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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 14 Josquin and the Humanists
Richard Taruskin

Ever since the sixteenth century, the motet Ave Maria … Virgo serena has been not only Josquin’s most famous work but also, in at least two senses, his exemplary opus. One meaning of “exemplary” is representative. On this work, above all, generations of musicians, music students, and music lovers have formed their idea of Josquin’s methods, his characteristics, and his excellence. Another meaning of “exemplary” is example-setting. The whole “perfected art” of sixteenth century sacred music, it sometimes seems, was formed on the example of this one supreme masterpiece. Its stylistic influence was enormous and acknowledged. To a degree previously unapproached by any one composition, it was regarded as a timeless standard of perfection, a classic.

This is the motet that Petrucci chose in 1502 to open his first motet collection, the earliest such printed collection in history. In 1921 the Dutch Jesuit musicologist Albert Smijers chose Ave Maria … Virgo serena to open the inaugural volume in his pioneering edition of Josquin’s complete works. It is found in almost two dozen manuscript sources from half a dozen different countries, including the present-day Czech Republic and Poland. It was the basis for many later compositions. It was arranged for keyboard instruments and for the lute. In our time, it has been recorded more times than any other work of Josquin, to say nothing of his contemporaries. Except for Sumer is icumen in, perhaps, it is the piece of “early music” today’s music-lovers or concertgoers are most likely to know.

The text is a pastiche of three different liturgical items: a votive antiphon to the Blessed Virgin Mary, framed by a prefacing quatrain that quotes both the words and the music of the sequence for the Feast of the Annunciation (commemorating the occasion at which the archangel Gabriel uttered the original “Hail, Mary!”), and a closing couplet that voices a very common prayer formula of the day:

Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum, Virgo serena.

Hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee, virgin serene.


Ave, cujus CONCEPTIO, solemni plena gaudio, coelestia, terrestria, nova replet laetitia.

Hail, thou whose conception, full of solemn joy fills all things in heaven and earth with renewed gladness.


Ave, cujus NATIVITAS nostra fuit solemnitas, ut lucifer lux oriens verum solem praeveniens.

Hail, thou whose birth became our solemn rite, a light arising like the morning star going before the true sun.


Ave, pia humilitas, sine viro fecunditas, cujus ANNUNTIATIO nostra fuit salvatio.

Hail true humility, fruitfulness without man, whose annunciation has become our salvation.


Ave, vera virginitas, immaculata castitas, cujus PURIFICATIO nostra fuit purgatio.

Hail, true virginity, immaculate chastity, whose purification has become our cleansing.


Ave, praeclara omnibus angelicis virtutibus, cujus ASSUMPTIO nostra fuit glorificatio.

Hail, most glorious one in all angelic virtues, whose assumption has become our glorification.

O mater Dei, memento mei. Amen.

O mother of God, remember me. Amen.

The central antiphon is a metrical hymn that echoes Gabriel’s “Ave”—one of the prime emblems in Christian theology and art—through five stanzas that recall in turn the five major events of Mary’s life, each of them commemorated by a major feast in the church calendar: The Immaculate Conception (December 8), Nativity (September 8), Annunciation (March 25), Purification (February 2), and Assumption (August 15). There was even a latter-day Marian votive office called La Recollection des Fêtes de Notre Dame, which originated in the dioceses of the Burgundian Netherlands, near Josquin’s native turf, wherein each of these feasts was recalled, and where this antiphon would have been especially appropriate.

Entirely in keeping with the humanist rhetoricians’ ideals of clarity and force of expression, Josquin’s music is shaped closely around the words of the antiphon. The shaping process may be observed and described at three distinct levels. The most concrete is that of declamation, the fit between notes and syllables. Then there is the level of overall structure or syntax, the ways in which the various parts of the text and those of the music relate to each other and to the whole. Finally, there is the level of textual illustration, ways in which the shape of the music or the manner of its unfolding can be made to parallel or underscore the semantic content of the words.

A Model Masterpiece

ex. 14-6a Josquin des Prez, Ave Maria … Virgo serena, mm. 1-8

All three aspects of the new text-music relationship are vividly exemplified by the setting of the opening prefatory quatrain. It is based not only on the text of the Gregorian sequence for the Annunciation, but on its melody, too, as set forth over the polyphony in Ex. 14-6a. The preexisting tune is not treated as a traditional cantus firmus, borne by the tenor. Neither is it paraphrased by the superius in cantilena style. Instead, just as in Josquin’s very late Missa Pange lingua, the four phrases of the paraphrased chant melody are each made in turn the basis for a lucid, airy point of imitation, so that the texture is fully penetrated and integrated by shared melodic material, and the voices are made functionally equal. Relatively little fifteenth-century music unfolds in this way, but in the sixteenth century it became the absolute norm.

The first phrase of the melody is quoted quite literally from the chant, even in terms of its rhythm. The declamation is nearly syllabic. Thereafter the chant is more or less decoratively paraphrased: but melismas tend to come at or near the ends of phrases, and accented syllables are placed on longer note-values, both procedures being calculated to maintain the intelligibility of the text.

The final entry, in the bassus, is in each case the least adorned and the most straightforwardly declaimed. It is the “crown” of the point. The fact that the crown comes at the bottom of the pitch range, and that the first three points proceed as identical straightforward descents from top to bottom, can be interpreted as a “semantic” illustration of Gabriel’s descent, as divine messenger, from God’s abode in heaven to Mary’s abode on earth.

A Model Masterpiece

ex. 14-6b Josquin des Prez, Ave Maria … Virgo serena, mm. 9-14

As a final point about shaping, and about Josquin’s exemplary craftsmanship, note the difference between the final point, on “virgo serena,” and the three previous ones. The order of entries is varied at last; but more importantly, so is the time interval between the entries, which is subtly tightened, stretto-fashion—the tenor following the superius after only one beat instead of two, and the four voices all gathering in to sound together for the first time at the cadence. All of these effects, so carefully and subtly planned, serve to mark off the prefatory quatrain from what follows. It is an ideal instance of the way in which the shape of the text “humanistically” governs, and is reflected by, the shape and syntax of the music.

Every succeeding textual unit is marked off cadentially in similar, but never identical, fashion. And each one is purposefully shaped around its words, often by artful “scoring” devices. The first stanza of the votive antiphon (“Ave, cujus conceptio,” Ex. 14-6b) begins with a homorhythmic superius/altus duo that is immediately imitated by the complementary tenor/bassus pair in what we have already seen to be typical Josquin fashion. After the first two notes, however, the altus slyly joins them in a mock-fauxbourdon texture, so that there is not only a “paired” repetition of the opening phrase but also an increment from two voices to three, preparing for the emphatically homorhythmic four-voice tutti on “solemni plena gaudio,” which just happens to coincide with the first “affective” or emotion-laden word in the text. All three levels of textual shaping have been cunningly made to work in harness to produce a simple, “natural” rhetorical effect. The tutti having been achieved, it is maintained through the full-textured syncopated sequences that dramatize the word “filled” and achieve cadential release at a melodic high point coinciding with the next affective word, “laetitia.” The stanza beginning “Ave, cujus nativitas” opens with another pair of duos that introduce close imitation at the fifth rather than the octave or unison, and the new, harmonically richer contrapuntal combination persists through the next tutti (“Ut lucifer”), the superius/tenor and altus/bassus pairs here operating internally at the octave and reciprocally at the fifth. The third stanza of the votive antiphon (“Ave pia humilitas,” Ex. 14-6c) is foreshortened by splitting the text between rigorously maintained high and low voice-pairs, setting off the total integration of the lilting fourth stanza, which moves in dancelike trochees and chordal homorhythm throughout.

A Model MasterpieceA Model Masterpiece

ex. 14-6c Josquin des Prez, Ave Maria … Virgo serena, mm. 20-28

But not quite. Closer examination by eye reveals what the ear perceives with delicious immediacy: within the seeming rhythmic unanimity, the superius and tenor are actually engaged in a canon at the fifth, at a mere semibreve’s interval, and a “triplet” semibreve at that. Where all the other voices have trochees, the tenor has iambs (or perhaps better, considering the words, displaced trochees). This fourth stanza, poised as it is between the chordal and the canonic, is a little miracle of textural balance and a locus classicus of the artful simplicity (or “natural” artistry) humanists prized as evidence of genius—the “poet born not made.” It exemplifies to perfection another ubiquitous Latin maxim popularly ascribed by the humanists to Horace: “art lies in concealing art” (ars est celare artem).

The fifth, climactic stanza (“Ave praeclara,” Ex. 14-6d) is set in the most traditional texture to be found in Josquin’s motet, one that we observed first in the chansons of the previous generation: the “structural pair,” superius and tenor, are in strict imitation throughout, phrase by phrase and at a fixed time interval, while the “nonessential” voices, altus and bassus, supply fanciful nonimitative counterpoints. It is also the most heterogeneous texture to be found in the motet, and gives rise, in the nonessential voices, to the most ornate (albeit still relatively modest) melismatic tracery to be found anywhere in the motet. The suitability of the melodic ascent in the structural pair to the meaning of the word “assumptio” is self-evident, just as the floridity of the nonessential pair matches the word “glorificatio.”

A Model Masterpiece

ex. 14-6d Josquin des Prez, Ave Maria … Virgo serena, mm. 28-35

A Model Masterpiece

ex. 14-6e Josquin des Prez, Ave Maria … Virgo serena, mm. 36-end

But meaning is never entirely inherent. It is also relational. The textural intricacy of the climactic stanza offsets the really stark homorhythm of the concluding prayer (Ex. 14-6e). The starkness comes about by virtue of the entrance of all four parts together on a “hollow” or “open” perfect consonance on “O.” Everywhere else, four-part homophony implied triadic harmony. Here the four voices are absorbed into the perfect consonance so as to sound like an amplification of a single voice. And once again, the motivation is textual: for the one and only time in this composite text, the first person singular pronoun (mei, “of me”) replaces the plural (nostra, “our”). There can be no question that the composer of this motet saw himself as the “performer” of the words, a musical rhetorician par excellence.

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. 21 May. 2019. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-014006.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 21 May. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-014006.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 21 May. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-014006.xml