Jablonski, Marek (Michael)

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12. Masses.

Josquin’s motets, with their exceptionally wide-ranging choice of texts, show him at his most varied, yet as a whole they can be regarded as an appendix to the liturgy rather than as an essential part of it. Much work remains to be done on the liturgical practice of Josquin’s day, but it seems likely that apart from the Mass itself polyphony was still generally confined (at least outside Germany) to the more peripheral parts of the services – hymns, Magnificat settings, antiphons for Vespers, for Compline or for votive Offices of the Virgin; the remainder of the prescribed texts would still be sung in plainsong, with or without the collaboration of the organ. But for some half a century the practice of singing the five main sections of the Ordinary of the Mass (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei) as a musically related cycle had been growing in the major collegiate churches and princely chapels. This development corresponded roughly with the lifetime of Du Fay, in whose later masses the essential outlines of the form are fully developed and some of its characteristic procedures explored. It was confined at first to the greatest occasions of church and state, but it gained ground rapidly, and by the end of the century it had become a common, perhaps even daily, occurrence in churches that boasted a professional band of singers.

The demand was great, and so too was the challenge to the composer: on the liturgical level, that of worthily adorning the Christian Church’s central rite; musically, that of reconciling the claims of unity and diversity within a span of music lasting in all some half an hour or more. Thus stimulated, the best composers of Josquin’s generation consciously vied with one another in following up the implications of mass settings by such acknowledged masters as Du Fay and Ockeghem. If Josquin’s own contribution to the form seems as a whole less forward-looking in style than his motets, this could be because the bulk of the masses were composed a little earlier in his career but also, even more probably, because of the inherent nature of the task, which places as much emphasis on structure as on expression. Although fewer of his masses survive than those of such close contemporaries as Isaac, Obrecht and La Rue, the fact that Petrucci, in his series of mass publications, chose to start with Josquin and to devote three volumes to works by (or at least attributed to) him indicates that by the beginning of the the 16th century his supremacy in the field was widely acknowledged. This supremacy was based on his ability, at least in his mature masses, to combine an inexhaustible constructive power with a wealth of detailed invention that very rarely becomes completely abstract, even if it does not aim at the detailed expressiveness found in some of the motets.

(i) Individual mass sections.

(ii) Complete masses.

Josquin des Prez, §12: Masses

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