Richard Sherr


Prima la musica e poi le parole. According to Friedrich Blume, part of the ‘genesis of modern historical musicology’ itself is due to the music of Josquin des Prez. He tells a charming little story of how a ‘very young man’ came up to him one day in 1927 full of enthusiasm (more strongly, actual ‘love’) for the Missa Pange lingua, the first Mass by Josquin des Prez to appear in modern edition (in volume V of Ambros’s Geschichte der Musik).The young man begged him to allow his students to sing the work, which the young man had ‘copied and mimeographed’, that is, copied by hand onto those purple-finger-staining sheets that some of us still remember, in a true ‘labor of love’ (emphasis on the labor). That performance, born of youthful enthusiasm for the music was, according to Blume, the fons et origo of the torrent of words and editions that has appeared in the 70 years since, not merely about Josquin but about all of ‘early music’. The effect of singing the 400-year-old work was such that it awakened in Blume and his students a burning desire to know more, to hear more, to sing more of the music not only by Josquin but by his contemporaries. As a direct result of his experience with bringing the music of Josquin to life, Blume founded the series Das Chorwerk, to allow more renaissance music to be brought to life in modern edition. Countless editions and scholarly studies have followed, intending to bring more music and even the composers of that music to ‘life’. The flow is now subsiding under postmodern pressure, but it still has not been completely stifled. And all because a very young man fell in love with the Missa Pange lingua.


Blume’s remarks came at the opening session of The International Josquin Festival Conference, a historic and highly successful meeting of scholars and performers which took place in New York City in 1971, the 450th anniversary of the composer’s death. His address was entitled ‘Josquin des Prez: the Man and his Music’; however, as Blume admitted, even almost 50 years after his emotional experience with the Missa Pange lingua there still was almost nothing to be known about the man, and myriads of problems beset knowing anything about the music; indeed, the Complete Works Edition begun by Albert Smijers in the 1920s had just published its final volumes in the year of the Conference.


Our knowledge of Josquin’s works-the meticulous research of the last decades notwithstanding-is weak on all points; whether on the catalogue of his authentic compositions or on the large body of dubious and spurious works, on their chronology or on their problems of style, and equally weak on all three sections of his oeuvre: the Masses, the motets, and the secular compositions.


That the music was somehow transcendent was agreed by everybody. As Helmuth Osthoff stated in the introduction to his two-volume life and works biography of 1962-63, the first and still the only serious book-length scholarly study by one author on the subject of the composer, on the point of Josquin’s greatness there was and always had been a ‘consensus omnium’. This consensus had its beginnings in Josquin’s own time. For the 16th-century Swiss humanist Heinrich Glarean, Josquin was the equivalent of Virgil, and there could be no higher praise. Luther famously stated that Josquin could make the notes do as he willed unlike other composers who were the slaves of the notes. Earlier, in Italy in 1502, the Duke of Ferrara was informed that Josquin was a better composer than Heinrich Isaac, and also that he was a difficult person and wanted too much money (the duke hired Josquin). An erroneous ascription to Josquin was enough to convince the papal singers in 1515 about the worth of a motet (they quickly changed their minds once they found out who the real composer was--a young man called Adrian Willaert). A Florentine in 1567 (Cosimo Bartholi in his Raggiomenti accademici) compared Josquin in music to Michelangelo in the arts; and from a Florentine that was something (by 1567, Michelangelo had been dead for three years, Josquin for 46). The number of sources containing pieces ascribed to Josquin is greater than that for any composer of the period (over three hundred manuscripts and prints).The first volume of polyphonic Masses every printed was devoted entirely to Josquin ( Liber primus missarum Josquin printed in Venice by Petrucci in 1502). Two more volumes followed in 1505 and 1514 and the whole set was reprinted by Giunta in Rome in 1526; there is no other composer of the period who has a similar publication history. The first motet collections to be printed (Petrucci’s Motetti A of 1502, his Motetti C of 1504, his Motetti Libro Quarto of 1505) all begin with a motet not only ascribed to Josquin, but, as far as we can tell, actually composed by him. Further, there is real evidence that Josquin’s music continued to sustain practical (as opposed to theoretical) interest for many years after his death; he may be the first composer for whom this was true. His name was so important to the reception of works in the 16th century that a German publisher quipped that Josquin had composed more works after his death than he had during his life. In modern times, all scholars from Ambros on have enthused about the music of Josquin; there is no standard history of music in which he is not the ‘greatest’ of the composers of his generation.


Now it is possible to argue (and a following chapter does argue) that we should take all these encomiums with a large grain of salt. But for the moment, let us take them at face value. Here is Glarean writing in 1547, 26 years after the composer’s death, on the effects that the music of Josquin had on him and on Josquin as a person.


Cui uiro, si de duodecim Modis ac uera ratione musica, noticia contigisset ad natiuam illam indolem, et ingenij, qua uiguit, acrimoniam, nihil natura augustius in hacarte, nihil magnificentius producere potuisset. Ita in omnia uersatile ingenium erat, ita naturae acumine ac ui armatum, ut nihil in hoc negocio ille non potuisset. Sed defuit in plaerisque modus, et cum eruditione iudicium. Itaque lasciuientis ingenij impetus, aliquot suarum cantionum locis non sane, ut debuit, repressit, sed condonetur hoc uitium mediocre ob dotes alias uiri incomparabiles. Nemo hoc Symphoneta affectus animi in cantus efficatius expressit, nemo felicius orsus est, nemo gratia ac facilitate cum eo ex aequo certare potuit, sicut nemo Latinorum in carmine Epico Marone melius. Vt enim Maro naturae felicitate carmen rebus aequare est solitus, quemadmodum res graueis coaceruatis spondeis ante oculos ponere, uelocitatem meris dactylis exprimere, suae cuique materiae apta ponere uerba, denique nihil inepte moliri, ut de Homero dixit Flaccus. Ita hic noster Iodocus aliquando accelerantibus ac praepetibus, ubi res postulat, notulis incedit, aliquando tardantibus rem phthongis intonat, et ut in summa dicamus, nihil unquam edidit, quod non iucundum auribus esset, quod ut ingeniosum docti non probarent, quod denique, etiam si minus eruditum uideri poterat, non acceptum gratumque iudicio audientibus esset. In plaerisque operibus etiam ostentator magnificus, ut in Missa super uoces musicales, et in Missa ad fugam, In quibusdam irrisor, ut in Missa La sol fa re mi. In quibusdam contentione certans, ut in Missa de beata Virgine. Quae omnia, quanquam alij quoque saepe tentarunt, non tamen eadem felicitate conatibus aequaleis exitus inuenerunt.


Haec mihi causa fuit, cur in hoc ultimo Colophone potissimum huius uiri exempla adduxerim. Porro cum ingenium eius inenarrabile sit, magisque mirari possimus, quam digne explicare, non solo tamen ingenio caeteris praeferendus uidetur, sed diligentia quoque emendationis. Aiunt enim qui nouerunt, multa cunctatione, multifariaque correctione sua edidisse, nec, nisi aliquot annis apud se detinuisset, ullum in publicum emisisse cantum, contra atque Iacobus Hobrecht, ut in superioribus diximus, fecisse fertur. Vnde et quidam non inepte, alterum Virgilio, alterum Ouidio comparari merito posse contendunt.



If this man, besides that native bent and strength of character by which he was distinguished, had had an understanding of the twelve modes and of the truth of musical theory, nature could have brought forth nothing more majestic and magnificent in this art; so versatile was his temperament in every respect, so armed with natural acumen and force, that there is nothing he could not have done in this profession. But moderation was wanting for the most part and, with learning, judgment; thus in certain places in his compositions he did not, as he should have, soberly repress the violent impulses of his unbrideled temperament. Yet let this petty fault be condoned in view of the man’s other incomparable gifts.


No one has more effectively epressed the passions of the soul in music than this symphonist, no one has more felicitously begun, no one has been able to compete in grace and facility on an equal footing with him, just as there is no Latin poet superior in the epic to Maro [Virgil]. For just as Maro, with his natural facility, was accustomed to adapt his poem to his subject so as to set weighty matters before the eyes of his readers with close-packed spondees, fleeting ones with unmixed dactyls, to use words suited to his every subject, in short, to undertake nothing inappropriately, as Flaccus says of Homer, so our Josquin, where his matter requires it, now advances with impetuous and precipitate notes, now intones his subject in long-drawn tones, and, to sum up, has brought forth nothing that was not delightful to the ear and approved as ingenious by the learned) nothing, in short, that was not acceptable and pleasing, even when it seemed less erudite, to those who listened to it with judgment. In most of his works he is the magnificent virtuoso, as in the Missa super voces musicales and the Missa ad fugam; in some he is the mocker, as in the Missa La sol fa re mi; in some he extends himself in rivalry, as in the Missa de Beata Virgine; although others have also frequently attempted all these things, they have not with the same felicity met with a corresponding success in their undertakings.


This was for us the reason why in this, the consummation of our work, we have by preference cited examples by this man. And although his talent is beyond description, more easily admired than properly explained, he still seems preferable to others, not only for his talent, but also for his diligence in emending his works. For those who have known him say that he brought his things forth with much hesitation and with corrections of all sorts, and that he gave no composition to the public unless he had kept it by him for several years, the opposite of what we said Jacob Obrecht is reported to have done. Hence some not inappropriately maintain that the one may be justly compared to Virgil, the other to Ovid.



Here we have a 16th-century discussion of ‘Josquin des Prez: the Man and his Music’. According to Glarean, Josquin is violently impetuous, he lacks ‘gravitas’, but this is because he is not educated and does not know how to moderate his passions and he is to be forgiven this fault because of his music. His music is great because it stimulates the emotions more effectively than the music of any other composer. Glarean thinks so highly of this that Josquin in music is likened to Virgil in the epic. As Virgil responded to his ‘subject’ (res) in choosing the poetic meter that best expressed it, so Josquin responds to his in the choice of fast or slow note values of the musical setting. This has usually been taken to mean that Glarean thought that Josquin was a master at expressing the meaning of the texts he set, particularly in motets, but that is not exactly what he says, and in fact, the works he actually refers to next are all Masses, where the text was always the same. The ‘subject’ in these cases turns out to be not the meaning of the words, but music as an expression of personality. We are told that Josquin is a ‘magnificent virtuoso’ (or does the Latin ostentator mean ‘show off’?). As examples, Glarean cites the Missa L’Homme armé super voces musicales, a show-off piece if there ever was one, and a Missa ad fugam, that is, a totally canonic Mass. Not content to show off, Josquin can also be musically nasty; here Glarean mentions the Missa La sol fa re mi, thinking of the story he tells later in his treatise whereby this Mass is said to have been written to mock a niggardly patron who always said ‘let me do it’ (‘lasci fare a me’, ‘laisse faire à moi’), and of course never did anything. Josquin also is contentious as evidenced by the Missa de Beata Virgine; we are told later how he and Antoine Brumel both composed Glorias de Beata Virgine (Glarean does not in fact say that it was the entire Mass), in a musical rivalry which Josquin wins. To top it off, Josquin is not a fast or facile worker, not like Obrecht, who is Ovid to Josquin’s Virgil. Josquin was clearly quite a character, or at least Glarean thought so. He dazzles, he mocks, he fights, he thinks, he reaches people like no one else can. But while we can see that Glarean believes this, he does not provide much illumination of what it actually is in Josquin’s music that leads him to his conclusions; as he says, Josquin is more easily admired than explained.


We, of course, want to explain, and there has been no dearth of attempts to describe exactly what it is about Josquin’s music that so captivated his contemporaries and still captivates us today; i.e. what makes him ‘great’. These descriptions, interestingly, tend usually to hearken back to the very things that attracted Glarean in the 16th century; virtuosity, and ability to ‘move the passions’, what we more dispassionately describe as ‘interpreting the text’. Here is the editor of the last volumes of the first Josquin edition, Myroslaw Antonowytch, writing in 1961 about Josquin’s style. Expanding on Osthoff, he summarizes the salient characteristics of Josquin’s music in the context of the ‘three styles’ periodization that has afflicted the history of music ever since Beethoven. He describes the ‘three periods’ in the following way:

[1]. . . the works which can be included in the first group are characterized by dynamism of the melodic lines with their extended diatonic runs, melismatic ornamentations occasionally at the cost of harmonic suavity (expression of the words even at the cost of the textural transparence and balance)-and all this in most cases combined with rationalistically motivated canonic complications by which the composer's creative talent and technical mastery are shown in the best possible light. The most complicated canonic devices are nevertheless surrounded by fresh, expansive melodic lines which lend liveliness to the work and often a strong emotional undercurrent as well. Along with all these attachments to the cantus firmus tradition and the constructional techniques of the older generation of composers, there are always found in Josquin's early works some elements revealing the master's progressiveness and delight in experimentation, elements which are employed in greater variety in the master's other (later) works. He is an ingenious experimenter who abundantly employs the old techniques but who, at a given moment, revolts against them in order to give free play to his creative fantasy.


[2]. Characteristic of the second or middle group of Josquin's compositions is the variety of melodic invention and the diversity of contrapuntal constructive means. Dynamism of the melodic lines is combined with the play of color of the contrasting voice-groups. Canonic combinations are combined with ever more careful interpretation of the text and a clearly outlined constructional scheme. Increasing fondness for effects of contrast between higher and lower voice-groups; between chordal passages and those tending to counterpoint; between many-voiced passages and those with a small number of voices; almost extravagant employment of melodic richness; and above all, the multitudinous details within one and the same composition -these are the most striking characteristics of this group.


[3]. Characteristic for the third group are a more restrained handling of the melodic material and the technical means, together with a well-calculated stability in the use of contrapuntal principles of construction. The perfection of form-based on equality of voices (Durchimitation), on clearly-balanced melodic phraseology, and on symmetric distribution of the dynamic culminations-is combined with expression of the text and syllabic setting of the words. Here Josquin appears as a brilliant thinker, a splendid architect and colorist in sound, and a profound interpreter of the text. The melodic element is subordinated to the tectonic element. It is not dynamization of the various melodic lines (as in the first group), but the architecture of dynamics carried through to the smaller details of the several sections which is characteristic of the works of this group.



This might be considered still to be the standard if somewhat impressionistic description of Josquin’s style, even if we ignore the attitude sees the ‘three periods’ as a chronological continuum ever ‘progressing’ until Josquin emerges at its culmination as a ‘profound interpreter of the text’. We might add to this a more recent, more sophisticated, and less impressionistic attempt to grasp what is distinctive in Josquin through the application of Joshua Rifkin’s concept of ‘motivicity’. For Rifkin, it is Josquin’s ingenious and idiosyncratic use of motivicity that sets him off from his contemporaries and sets later composers off from him.


The main points made by Glarean, Antonwytch, and Rifkin, come down to this: Josquin is remarkably versatile and inventive, more than any other composer of his time, and his inventiveness is to be found in all the genres in which he composed, from the constructive world of the cantus firmus Mass to the freer world of motets and chansons and even instrumental pieces. Further, this inventiveness is to found at all levels of his musical output, from large scale structure to the surface elements of counterpoint and melodic invention, down to the details of motivicity, yet all this inventiveness does not overwhelm the actual aural event of the music itself which delights and moves us on its own terms. At the same time, the composer was capable on occasion of incredible insight into the way all of this could be manipulated to express the syntax and meaning of the text (and even its ‘passion’). Similar points are made by Jeremy Noble in what is perhaps the best overview of Josquin’s music to date, and they will be found in every description and analysis of the composer’s works that has appeared over the years, including practically every discussion in this volume. The sense of wonder that we find as early as Glarean often fuels these discussions; sometimes you just have to sit back, shake your head and think: ‘ how did he come up with that just out of his own head’?


But in fact, Antonowytch’s three-stage style description was not offered as an attempt to explain our sense of wonder at Josquin’s music, it actually appears in a section of his article entitled: ‘The Authenticity of the Various Works Attributed to Josquin’. The style characteristics have a job to do; they turn out not to be primarily a way of understanding Josquin’s genius, but are to be utilized in the never-ending quest to purge the composer’s oeuvre of impurities. For it has long been known (and was known even in the 16th century) that Josquin could not have composed a large number of the works that people attributed to him either by mistake or to take advantage of his reputation (what John Milsom later in this volume calls ‘forgery’). Musicologists have generally felt it to be their duty to root out these imposters and banish them from the ‘Josquin canon’, which effectively meant banishing them from any consideration whatsoever. This is done, of course, in service of our desire to consider Josquin in the time-honored way of writing about composers since the 19th century. To quote Blume again: ‘The essence of a great artist lies in his creative accomplishments, and the assessment of the oeuvre depends on the knowledge of its evolution, i.e. on the knowledge of its chronology and stylistic growth’. How can we approach such knowledge if we don’t actually know what he wrote and when he wrote it? Or a more modern question: how can we judge the effect of his music on his contemporaries or its place in the ‘discourse’ of the times if we don’t also know where he composed his works and for what audiences? Added to these historical questions, quite frankly, is a sense of protectionism of the great man; we simply do not want to believe that he could have occasionally had a really bad day and produced—well, crap. So we find that many discussions of Josquin’s music have taken place in the context of trying to establish the ‘canon’ by throwing out works ascribed to the composer but now thought either through source studies to be misattributed or through the test of musical analysis to be so inferior that they could not have been composed by him, or defending works that have been questioned by claiming that they are so superior or distinctive that they have to have been composed by him. The editors of The New Josquin Edition, established almost as soon as the Smijers edition was completed, are required to give the authenticity test to all the works assigned to them and have been given the following instructions under the rubric ‘Authorship’:


Any evidence that raises questions about the authorship of a given work should be discussed under this rubric in a brief and concise essay. included among the issues to be considered might be: the general reliability of the sources of the work with respect to their attributions; the proximity to Josquin of the sources that ascribe it to him; conflicting attributions and the arguments for the relative weight that should be assigned them; external sources (e.g., theoretical treatises) that mention the work and its composer; and the relative compatibility of the work with our unfolding view of Josquin's style. Discussion of musical style will normally be a component of the treatment of authenticity, unless specific reference can be made to existing literature on the subject.


The edition proposes to list works that are determined to be unauthentic, but not to publish them, somewhat paradoxically keeping transcriptions of these works on file for ‘readers who wish them’.


Yet, as Rob C. Wegman points out in a following chapter, all of this is dangerously circular since the general style characteristics that are invoked to authenticate works actually come from examining a collection of pieces which may in itself contain inauthentic works. Further, while these characteristics seem good for negative purposes (removal) they never seem to be good enough to be used positively by allowing us to add previously unattributed works to the canon. One begins to wonder if we really know anything about the music of Josquin des Prez. Joshua Rifkin presented the skeptical view in remarks delivered at a conference devoted precisely to problems of authenticity.


I wish to question whether we have in fact done the hard groundwork on the Josquin canon that alone would enable us to tackle in anything more than a scattershot manner such recalcitrant problems of authorship as many under review here. Indeed, I wish to question whether we even have anything that, under any definition but that of scholarly Rezeptionsgeschichte, we can properly label a Josquin canon. I think not. We have instead, I would suggest, a scholarly consensus, a vaguely constituted set of assumptions fashioned by our evolving collective unconscious from a bit of Ambros here, some Osthoff there, lots of Smijers throughout and smatterings of individual observations. Particularly in the last twenty years, this consensus has undergone considerable refinement as scholars have proposed the elimination of one work or the other from the commonly accepted corpus; but its status as point of departure and touchstone of judgement has remained unchanged and unchallenged. For a particularly eloquent illustration of this, we need turn no further than the early history of the New Josquin Edition. As one of its first public acts, the edition published a provisional list of contents, on which it asked the scholarly community to comment - not, however, concerning the actual selection of works, but merely on the ordering of the compositions.


He then went on, of course, to disattribute one of Josquin’s most famous motets, not, however, by invoking style analysis to bolster his conclusion. One might even posit that his later notion of motivicity is offered as a kind of ‘Morellian earlobe’, a distinctive and totally personal marker that can be used to separate authentic from inauthentic works.


Authenticity is still very much a modern subject of debate, in fact, along with the details of Josquin’s early biography, it sometimes appears to be the only subject of debate. The complete list of works changes very frequently, particularly with regard to motets and chansons. The reader of this Companion will soon be made aware of this major trend in Josquin studies and the discomfort it can cause; practically every chapter will contain some remarks about the unacceptability of certain works (sometimes famous works) that have hitherto thought to be part of the canon, and sometimes the defense of other works that have been questioned will be offered. It is expected that there will be disagreement about some of these pronouncements; indeed there is disagreement within this volume that the editor has purposefully not tried to excise or smooth over. The definitive word on these matters has not yet been spoken and indeed may never be spoken.


Luckily for Josquin lovers, Josquin can survive even the most ruthless winnowing of his output. First, most of these arguments, it turns out, concern works that are unique (like Absalon fili mi) or are on the chronological peripheries, either said to be ‘very early’ or ‘late’, composed before a style has been established and at a time when it could have been transforming itself into something cut short by the composer’s death, in a word, precisely the type of works that are largely of purely historical interest. This is true of most of the Masses about which there are questions, and for most of the 5 and more-voiced motets and chansons that have been challenged, for instance (it is less true of the four-voice motets). Second and more important, even if all the works that people want to throw out were thrown out and all that was left was the smaller repertory of works that if they were not by Josquin then we would have to posit that the composer Josquin des Prez was a totally fictitious character invented by sinister scribes all working in collusion over generations, those works would be enough to justify his contemporary and posthumous reputation, and those works form the bulk of the discussion in the following pages. In my opinion, the Missa de Beata Virgine alone would be enough. Josquin can survive a redefinition of his canon, as he can survive the re-evaluation of the assumption of his absolute preeminence that is long overdue, just as we will survive the fact that 20 years of his early career have suddenly disappeared from under our very noses (see chapters 000 of this Companion). Josquin will survive because his best music really is as magnificent as everybody has always said it was. Prima la musica.


Josquin’s music is the main subject of this Companion, a collaborative effort of distinguished scholars and taking into account the most recent research, which is also the first extended overview of Josquin’s oeuvre since Osthoff’s pioneering monograph, and the only one in English, apart from the excellent, but by necessity brief, discussion in The New Grove High Renaissance Masters. Beginning with a summary of the latest developments in the composer’s constantly changing biography and a discussion of his stature as a ‘great man’ and composer then and now, the volume continues with chapters considering all the compositional genres employed by Josquin and offering wide ranging surveys as well as close studies of individual pieces. Further chapters explore both traditional and untraditional analytical perspectives on Josquin's music, and suggest new avenues of research. A Worklist, Annotated Discography (the first since the advent of the compact disc and the concurrent explosion of early music recordings), and Bibliography end the volume, which is further enhanced by a companion CD containing pertinent selections newly recorded specifically for this volume by The Clerks’ Group. Let the book and the CD be your companions as you explore in your own way the mysteries and delights of the music of Josquin des Prez.