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Josquin and the European Heritage

Following on from our last concert, which explored the German repertoire leading up to JS Bach, tonight’s concert looks at an equally prestigious composer, Josquin des Pres, and presents some of the music of the generation of composers who followed, and who were so influenced by him. Both of these giants of the western musical tradition provide us with a synthesis of cultural ideas and styles in circulation throughout Europe, but while Bach did so without leaving Germany, Josquin, like so many renaissance composers was widely travelled, working at some of the most prestigious courts in Europe.

It is not easy to ascribe a nationality to Josquin and very little is known about his life, but he is stylistically associated with a style known as Franco-Flemish. He was born around 1450, either in Belgium or France, and later studied in St Quentin with Ockeghem, a composer he admired all his life, and for whom he wrote his beautiful elegy Nymphes des Bois. The rest of his life was spent travelling, with periods in Italy, and positions ranging from singing in the Papal choir in Rome to holding the post of maestro di cappella at the court of Ferrara, as well as equally prestigious positions in France, where he died in 1521.

Undoubtedly Josquin’s greatest significance musically was to establish a style that was truly international – bridging the gap between the angular, winding medieval style of northern Europe and the simpler, more homophonic and word centred music of the Italian renaissance. It is no surprise therefore that he was Martin Luther’s favourite composer. His attention to the detailed expression of every word in a deeply devotional manner clearly illustrated in Tu Solus qui facis mirabilia won him admiration throughout Europe.

The Missa Pange Lingua is probably his most famous and familiar mass. Based on the plainchant melody of the hymn of the same name, the cantus firmus can be heard throughout, passing from voice to voice rather than remaining in any one part. It is a mass that above all shows so many of Josquin’s compositional styles: sections moving in simple block chords, passages for just 2 or 3 voices, paired imitation, canonic writing and alternations between duple and triple metre. Every word is set in such a way that if it can’t be heard, it is certainly not the composer’s fault!

As the first composer to introduce recognisable fragments of melody passing from voice to voice he was also establishing what we now call imitative counterpoint – the core feature of the later music of Palestrina and Lassus. That way of writing pervades also the music of many composers who were influenced by Josquin: Brumel, Gombert, Mouton, Isaac and Senfl – to name but a few. In a short concert it is only possible to give a taste of Josquin’s massive influence, but we have included a few works actually based on his very music. Senfl’s Ave Maria is an ingenious reworking of the much shorter Ave Maria of Josquin, while Nicholas Gombert’s Mille Regrets takes fragments of the Josquin piece, which he develops even further in his 8 voice Lugebat David Absalom. Mouton’s Nesciens Mater captures beautifully the sublime meditative mood that was so often a hallmark of Josquin; long sinuous lines combined with clarity of texture. Our second elegy, O Mors inevitabilis, this time lamenting the death of Josquin also pays tribute to another aspect of his musical style: the construction of complex forms involving canons at different pitches.

We have chosen to end with a work by Orlandus Lassus, another composer of Northern birth who was well travelled in Europe and fluent in many languages and styles. His music illustrates perfectly the influence of Josquin in the following generation.

© Deborah Roberts April 2007