Jablonski, Marek (Michael)

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(ii) The later works.

The motets that belong, so far as external and internal evidence suggests, to the last 20 years of Josquin’s life exist on a high plateau of mastery where technical means are subordinated to formal and expressive ends; so far as any continuing development can be detected, it is in the direction of still further motivic density and melodic succinctness (though extended melismas reappear at times), together with formal clarity. They fall into two main groups: settings of biblical texts, mostly from the Psalms and freely composed in four parts, and large-scale five- or six-part works based on cantus firmi, in which Josquin seems to have discovered a renewed interest in his later years.

Whereas most of these cantus firmi are drawn from the repertory of plainsong, in which Josquin’s imagination was clearly steeped, Stabat mater is based on the tenor of Binchois’ symbolically appropriate chanson Comme femme desconfortée, sung or played straight through in doubled note-values (allowing for the original’s undiminished perfect mensuration). In contrast to this apparently archaic procedure, the remaining voices are in Josquin’s most modern manner, their rhythms and phrasing declamatory, with the minim as the basic note value. This piece could only be by Josquin, but Lowinsky (MRM, iii, 1968, p.223) was surely right to deny the authenticity of the only other motet attributed to him (and strongly) in which the cantus firmus has similar characteristics, a five-part setting of Missus est Gabriel; here the tenor is borrowed from Busnoys’ A une dame j’ay faict veu, but the remaining voices are quite uncharacteristic of Josquin in their lack of imitative integration. Another exceptional cantus firmus is that of Miserere mei, Deus, composed, as has been mentioned above (in §§6 and 10), for Ercole d’Este. Here the two-pitch phrase to which the opening words are sung is shifted step by step – first downwards through an octave, then, in the second part of the motet, up again, and finally down a 5th to rest on A. Between its appearances, which usually coincide with a passage of full five-part texture, various smaller groups propound the verses of the long penitential psalm text; into these the phrase ‘Miserere mei Deus’ strikes like the refrain of a litany (or – as Macey, 1983, showed – like the reiteration in a meditation of Savonarola’s), though varied in both pitch and interval, since the modal structure ensures that it covers sometimes a tone, sometimes a semitone.

Two further motets, of very different character, provide something of a puzzle. One is Huc me sydereo, a setting of elegiacs by the humanist Maffeo Veggio in which Christ speaks from the cross of the divine love that brought him there and the love he demands from mankind in return; the other is Ave nobilissima creatura, a vastly expanded version of the angelic salutation to the Virgin. Their cantus firmi are identical (apart from a single repeated note) in both pitch and rhythm, though they bear different texts, respectively ‘Plangent eum quasi unigenitum’ and ‘Benedicta tu in mulieribus’ (cf Elders, 1971). Both undergo quasi-isorhythmic diminution in the secundae partes, though the proportional speeding-up is more gradual in the latter (6 : 4 : 2) than in the former (6 : 2 : 1), no doubt in order to accommodate a longer text and to engineer the climactic coincidence of the tenor’s antiphon text with that of the motet at ‘Benedicta tu in mulieribus’. One might imagine, from the virtual identity of the two cantus firmi, that Josquin had here deliberately composed a contrasting pair of motets if the sixth voice missing in two important sources of Huc were not an obvious addition to the original texture, while Ave nobilissima was clearly conceived from the start in six parts. The explanation may be that Huc was composed first, for five voices, and that Josquin, later wishing to provide a companion-piece (perhaps for some dramatic performance representing both the Annunciation and the Cruxifixion), devised the text of Ave nobilissima (the words ‘Ave Maria gratia plena, Dominus tecum’ are placed precisely so that the tenor’s entry with ‘benedicta tu in mulieribus’ will complete them) and also added a sixth voice to the earlier Huc me sydereo to increase the symmetry between the two motets. Placidly beautiful as the Annunciation motet is, that for the Crucifixion makes the deeper impression. The sophistication of the text is fully matched in Josquin’s setting, which abounds in affective devices and word-painting: the melodic descent from the trebles’ highest note to the basses’ lowest to illustrate Christ’s descent from ‘Olympus’; the plangent fall of a 3rd to emphasize such words as ‘crudeli’ and ‘durae’ (a hallmark of Josquin’s later style); the repeated phrase at ‘verbera tanta pati’ (singled out for its pathos by the publisher Hans Ott in the preface to the second part of his Novum et insigne opus musicum, 1538); and a constant attention to clear and effective declamation.

In both these motets, as we have seen, the cantus firmus is gradually speeded up to converge with the tempo of the surrounding voices, a feature already encountered in Illibata. The beautiful five-part Salve regina takes up another feature of that seminal work, the controlled oscillation of a motif (this time the distinctive four-note phrase that begins the relevant plainsong) between pitches a 4th apart. More commonly, though, Josquin achieved a similar effect by a canonic treatment of the cantus firmus, sometimes combined with a progressive reduction in note values. This may be rather freely handled, as in Virgo salutiferi, a work very probably written at Ferrara, since its text is by a Ferrarese court poet, Ercole Strozzi (see §6 above). Here the superius and tenor at first present only the beginning of the angelic salutation ‘Ave Maria gratia plena, Dominus tecum’ with repetitions, in canon at the octave; in the second section the reduction of note values is nearly proportional, but the repetitions are removed; in the course of the last the cantus firmus is still further compressed and the salutation completed. In Benedicta es, caelorum regina the canon is once more at the octave, but free in its time interval and in other details. More usually, though, the canon is at the 5th, as in Inviolata, integra et casta, and in the transparently beautiful setting of Poliziano’s Latin poem O virgo prudentissima.

In the freely composed Praeter rerum seriem, as in a number of probably inauthentic works clearly modelled on it, plainsong melodies well known in Josquin’s day are highlighted by the use of long note-values, but in some of the very last motets they are presented in canon but dissolved, as it were, into the general texture, so that their structural function is hardly apparent to the listener. This is true, for instance, of the linked Pater noster and Ave Maria (a work not so much austere as sombre, which Kellman’s research at Condé (1971) has shown to be Josquin’s own musical memorial) and of the magnificent five-part De profundis, where the mourning of the three estates of the realm is symbolized by a canon at the 4th and the octave below. In all these works the canons perform a multiple function, partly symbolic, partly structural. As the strictest form of imitation they produce, on a larger scale, the same kind of textural integration as does the imitation between contrapuntal motifs. At the 5th, moreover, they help to ensure a certain alternation of tonal centre and thus to provide a controlled variety in the settings of large-scale texts (and not only large-scale ones, as can be seen in the late five- and six-part chansons, discussed in §13 below).

Compared with a series of masterpieces such as these, it must be admitted that the other main category of apparently late works, the psalm settings, shows no such uniformity of excellence. The best of them – Memor esto verbi tui, for instance, or the setting for low voices of Domine, ne in furore tuo – are characterized by the same dense, and tense, motivic development, the same close attention to declamation and an even more vivid response to the meaning of the words. It may be noted that the two works mentioned both occur in sources printed in Josquin’s lifetime, the first and third books of Petrucci’s Motetti de la corona (1514, 1519) respectively. Many of the rest were first printed in Petreius’s psalm collections (Nuremberg, 1538, 1539 and 1542) some 20 years after Josquin’s death, and it is perhaps in order to view them with a certain scepticism – a scepticism incorporated more unflinchingly into the accompanying work-list than into its predecessor in the previous edition of this dictionary. Works like Usquequo Domine and Caeli enarrant present some of the more obvious features of the ‘Josquin style’, notably his paired duets, but in comparison with the works already discussed their motivic development seems short-breathed and mechanical and their four-part writing often rhythmically congested and clumsy (Caeli enarrant, furthermore, quotes passages from three of Josquin’s motets at the opening of each of its partes, encouraging the supposition that it was modelled on Josquin by an unknown composer; see Macey, 1986). Even a work such as Benedicite omnia opera, which has a far more consistent impetus than most and contains several distinctive features, such as the harmonic oscillation at ‘glacies et nives’, shows an untypical squareness of rhythm and an overinsistent density of imitation. The solecism of word-setting (at bar 131), which it is hard to imagine the mature Josquin permitting himself, is perhaps due to an easily corrected misprint.

For a superb example of Josquin’s late four-part style – as definitive in its way as the Ave Maria is for the early period – we need look no further than In principio erat verbum, which stands first in an incomplete set of partbooks (A-Wn Mus.15941) copied in the Netherlandish court workshop for Raimund Fugger (and containing two more, probably authentic, psalm settings, In exitu Israel and Qui habitat in adiutorio). The texture is as transparent as ever, with its preponderance of duets, and characteristically it makes continuous reference to the underlying recitation tone, but with a variety of texture and an impetus informing the austerity that enables it to cover 14 verses of St John’s gospel with no trace of monotony. Sparks (1971) has convincingly demonstrated the inauthenticity, on stylistic grounds, of a group of five- and six-part motets, three of which first appear in even later German publications; perhaps, with the touchstone of In principio to hand, it may be possible to subject the posthumously published psalms to a similar critical scrutiny. If so, it must surely be recognized that most are no more than a well-intentioned attempt to cater for the new Lutheran market with works supposedly by Luther’s favourite composer. But fortunately a large enough body of authentic motets will remain to prove that he was indeed ‘the master of the notes’ that Luther called him.

Josquin des Prez

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