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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 14 Josquin and the Humanists
Richard Taruskin

With few exceptions, the many literary encomiums that form our idea of Josquin’s personality all date, like Luther’s, from after the composer’s death and more likely reflect the ideas and values of the writers than they do Josquin’s own. One exception is a jovial sonnet, “To Josquin, his Companion, Ascanio’s musician,” by Serafino dall’Acquila, a poet who served alongside him in the entourage of Cardinal Ascanio Sforza toward the end of the fifteenth century. It consists of some friendly advice to the composer not to envy finely dressed courtiers, because he has something more valuable than they: namely his si soblime ingegno, his “talent so sublime.”7 That may give a hint of what later became more seriously known as the “aristocracy of talent”—something, again, that we are apt to associate with the Beethoven legend—but if so, it is a hint as slight as the mood is light.

The posthumous Josquin anecdotes embody a fully formed humanist ideology, and are therefore as biographically suspect as they are culturally illuminating. One of them was retailed by a minor Flemish composer and theorist named Adrian Petit Coclico, who claimed in the preface to his Compendium musices of 1552 that he had studied composition with the master himself. The claim is generally written off as braggadocio, not only because of its self-congratulatory implications but also (and mainly) because it is a classic application of the new, three-pronged, conceptualization of music as an art that was first propounded by Listenius in 1537. According to Coclico, Josquin taught musica theoretica along with musica practica to one and all; but only the elect were worthy of instruction in musica poetica. “Josquin,” he wrote,” did not judge everyone capable of the demands of composition. He felt that it should be taught only to those who were driven by an unusual force of their nature to this most beautiful art.”

From an even later source, a “commonplace book” (a collection for writers of miscellaneous items for quotation) issued in 1562 by a Swiss humanist who wrote under the Roman patrician name of Manlius, we get another revealing glimpse of “Josquin”—revealing, that is, of humanists rather than of Josquin. In this story he supposedly takes a singer roughly to task for having had the temerity to add ornaments to one of his compositions in performance: “Tu asine!” Manlius has him shout, “You ass! Why do you decorate my music? Had I wanted embellishments, I’d have written them myself. If you wish to improve upon well-made compositions, compose a piece yourself and leave mine alone!”8

This, no doubt, was the kind of thing sixteenth-century choirmasters and composers did shout at their singers, under the influence of humanist ideals of eloquence as implying “divine simplicity.” Putting the thought in Josquin’s mouth lent it authority, and publishing it in a commonplace book made that authority available to all who wished to invoke it. But one may doubt whether Josquin ever said it, especially since the attitude it embodies toward the sanctity of the literal text is obviously beholden both to “print culture” and to Protestant fundamentalism—both of them cultural phenomena that rose to prominence and eventual dominance only after Josquin’s time.


(7) Quoted by Burney in A General History (ed. Mercer), Vol. I, p. 752.

(8) Trans. Edward E. Lowinsky, in E. Lowinsky and Bonnie J. Blackburn, Josquin des Prez, trans. Edward E. Lowinsky (London: Oxford University Press, 1976), p. 682.

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. 7 Oct. 2022. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-014003.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 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-014003.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 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-014003.xml