Review Summary: Part VIII: Composer as celebrity
The legend of Josquin des Prez looms large over the last 500 years of music history, even if his name is no longer the fixture that some of his successors still hold claim to. Previous composers, such as Dufay, Binchois and Ockeghem, had been widely acclaimed, internationally even. Josquin, if he was not a household name, was the closest a composer had ever come to holding that status. Some of it comes from the cultural context that surrounded him: there is an increasingly-accepted theory that Josquin, in his early years of prominence, was the close colleague of an eccentric but increasingly reputable Florentine painter named Leonardo da Vinci. A painting from around 1485, named Portrait of a Musician
, is attributed to Leonardo with near-certainty, and while the depicted musician's identity is in question (especially as it's Leonardo's only surviving male portrait), a six-character etching hidden in the painting's undercoat is near-indecipherable but has been suggested by some to contain the letters "J-O-S-Q-I-N".
Likely born sometime around 1455 near the border of Belgiuk and France, Josquin des Prez's rise seems to start around the early 1480s, when he spent time in Milan and gained exposure not just to Italian sacred music, but a thriving secular music scene as well. His move to Rome around 1485 put himself in the service of the papal choir, and the rest of his life saw him bounce between numerous well-to-do patrons in Italy and France alike. Over the course of this time, his music seems to have penetrated the burgeoning artistry of western European culture with great suddenness. His oeuvre was receiving lavish amounts of praise from Italian writers as early as the late 1480s, and by the time of his death in 1521, the lamentations were loud; the declarations of his unprecedented greatness, frequent. In the eyes of many, at least many whose writings have survived, Josquin's range as a composer had no equal, and similar statements can be found not just in 1500s Europe, but in 1600s, 1700s and 1800s Europe as well.
And what of this infamous range? 50+ years of composing would certainly imply some evolution almost by necessity, but Josquin's works attained a striking level of individuality pretty early on. Time only allowed him to spread his wings even more, in the process setting Western polyphony on a very different course as the Sixteenth century got into gear.
Two of Josquin's masses were based around the popular tune "L'homme arme" (English: "the armed man"). The earlier of the two, Missa L'homme arme super voices musicales
, was also the more popular, among the most popular things Josquin composed before the turn of the century. Interestingly, the mass doesn't even show Josquin at his most original; at its core, it seems to be an homage to Ockeghem, the master of mensuration and complex rhythmic layering who ranked among the most progressive composers of the era. Only the latter's Missa prolationum
really outdoes the L'homme arme
mass in terms of using prolation canons, sections of music where the same melody is played across different voices, at slightly different times and at different speeds. It's a recipe for aural stimulation - things are happening constantly, yet there's always a sense of familiarity because the motives are repeating themselves in subtle ways across the different voices.
Where Josquin's mass steps out on its own is in its use of a technique that, while still subtle, embellishes the music in a way that creates an even greater sense of dynamism. The technique of musical "paraphrase" essentially means what it sounds like: it describes the action of portraying a melodic idea in a unique and personal way, borrowing broader melodic ideas while changing them enough to imbue them with some character. Josquin uses this quite a bit in this L'homme arme
mass (less so in the other), and anyone who listens to a recording of this would be well-advised to listen to the original melody, so as to compare and contrast how Josquin's writing plays around with these embellishments. Most of these embellishments come in the form of the traditional melody appearing as-written in other voices while not
acting as a cantus-firmus; in other words, the part of the music that normally acts as the foundation has become the supplementary material. A clever change-up, really.
More can (and will) be said about Josquin's work in future, for the last 20 years of his life see him develop the paraphrase technique into the most popular compositional strategy of the century. The marriage of complexity and dynamics, kick-started by late-career Dufay and carried on by the likes of Ockeghem, reaches a critical (and, in a manner of speaking, commercial) peak under Josquin's watch that neither of the aforementioned composers ever approached, despite having their own fair share of fame. Sitting with the early part of his career, however, we see a fellow who is very assured of himself, confident in his abilities and, dare we say it, well-aware of his already-untouchable stature. The truth is, when grappling with Josquin-as-composer, we need to also be thinking about Josquin-as-fad, a captivating figure that captivated the Western musical world in a mighty fierce way. His sense of self permeates even the pieces one might call derivative, and if we must wade through the weeds of discussing "artistic merit" (a complicated term at the best of times, yet how can we avoid it?), that's about as nice a compliment as you can get.
The Tallis Scholars (1989): https://open.spotify.com/album/27YnmK3ZL2lgmN5pUEDUUq?si=HRnbk2w7QYyPfJgDWgY5rA&a mp;utm_source=copy-link