Jablonski, Marek (Michael)

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(c) The last masses.

The half-dozen or more masses of Josquin’s high maturity already discussed would be enough to establish his reputation in this genre as the supreme exponent of both the main trends of his time: free fantasy and rational organization. But in his old age he continued to develop. The exuberance, as has already been suggested, falls away – or at least is subsumed into a style that aims rather at inward communication of the essence of the sacred texts than at their outward adornment and expression. Together with this it is perhaps possible to detect a certain turning back to earlier preoccupations, a desire to rework old problems with new insight. It has been shown above how in the Missa sine nomine Josquin reinterpreted the canon mass derived from Ockeghem (which he had once explored in the Missa ad fugam), investing it with a new sweetness and expressivity. In the Missa de Beata Virgine he looked even further back, jettisoning much of the elaborate panoply of motivic unity deployed in the virtuoso middle-period masses in favour of a unity based solely on the appropriate Ordinary chants for feasts of the Virgin. Thematic and even tonal unity are sacrificed to liturgical propriety; the fact that from the Credo onwards the four-part texture is expanded to five by means of canon suggests that the work was not even conceived as a complete musical unity. As in the early mass sections, paraphrased plainsong is the main constructional principle, but it is handled now with a serene mastery that fully explains why this work became (to judge by the number of sources in which it survives) the most popular of all Josquin’s masses during the 16th century.

Whether or not the Missa ‘Pange lingua’ was composed by 1514, it was evidently not available to Petrucci for his third collection of Josquin’s masses, published in that year. Though quite widely circulated in manuscripts, and indeed placed by Alamire at the head of one of his two collections of Josquin’s masses now in Vienna (A-Wn Vind.4809), it was not printed until 1539, in Ott’s Missae tredecim. But although one of the masses attributed to Josquin in this publication is by Pierre de La Rue and another (as Sparks, 1972, convincingly demonstrated) by Noel Bauldeweyn, there can be no doubt about the authenticity of Pange lingua. The plainsong hymn melody impregnates every voice and every section of the mass, but except for the final Agnus Dei, where it at last emerges into the superius, it is not given the old-fashioned conspicuousness of a cantus firmus, but rather digested into the counterpoint, which itself has a new austerity and economy. The vigour of the earlier masses can still be felt in the rhythms and the strong drive to cadences, perhaps more so than in the Missa de Beata Virgine, but essentially the two contrasting strains of Josquin’s music – fantasy and intellectual control – are so blended and balanced in these two works that one can see in them the beginnings of a new style: one which reconciles the conflicting aims of the great 15th-century composers in a new synthesis that was in essence to remain valid for the whole of the 16th century.

It is the Corpus Christi version of Fortunatus’s Easter hymn that Josquin had in mind in Pange lingua, as is shown both by the underlay of the final Agnus Dei in certain sources and by the mass’s title (e.g. in A-Wn Vind.4809 and D-Ju 21): ‘Missa de venerabili sacramento’. The two chief inspirations of Josquin’s sacred music, to judge by the frequency with which they recur and the nature of the musical response they elicited from him, are the parallel ones of the virgin birth (more particularly its annunciation) and its re-enactment in the sacrament of the Mass. In this, of course, his piety was entirely typical of his time, but he transcended it in the intensity with which he expressed it. ‘Le génie consiste … à concevoir son objet plus vivement et plus complètement que personne’, observed Vauvenargues. It seems appropriate that in these two late masses Josquin should have given such profound expression to the twin concepts at the heart of his religious belief.

Josquin des Prez

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