A Dictionary of Music and Musicians/Josquin

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JOSQUIN, or more strictly JOSSE, DESPRÉS,—latinised into Jodocus a Pratis, and Italianised into Giusquino—one of the greatest masters of the Netherland school, the successor of Ockenheim as its representative, and the immediate predecessor in musical history of Lassus and Palestrina, was born about the middle of the 15th century, probably at or near St. Quentin in Hainault. In the collegiate church of that town, according to Claude Hémeré, the 'arte canendi clarissimus infantulus' began his promising career. Here, perhaps, the little chorister would get his pet name Jossekin, which clung to him through life, and in its Latin form Josquinus gives us the title by which as a composer he always has and always will be known. His real name, however, appears in his epitaph and in a legal document discovered by M. Delzaut at Condé.

Of the rest of Josquin's early life we know that he was for some time chapel-master at St. Quentin, and also that he was received as a pupil by Ockenheim, who, himself the greatest living composer, was gathering round him such disciples as he thought worthy the trust of carrying on his labours after him. We can scarcely be wrong in assuming that Josquin stayed with Ockenheim for some years. Long and patient labour could alone make him familiar with all the subtleties of that master's art, and that he had thoroughly learnt all that Ockenheim could teach him before he came to Rome is apparent from his earlier compositions. Had he written nothing else these works by themselves would have entitled him to a name as great as his master's.

Exactly 400 years ago we find Josquin at the Papal court of Sixtus IV (1471–1484) already regarded as the most rising musician of the day, rapidly gaining the proud position of being the greatest composer which the modern world had yet produced, and making that position so secure, that for upwards of sixty years his title remained undisputed. Agricola, Brumel, Gombert, Clemens non Papa, Genet, Isaac, Goudimel, Morales, these are only a few of the names of the great musicians who flourished in this period, and yet where are they, when Baini thus describes the state of music in Europe before the advent of Palestrina? 'Jusquino des Pres … l'idolo dell' Europa … Si canta il solo Jusquino in Italia, il solo Jusquino in Francia, il solo Jusquino in Germania, nelle Flandre, in Ungheria, in Boemia, nelle Spagne, il solo Jusquino.'

Though Josquin's stay at Rome was not a long one, the fruits of his labours there, in the form of several MS. masses, are still preserved and jealously guarded from curious eyes in the library of the Sistine chapel.

It is almost impossible to decide at what times of his life Josquin paid visits to, or received appointments at the respective courts of Hercules of Ferrara, Lorenzo of Florence, Louis XII of France or the emperor Maximilian I. It is certain that all these princes were in their turn his patrons. For the first he wrote his mass 'Hercules dux [1]Ferrariæ,' and his Miserere. Aaron tells us how Josquin, Obrecht, Isaac, and Agricola were his intimate friends in Florence. Various anecdotes are told of his stay at the French court. How he was anxious to obtain promotion from the king, but when the courtier to whom he applied for help always put him off with the answer 'Lascia fare mi,' weary of waiting Josquin composed a mass on the subject La, sol, fa, re, mi, repeated over and over again in mimicry of the oft-repeated answer, and how the idea pleased the king's fancy so much that he at once promised Josquin a church benefice. How Louis nevertheless forgot his promise and Josquin ventured to refresh the royal memory with the motets 'Portio mea non est in terra viventium' and 'Memor esto verbi tui.' Lastly, how Louis XII, admiring music from the respectful distance of complete ignorance, desired the great composer to write something expressly for him, and how Josquin wrote a canon, in accompaniment to which the 'Vox regis' sustained throughout a single note.[2] Whether Louis ever did give the promised benefice to Josquin is uncertain, though the motet 'Bonitatem fecisti cum servo tuo' is generally supposed to have been a thank-offering for such an appointment. But we have proof that the last years of the composer's life were spent in the enjoyment of church preferment at Condé. He had probably passed from the service of Louis to that of Maximilian, who became possessed of the Netherlands in 1515, and may have presented Josquin with this position of retirement. Of his death at this place, a MS. at Lille gives the evidence in a copy of his epitaph, in the choir at Condé, as follows:—

Chy gist sire Josse Despres
Prevost de Cheens fut jadis
Priez Dieu pour les Trepassez qui leur done son
paradis
Trepassa l'an 1521 le 27 d'Aoust
Spes mea semper fuisti

Josquin's printed compositions consist of 19 masses, about 50 secular pieces, and upwards of 150 motets with sacred words, a complete list of them being given in Eitner's 'Bibliographie der Musik-Sammelwerke' (Berlin, 1877). Several composers of the same period have left more published works, but Glarean tells us that Josquin was very critical about his own compositions, and sometimes kept them back for years before he allowed their performance. Some evidence of the spread of his music is afforded by the fact mentioned by Burney (Hist. ii. 489) that Henry the VIII.'s music book at Cambridge contains some of it, and that Anne Boleyn had collected and learned many of his pieces during her residence in France.

Of the 19 masses, 17 were printed in 3 books by Petrucci. The most beautiful of them are the 'La sol fa re mi,' the 'Ad fugam' and the 'De Beata Virgine.' The first or these, if we credit the story of its origin, would be composed after the year 1498, when Louis XII ascended the throne. Two other masses, 'Pange Lingua' and 'Da pacem,' not included in the above books are probably of a still later date. These 5 masses are those in which Josquin shows the greatest advance on the school of his master.

Among the finest of the motets we may mention the settings of the genealogies in the first chapters of St. Matthew and St. Luke, a 5-part 'Miserere,' and the 4-part psalms 'Planxit autem David' (the lament for Saul and Jonathan) and 'Absolon fili mi.' Some of the masses and many of the motets exist in MS. score, with modern notation, in the Fétis library at Brussels. In their original form they can be found in all the great libraries of Europe.

Of the secular works, the most important collection is in the 7th book of Susato's songs published in 1545, which contains 24 pieces by Josquin. Here we find the beautiful dirge written on the death of Ockenheim, which is also printed in score by Burney in his History.

It must however be borne in mind, that in distinguishing works of these old composers, we are often more attracted by some historical interest, some quaintness in the choice of the text, or some peculiarity in the musical notation, than by the features of the music itself, and when we do try to separate one piece of music from the other we are naturally led at first to admire most whatever comes nearest to our modern ideas (those pieces for instance written in the modes most like our own keys), and to be disappointed when a mass or motet, which we know by tradition to be a masterpiece, fails to move us, and to lay it aside with the explanation that it is only a dry contrapuntal work. But it is not fair to study the music of this period simply to find out how much our modern schools owe to it. When Burney calls Josquin 'The father of modern harmony' he does not perhaps give the title of which the composer would himself be proudest, 'for there are musicians alive now,' says Doni in his Musical Dialogues, 'who, if Josquin were to return to this world would make him cross himself.' We must regard these Netherland masters, not only in their relationship to succeeding generations, but as the chief lights of a school of religious music which had at that time reached so complete a form that any further progress without an entire revolution seemed impossible; a school of church music which, were we to consider alone the enormous demands it made on the industry and intellect of its followers, would excite our reverence, but which, when we consider the wonderful hold it had on popular feeling throughout Europe for nearly a century, kindles in us the hope that we may not be too far separated by our modern ideas from the possibility of once again being moved by the fire of its genius. If the absence of a satisfactory modern school of church music has already been acknowledged by many, and a widespread movement exists in Germany to recall the old music to the service of the Catholic church, then we may indeed hope to gain a more intimate knowledge of Josquin and his followers, than by groping about libraries, copying MSS. or reading theoretical treatises. Fortunately the study of counterpoint is hardly a more necessary condition of appreciating the music of Josquin, than it is in the case of Bach. But the ear will have to accustom itself to many extraordinary combinations of sounds, meagre harmonies, unsatisfactory cadences, final chords which seem to have lost all character, before any of these works can be thoroughly enjoyed. In the meantime, and till we may possibly hear them performed again in the churches for which they are written, there is much pleasure to be derived from the private study of them; and a real love for them, even with an imperfect understanding, grows up in us very quickly.

The reasons which the council of the church gave for suddenly abandoning the works of Josquin's school were not founded on any want of admiration for their musical effect. One objection was the fact of the melodies which the composers took for their canto fermo being secular, and the voice to which it was assigned singing the secular words, while the other voices sang the words of the mass. The other objection was that the excessively florid style in which the parts were often written made the words of so little importance that it was often impossible to trace their existence. The first objection was not a strong one, for the church had sanctioned the use of the secular melodies as the foundation of masses for more than a century, and some of the melodies had become almost hallowed to their purpose. The singing of the secular words might have been easily given up without forsaking the music.

But the second objection was stronger; for though Josquin began, and his followers, Gonibert especially, tried still more, to give expression to the general sense of the text, still we find often a few syllables scattered over a page to do service for a host of notes, as if the notes were everything and the words nothing. Still as the first objection applies entirely to the masses, so the second also applies to them much more than to the motets, and it is by these latter works, we venture to think, that their composers will be known, if their music is destined to live again.

Apart however from all considerations of the vitality of the school which he represents, of the reason of its downfall or the chances of its revival, 'Josquin deserves to be classed as one of the greatest musical geniuses of any period.' (Kiesewetter's History of Music.) Fortune favoured him in appointing the time of his birth. He was the first composer who came into the world with the materials of his work thoroughly prepared for him. Masses written with counterpoint had been taken to Rome from the Netherlands towards the end of the 14th century, and Dufay, who was a singer in the Papal chapel in 1380 (or exactly 100 years before Josquin held the same position), was a contrapuntist of sufficient importance to be quoted as an authority by theoretical writers of a much later date, and whose art though simple was sufficiently perfect to suggest that he too must have had predecessors to prepare his way. But we cannot regard musicians from the time of Dufay to that of Ockenheim as composers in the sense that Josquin was one. Their genius was expended on the invention of counterpoint, which Josquin was the first to employ as a means to a higher end. They were but pilgrims to a promised land, which they may have seen from afar; but Josquin was the first who was to be allowed to enter it. 'In Josquin,' says Ambros (whose knowledge of and admiration for the old music surpasses that of any modern historian), 'we have the first musician who creates a genial impression.' [App. p.686 "… who impresses us as being a genius."]

In another sense, a very practical one, Josquin stands first on the list of composers. He is the oldest writer whose works are preserved to us, if not entire, at least in such quantities as adequately to represent his powers. The invention of printing music by moveable types, which gave such a wonderful impetus to publication, dates from 1498, the very time when Josquin was at the height of his power; and it is a testimony to the superiority of his music over that of his predecessors, that though Ockenheim is supposed to have been still living at the beginning of the 16th century, and perhaps as late as 1512, the publishers thought fit to print very few of his compositions, whilst few collections were issued to which Josquin did not largely contribute.

Commer, in his 'Collectio Operum Musicorum Batavorum' (Berlin, Trautwein), has printed 12 motets and two chansons.

Rochlitz in his 'Sammlung' (Schotts) gives a hymn, 'Tu pauperum refugium'; portions of a mass; and a motet, 'Misericordias Domini,' all for 4 voices. Choron, in his 'Collection generale,' gives his Stabat Mater à 5; and Hawkins (chap. 72) a motet, à 4, 'O Jesu fili.' The 11 large volumes of Burney's Musical Extracts (Add. MSS. 11,581–91) contain many and valuable compositions of Josquin's.

In Van der Straeten's 'La Musique aux Pays-Bas' (Brussels, 1867) a portrait of Josquin is reproduced from a book published by Peter Opmeere at Antwerp in 1591. It seems to have been copied from a picture originally existing in the Brussels cathedral, and thence probably came the tradition that Josquin was buried there. Opmeere accompanies the portrait with the following words: 'Conspicitur Josquinus depictus Bruxellis in D. Gudulæ [ecclesiâ], in tabula aræ dextræ ante chorum honestâ sane facie ac blandis oculis.'
  1. In this mass the tenor sings the subject,

    Re ut re ut re fa mi re,

    the vowels in these syllables corresponding with those in the words 'Hercules dux Ferrarie.'

  2. Whether the king was able to master this simple achievement, or whether, like Housel—for whom Mendelssohn wrote a similar part in the 'Son and Stranger'—he proved 'quite unable to catch the note, though blown and whispered to him from every side,' we are not told. The canon itself is given by Hawkins, chap. 70.