Josquin: De beata virgine

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Program: #11-51, Air Date: 12/12/11

The latest in the series of performances of the complete masses of Josquin by the Tallis Scholars takes us to two glorious celebrations of the Virgin Mary.

NOTE: All of the music on this program comes from the recording Josquin - Missa De beata virgine and Missa Ave maris stella with the Tallis Scholars directed by Peter Phillips. The recording is Gimell CDGIM 044.

JOSQUIN des PREZ (c.1450-1521): Missa De beata virgine
Credo quarti toni (Cambrai Credo)
Missa Ave maris stella 

Peter Phillips writes:

With this recording we come to two of Josquin’s most intense canonic Masses, both based on plainchant themes. They make an intriguing pair. In his own lifetime the Missa De beata virgine was probably the most performed piece that Josquin had ever written; yet ironically it now presents interpreters with some unusual challenges. The Missa Ave maris stella, by contrast, is compact and fluent, the use of the chant melody always beautifully clear – potentially a useful setting for modern choirs in a liturgical setting. Both Masses show Josquin experimenting with textures, motifs, mathematical constructs, anything that took his fancy, never predictable – and creating a nightmare for people today who want to try to date anything that Josquin wrote after his earliest works, since there seems to be little actual maturing of the style; just more experimentation within it. And to show how diverse he could be with the same material, we have included a Creed which may represent his first thoughts in setting a melody which later he set twice more (see John Milsom’s note below).

The Missa De beata virgine survives in no fewer than sixty-nine sources, at the last count, making it by far the most widely disseminated of his Masses. Admittedly some of these are very incomplete transcriptions, but in five important choirbooks it stands as the opening number. This popularity is fascinating, since to us the music lacks obvious unity.

Nowadays we want a multi-movement polyphonic Mass-setting to be bound together in an audible way, like a symphony or a concerto; and in many settings from the sixteenth century this is managed by using a model, whose main features are quoted regularly throughout. But in De beata virgine the only unity is provided by the very old-fashioned technique of quoting chants associated with a common theme: in this case feasts of the virgin. Thematic and even tonal unity are therefore 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, since the four-voice Kyrie and Gloria do not have this device.

Paraphrased plainsong is the main constructional principle, using chants in differing modes (in movement order: modes I, VII, IV, VIII, VI). Indeed these modes are so varied that it has been suggested Josquin was deliberately creating a virtuoso exercise in modal relationships – making this the (unusual) raison d’être for the whole enterprise. Maybe, though it certainly leads to unpopular things for modern choirs like uneven voice-ranges (and the Creed has to be transposed up a fourth to make it work at all). So what are the rewards? They are subtle, but can be as evident to us as they clearly were to the first listeners.

The main delight is in the canons, on which the five-voice movements (the Credo, Sanctus and Agnus) rely. All three movements have two chant-based voices in pure canon at the fifth; and to intensify the impact of this Josquin decided on occasion to write triple-time melodies over and around the canons. This led to the most famous passage of all: the section in the Creed which begins at ‘Qui cum Patre’. For theorists as far removed in time from Josquin as the middle of the eighteenth century this proved to be irresistible material, and it was quoted endlessly. The two tenor parts indulge in simple canonic declamation, while the altos and basses take up the music of both. Over this the sopranos sing a slow triplet melody of effortless beauty. One can only guess at why so many writers, from periods when polyphony had long since been a dead art, were so impressed by this, but elegance in complexity must surely have been one reason.

If the Missa De beata virgine is one of Josquin’s last works, Missa Ave maris stella must be earlier, having been published by Petrucci in 1505. If one believes in the characteristics often ascribed to the middle-period works of creative artists, this setting illustrates many of them. Here is a Mass based throughout on a famous chant melody, building to three canons in each Agnus Dei. The writing everywhere is smooth and assured, giving the impression that Josquin was relaxing with techniques he had tried out before, in a more youthful way. (This brasher style is attractively on display in the ‘Cambrai’ Creed, track 6, included here as an extra item.) His handling of the chant melody Ave maris stella (a Hymn, the first verse of which is sung here as track 7) is a model of how to use motifs derived from a cantus firmus structurally over a long span. This is sometimes done in imitation, but the cross-references are so protean (one could almost say symphonic) that one comes away realizing there is little fat on these bones. My favourite piece of motivic tautness is the Amen of the Gloria. It only lasts nine bars but a whole world of perfection is there: the motif presented firstly as a duet, then a trio, then a pell-mell working in all four voices.

So tight is the compositional argument that the Agnus Dei canons are upon the listener before he realizes it. In this sense the whole setting might well be called a Missa Brevis. Strangely, it is only in the Sanctus that Josquin allowed himself to expand the style, with an unusually long trio at ‘pleni’, duets in the Benedictus and a big Hosanna. The Agnus then immediately carries one off into a different space, the central motif, which is well established by now, turning over and over on itself like the music of the spheres. This is surely Josquin at his most inventive and his most inspired. © 2011 Peter Phillips

Composer Info

JOSQUIN des PREZ (c.1450-1521)

CD Info

Gimell CDGIM 044