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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 14 Josquin and the Humanists
Richard Taruskin

On the most worldly level (as forecast in chapter 12), Josquin was able to achieve an unprecedented reputation thanks to newly available means of dissemination, through which his works achieved an unprecedented circulation. He was the chief protagonist and beneficiary of the nascent “music biz,” the dawn of commercial music printing. He was, in short, the first composer who made his reputation—and especially his posthumous reputation—on the basis of publication. And as his reputation grew to legendary proportions Josquin became the first musical object of commercial exploitation. One of the chief tasks of modern Josquin scholarship has been to weed out the many spurious attributions made to him by sixteenth-century music publishers in an endeavor to capitalize on what we would now call his name-recognition. “Josquin” became a commercial brand name, music’s first. The section given over to “Doubtful and Misattributed Works” in the catalogue that follows the article on the composer in the latest edition of The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, the standard English-language music encyclopedia, lists 14 Masses (as against 18 authenticated ones), 7 separate Mass sections (as against 7), a whopping 117 motets (as against 59), and 36 secular songs or instrumental pieces (as against 72). Most of the spurious items come from posthumous prints.

Yet that commercial exploitation was linked inextricably with the loftier aspects of the Josquin legend. The lion’s share of the sixteenth-century Josquin trade took place in the German-speaking countries, where the music business especially flourished, and where most of the doubtful attributions were made. Sixteenth-century Germany was both a hotbed of humanistic thought and the cradle of the Protestant reformation. Both were individualistic movements, and Protestantism placed a high value on the achievement and expression of subjective religious faith.

Certain qualities of Josquin’s music—none of them qualities he invented but ones at which he particularly excelled—were interpreted as personally expressive and communicative. Turning that around, they were also interpreted as the inspired expression of a forceful personality. Martin Luther, the founder of German Protestantism, famously declared that Josquin alone was “master of the notes: they must do as he wills; as for other composers, they have to do as the notes will.”2 The qualities humanist thinkers valued so highly in Josquin were mainly qualities we have so far associated with Italy and with the “lowering” of style—lucidity of texture, text-based form, clarity of declamation. As these qualities were reinterpreted in the sixteenth century, Josquin became willy-nilly the protagonist of a new ordering of esthetic values. Through the writings of German humanist theorists like Henricus Glareanus (Heinrich Loris, 1488–1563), his most enthusiastic exponent, his works became the classics on which the new esthetic rested. Glareanus went so far as to declare Josquin the creator of an ars perfecta: a “perfected art” that could never be improved. That is exactly the definition of a classic.

When Josquin began his long career, sometime during the third quarter of the fifteenth century, music was still traditionally ranked alongside arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy as part of the quadrivium, the arts of measurement. By the time of his death in 1521, music was already more apt to be classed with the arts of rhetoric. Glareanus, in 1547, asserted the new classification outright. He placed music among the “arts dedicated to Minerva,” the Roman goddess of handicrafts and the creative arts. These included what we now would call the fine arts, such as painting and sculpture, but also the arts of poetry and eloquence. Music was now to be regarded as a branch of poetic eloquence, an art of persuasion and disclosure. Although his works could be (and often were) cited as exemplifying it, Josquin was hardly responsible for this change; it was a by-product of classical humanism, the rediscovery of old texts (particularly those by Roman orators like Cicero and Quintilian) that stressed the correspondence between music and heightened speech and defined its purpose as that of swaying the emotions of listeners. Josquin was, however, immediately cast by the promulgators of musical rhetoric as the chief model for emulation.

The first unequivocal musical rhetorician, predictably enough, was a German humanist with Lutheran leanings: Nikolaus Listenius, who in 1537 published a musical primer for use in German Latin schools. The little book, straightforwardly called Musica, was very popular and influential. In less than fifty years it went through more than forty editions. Basically a method for training choirboys, it contained dozens of short musical illustrations, mostly cast in the form of little duets called bicinia, either specially composed or extracted from the works of famous masters. (Though a Latin word, the term bicinium, along with its three-voice counterpart, tricinium, was coined by German pedagogues like Listenius in the sixteenth century to specify a piece devised or culled for use at singing schools.)

Listenius’s bicinia were mostly of his own composition, but the same year as his Musica appeared, another German singing master, Seybald Heyden, published a competing text called Artis canendi (“On the art of singing”), in which the illustrations were duos “sought out with especial care,” as the author put it, “from the best musicians,” with Josquin in pride of place.3 Beginning in 1545, the early German music publisher Georg Rhau issued several books of bicinia for the Lutheran Latin schools, and he was followed by many competitors, whose books kept coming out in quantity until the second decade of the seventeenth century. Thanks to all these publications, the music of Josquin remained on the lips of choristers and in the minds of composers (who trained as choristers) throughout the sixteenth century and beyond. They circulated well beyond the borders of Germany, moreover, crossing back into the countries where Josquin had actually lived and helping to assure his immortality there as well. The age of printing made such cross-fertilizations easy and normal.

As a pedagogical aid, Listenius’s primer was one among many, albeit one of the first and perhaps the foremost. Its unique distinction, and its enduring importance in music history, lay in its humanistic revision of musical values. This was a side issue for Listenius, who was mainly concerned simply with teaching boys how to sing. He could not possibly have attached anything like as much significance to it as we are about to do. But then, authors are not always the best predictors where the import of their works is concerned.

In his prefatory chapter, Listenius divided the realm of music not into the traditional two branches—musica theoretica (rules and generalizations) and musica practica (performance)—but into three. The third item, the humanistic novelty, he called musica poetica, a term borrowed from Aristotle, for whom poetics was the art of constructing or making things. Musica poetica could be translated simply as musical composition (or, more literally, as “making music”), but that would not capture its special import. Composition, after all, had been going on for centuries without any special name. It had been regarded as the application of musica theoretica and the arbiter of musica practica. In a sense it was the nexus between the two, at least within the literate practice of music. Within that practice it could be taken for granted.

But once music was taken to be a form of rhetorical expression—of a text, of emotion, or of a composer’s unique spirit or “genius” (which originally meant exactly that: spirit, whence “inspiration”)—it could no longer be regarded simply as the application or the result of rules and regulations. There had to be something more in a composition that moved its hearers—something put there by a faculty that (as experience certainly attested) went beyond what could be learned by anyone. And that, of course, is our familiar definition of talent or genius—something essentially unteachable yet developable through education. It is a notion that we owe to the humanists.

Josquin was the main protagonist of this new idea from the moment of its earliest formulation, albeit posthumously. One of the earliest musicians to put the thought in writing was Giovanni Spataro (c. 1460–1541), the choirmaster of the Cathedral of San Petronio in Bologna. Like Tinctoris, whom we met in chapter 12, he was a minor composer but an encyclopedic theorist, described by one writer as “the epitome of the experienced and informed Renaissance musician.”4 And indeed, his work does sum up the musical attitudes to which the idea of “The Renaissance” can be most fruitfully applied, if only retrospectively.

The bulk of Spataro’s theoretical works dates from the period immediately following Josquin’s death. They constantly celebrate Josquin as the master of all masters. Spataro is best known, however, for his letters, which are voluminous (his recently published collected correspondence running more than a thousand pages), just as encyclopedic as his treatises, and very lively. In one letter, sent on 5 April 1529 to a Venetian musician named Giovanni del Lago, Spataro vividly summed up the quality or faculty to which Listenius would shortly give a name: “The written rules,” Spataro wrote,

can well teach the first rudiments of counterpoint, but they will not make the good composer, inasmuch as the good composers are born just as are the poets. Therefore, one needs divine help almost more than one needs the written rule; and this is apparent every day, because the good composers (through natural instinct and a certain manner of grace which can hardly be taught) bring at times such turns and figures in counterpoint and harmony as are not demonstrated in any rule or precept of counterpoint.5

Utterly new as a philosophical thought, if not as a musical reality, was the idea of a music that cannot be defined by rules (that is, by musica theoretica) yet is not therefore inferior (as Boethius, for example, would have assumed) but actually superior to rule-determined craft. The gap between the rules and the art, the part that requires “natural instinct,” “divine help,” even grace—that is, the free, unmerited favor or love of God—that is what the term musica poetica was invented to cover. The idea of grace, of course, is a Christian idea (and one to which Protestantism would give a whole new definition). But the idea of genius is pre-Christian; it was genuinely an idea recovered from the ancients, and thereby qualifies as a “Renaissance” idea. It is related to the Platonic notion that artists create not by virtue of rational decision but because they are gifted with “poetic frenzy.” The ancient idea most precisely embodied in Spataro’s letter is the idea that one is born to art. It is a knowing paraphrase of an aphorism attributed by tradition to the Roman poet Horace: poeta nascitur non fit, “a poet is born not made.”6 Josquin was the first “born” composer in this new sense, the first composer “by grace of God.” He did not know that he was that, of course. The terms, as well as the humanistic discourse or belief-system that undergirded them, arose in his wake and were applied to him retrospectively, which is to say anachronistically. But that is just the point. Because he was made retroactively, anachronistically, the emblem of the new discourse, Josquin was able to have the posthumous historical influence that so conditioned the development of sixteenth-century music. It was (as far as Josquin the man was concerned) a distinction entirely unasked-for and unmerited. In that sense it was indeed a state of grace.


(2) Martin Luther, Table Talk (1538), quoted in Helmut Osthoff, Josquin Desprez, Vol. II (Tutzing: H. Schneider, 1965), p. 9.

(3) Sebald Heyden, Musica, id est Artis canendi (Nuremberg, 1537), p. 2.

(4) Frank Tirro, “Spataro (Spadario), Giovanni,” in New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Vol. XVII (London: Macmillan, 1980), p. 819.

(5) Trans. Edward E. Lowinsky in “Musical Genius: Evolution and Origins of a Concept,” Musical Quarterly L (1964): 481.

(6) The phrase has been traced back to a seventh-century commentary on Horace’s Ars Poetica by William Ringler in “Poeta Nascitur Non Fit: Some Notes on the History of an Aphorism,” Journal of the History of Ideas II (1941): 497–504. It became a commonplace in the sixteenth century.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 14 Josquin and the Humanists." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 16 Oct. 2019. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-014002.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 14 Josquin and the Humanists. In Oxford University Press, Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 16 Oct. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-014002.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 14 Josquin and the Humanists." In Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 16 Oct. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-014002.xml