent & attentive renditions...!

And the Anniversary did see some further motet releases, including from performers who'd been featured in contemporaneous (or earlier) music — despite my earlier comments about little overlap with performers of non-Josquin music of the period.... (So that's an interesting trend too.) The programs have tended to be mixed, though, incorporating other genres: In large part, this appears to be to break up the flow of the album, rather than just to present vocal motet after vocal motet (i.e. anthology style).... Anyway, the remaining Anniversary programs, again presented chronologically by release:

So in many cases, it seems that the motets are less self-conscious than the mass cycles — although some may have involved revisions too. Nonetheless, they often seem closer to their functional uses. And this presents issues for programs such as the above too, as assembling selections of motets into enjoyable overall programs (as already noted...) seems to be a real barrier to recording them! Or maybe it's a matter of too much pressure from people like me....

But as promised, I also want to run through a series of motets & recent performances. My prompt for this list is basically "motets popular with performers" & so I'll be focusing on those recorded in more than one (major?) rendition during the 21st century. (I'm also ignoring the motet-chansons, albeit some of Josquin's best works, but as noted, particularly well served in recording these days. However, I should add that these sorts of hybrid or crossover works do provide a welcome opportunity, perhaps, to "triangulate" the stylistic layers of Josquin's output....) To the Anniversary releases already named, then, I'll be adding a few other programs for comparison below: Miserere mei Deus (from Daniel Reuss) appeared only in 2018, so not long ago, and it's a rarity in being an all-Josquin motet program, even as the more contemporary choral orientation didn't make a strong impression with me at the time (& I did indeed review this album in 2018...). There're also "classic" motet programs by Herreweghe (1986) & the Orlando Consort (1999) — the former being my first Josquin recommendation at the FAQ in 1994, while the latter (also) illustrates that performing all of this music in mean tone (as technically impressive as it might be...) doesn't really work. And those are pretty clearly the main late 20th century programs — there are surprisingly few others. Then there're the four mixed-program albums that I had listed for my Josquin recommendations prior to the Anniversary, two from the era of the complete mass recordings (which is basically the era that I want to consider here...), i.e. one from Cappella Pratensis album under Stratton Bull (2014) & a Leipzig program directed by Ludwig Böhme (2010) — and then the two earlier Testolin programs, Music for Ercole I d'Este (2004) & Musica Symbolica (2006). (Testolin has thus recorded the most Josquin motets in the 21st century.) This set for consideration is certainly not complete, though, as I could've also added earlier recordings by performers already featured here, i.e. Stewart, Hanai & Da Col. (Plus others not mentioned!) And then, of course, there're the various tracks on programs not devoted to Josquin.... Indeed, I could very much be missing great one-off tracks for this survey, but I've been focusing on albums for this entire period: I prefer to hear this music as an album, not to switch performers every track, etc. And this preference has only been confirmed of late. (It's probably also worth noting that more motets seem to be divided into multiple tracks these days, perhaps raising their associated gravity, but also making them harder to program in playlists....)

Anyway, my main concern for this survey was to evaluate the Anniversary releases, not the earlier items, so perhaps my relative lack of completeness can be forgiven.... (I'm trying, in part, to "start fresh" with the Anniversary.) So without further ado, a series of thoughts on (mostly recent) recordings of individual motets:

And then there are the dubious pieces, i.e. those now mostly considered to be by other composers: Both Absalon, fili mi (a4) & De profundis (a5) continue to be popular to record in this category — now regarded as by La Rue & Champion, respectively. But both Reuss & the Gesualdo Six recorded the former, while the Orlando Consort (admittedly earlier...) & Reuss (again) recorded the latter, under Josquin's name. These are fine pieces, but I don't think of them as by Josquin anymore....

This series of brief notes does, presumably, also suggest avenues for further recording.... (And I don't want to render it into more "polished" form either, as I'm hoping that various entries will soon need revision — not that I'm intending to undertake revisions here. This discussion is to remain a specific snapshot in the wake of 2021.)


  1. As mentioned above, issues of tuning are barely discussed for this music, at least not in writing — & I say that specifically, since issues of tuning were surely confronted in the practical sense of performance. But how explicit were these discussions? Some of the productions above, as noted, indeed some of those that put the most effort into tuning (albeit without informing the listener in writing...) are oriented on rendering mean tone. Here I'll call them unsuccessful experiments. So what are the issues? Although mean-tone keyboard tuning is known from prior to this period, the idea that these sorts of engineering-keyboard technology issues would dictate the tuning of prestigious vocal polyphony — especially that performed at the leading, often very traditional, courts — seems misguided to me: While keyboard engineers hoped to be able to perform "every" piece of music without retuning the instrument, these vocal works actually involve only finite sets of pitches. In other words, they can all be rendered in "just intonation" by the voices, i.e. by whatever precise ratio of tones is musically apt. And thus I want to consider & posit musica ficta as basically an issue of tuning: It's a matter of choosing the specific pitch a particular (named) note should have (in context) — with the limited focus on flats & sharps being a modern simplification, i.e. conditioned by later tempered systems with limited pitch choices. And decisions on ficta — including per Urquhart's new book, emphasizing linear relations — are then inflected by both horizontal & vertical concerns. (Modern editors have generally prioritized vertical concerns, i.e. simplifying simultaneous interval ratios.) Basically, these are decisions regarding the precise pitch to sing at any given moment, the decisions only posing a "conflict" or challenge in a few places.... And these decisions, per the methods of the era, were generally made by singers on the fly, based on their knowledge of the musical context. (Such a situation obviously confirms, yet again, that more experience is helpful in this repertory!) So in that sense, "Pythagorean" is a meaningless label, at least in its specifics, as one must simply (but not necessarily via simplification...) pick the musical relations to emphasize at any particular moment. (This doesn't mean opting for the simplest vertical interval in every moment! But rather considerations of linear intervals, i.e. history, as well....) Yes, Pythagorean tuning emphasized fifths, but more than that, it simply isn't tempered — & could, theoretically, involve infinitely many different pitches. In any case, another factor that's operated as something of a "paradox" for this music is that, with its wider fifths, contemporary equal temperament is actually "closer" to Pythagorean than is mean tone... the latter, i.e. the first systematic attempts at temperament per se, actually posing a historical discontinuity. (And moreover, the sort of era-spanning "distance" cultivated by Josquin's revision regime can apparently allow equal temperament to resonate adequately in these works, accommodating a further sort of distance....) What am I saying then? Simply this: The finite set of pitches required for any of these pieces can be identified (relatively speaking, and perhaps with difficulty...) & then tuned in whatever ratios are desired. There's no need for generically tempered intervals to be employed.

  2. Including per remarks on Reese above, my musical studies involved considerations of this music as Renaissance music, i.e. the latter basically beginning from the 1420s. Such a periodization does maintain in various sources today as well (while there're others identifying "the Renaissance" already with the Italian Trecento...), but e.g. French scholarship has long presented the late 15th century as "autumn of the middle ages...." (And in some sense, one can simply posit overlapping eras, including via whatever specific criteria one cares to name, and decide whether medieval or modern aspects should be emphasized, contextually.... Such a division, at least in broad terms, is often ultimately arbitrary.) Consequently, with my own medieval orientation, it's made sense to "expand" a sense of the medieval, and that's one motivation at work here... i.e. continuity with earlier music. But I've also come, increasingly, to place the general beginning of modernity with European imperialism in the wake of Columbus, which both gives me a nice round number to use (1500), and corresponds rather well to the beginning of commercial music printing (1501). And then there's the Reformation, imminent e.g. across the end of Josquin's career.... So I've come to embrace a rather broad periodization, under which Josquin is a late medieval composer (or, arguably, the first modern composer...). But there're other issues around a turn to the modern era: Contemporary writers (modernists, that is) have a tendency to glorify everything about modernity (whereas it's main "feature" for me is imperialism...), meaning that music such as Josquin's will be presented as "leading to" something else, i.e. something better. (A similar issue plagues tuning, as per the prior digression, earlier situations are taken to prefigure modern situations, despite not being in any relation.) And that involves something of a "moral" judgment as well, e.g. notions of primitive peoples or primitive religions.... None of this is the least bit helpful when it comes to pondering decolonizing today, though, not simply as a matter of justice (whatever that means to various people...), but as a practical matter of the value of different ideas: Whereas ideas on ecology & living in balance are at a particular premium today, this goes for culture & music as well. (After all, I want to reject completely modern notions of a "civilizing mission," i.e. the sense that imperialism was actually helpful for other peoples! And more specific suggestions that Western patriarchy e.g. knows better "how to treat women" are offensive as well.... Other peoples need to regain our own reputations, so to speak.) And so medieval music, including Josquin's, does illustrate such historical variety & value, even as confined to a European context, affirming that the premodern has much to offer — on its own terms — including its own sorts of sophistication.

  3. But of course, there're various religious themes embedded in this repertory (including within nominally secular items, which in a decolonial context, might not actually be any more agreeable...), and certainly within Josquin's music per se. In fact, they're right out front. One aspect I've noted above, then, is the sort of contemporary feminism that seeks to critique Christian patriarchy. And let me be clear, patriarchy is the single biggest problem with the Catholic Church (after hierarchy per se, I suppose), so I don't want to dismiss such concerns. But I do want to recall e.g. that the late medieval era was one of increasing rights & power for women (see e.g. Gerda Lerner), while the early modern period was the era of the iconic witch hunts, of stripping women of property rights in Europe, and of undertaking an all-out assault (differentially...) on women across the world via colonization. So let's not be smug about what followed Josquin, even if his Marian stance involved glorifying things such as virginity (not exactly feminist...)! These are also — directly — matters of cultural hegemony. So why am I here? Why am I interested? First of all, my embrace of the arch-famous Josquin in particular (as per the intro...) is relatively reluctant! But "modernity studies" do very much concern me, and so also cultural origins (i.e. in order to frame "the modern era" from both before & after perspectives...). And in the postmodern era, music's "non-solid" (e.g. fluid) character seems to give it a particular penetrating power, but of course, maybe that's simply my own sonic orientation at work.... In any case, polyphony of this era also interrogates the relation between individual & collective (as e.g. the tuning digression raises once again, via horizontal & vertical...), and moreover, provides a dazzling array of options & alternatives. Not unlike our contemporary economic context, then, the notion that Western tonality is inherently & exclusively musical, i.e. without alternative, is simply wrong. (That one can make the argument via its own history makes this extra delicious.) So I have plenty of interest animating my involvement here, although I can't say that Christianity per se is one of them. I do find the music affective, though, and in a meaningful way. And as I've written elsewhere, religion — as a basic sense of connection with other people — does (continue to) matter, even aside from specific notions of creed. (Indeed, criticism of Christianity today appears, mainly, to be about glorifying capitalism — i.e. the modern system of state-supported private hoarding for wealth. But traditional Christianity does have real problems too, despite my ongoing willingness to enjoy its music....)

To Remarks on Recent Recordings (reviews).

To 2021 "Recordings of the Year" discussion.

To EM FAQ Josquin discography (large, unsorted).

To selective sacred polyphony recordings list.

To selective secular songs recordings list.

Todd M. McComb
4 February 2022