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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 14 Josquin and the Humanists
Richard Taruskin

Févin was “Josquin’s happy follower” chiefly in matters of texture—the texture exemplified in Ave Maria, with its rhetorically supple alternation of pervading imitation and emphatic chordal declamation. The full integration of musical space—rather than the hierarchical stratification of parts found in older music, with each part carrying out its own particular functional assignment—implied not only a new technique but a whole new philosophy of composition.

The technique as such was given an early general description in 1523, two years after Josquin’s death, when the Florentine theorist Pietro Aaron published his compendium Thoscanello de la musica. Aaron, a Jew, was the first major writer on music to use the Italian vernacular rather than Latin, for which reason he is often looked upon as the first “Renaissance” music theorist. His book went through several editions, the last of which was published in 1539, when the new style Aaron was the first to recognize theoretically was fully established in practice.

The description in the Thoscanello was actually foreshadowed by Aaron himself in an earlier treatise published in 1516, a year after Févin’s Mass was published; it is a less detailed and distinctive formulation than the one now classic, but it mentions Josquin explicitly as one of the composers whose methods it describes. No wonder, then, that Aaron is looked upon as the literary harbinger of “high Renaissance” music, and Josquin as its master architect.

Both aspects or poles of the “Ave Maria style” are represented in Aaron’s discussion. The functionally integrated, imitative style of the opening quatrain is reported as a recent innovation, replacing the older discant practice in which the voices were laid out one at a time. “The moderns,” Aaron somewhat gloatingly observed, “have considered better in this matter,” his complacent tone recalling Tinctoris, whose works Aaron had studied well. “Modern composers,” he continued, “consider all the parts together rather than by the method described above.” And when all the parts are considered together, each is free to play whatever role composer may wish to assign it.

As to the homorhythmic, declamatory style, Aaron is the first theorist to consider what we would call chords as autonomous harmonic units that may be described and crafted individually. The theorist devotes much attention to matters of spacing and doubling in four parts, and to making cadences—in short, to what is still taught today in “harmony class.” The ideal of integrated musical texture or “space,” and the ideal of compositional freedom and mastery in tandem, have seemed to many influential modern scholars to be closely allied to notions we now associate with the “Renaissance” mentality, especially as contrasted with that of the “Middle Ages.” In an ingenious and seminal article of 1941, Edward Lowinsky radically opposed the “medieval view of space” (as solidly layered and bounded) to the “Renaissance concept of space” (as free, wide open, yet “organically” integrated and harmoniously proportioned) and claimed that the transition from the one to the other had taken place around the time of the Copernican revolution in astronomy, suggesting a time-frame of 1480 to 1520. At the beginning of this period, Lowinsky maintained, the medieval view of space and the world was unquestioned; by the end, it had been decisively overthrown.

The “exact parallel” to the Copernican revolution, on this view, was the modification in compositional method that Aaron described near the end of the period of cosmological transformation. “Of all the changes in the manner of composition since the emergence of polyphony,” Lowinsky concluded, this was “the most vital and the most fateful one.”20 Josquin, in Aaron’s account as interpreted by Lowinsky, assumed truly colossal stature as a culture hero, becoming a veritable musical Copernicus. And Ave Maria … Virgo serena acquired a renewed—indeed, a magnified—emblematic status as the prime musical embodiment of its Zeitgeist, to use a word common in discussions of the “history of ideas” to denote the essential spirit of a time.

It became customary to link up Josquin’s motet with Aaron’s description of “simultaneous conception” and to assume their chronological proximity. And that automatically made Josquin’s motet a relatively late work, one that demonstrated the composer’s “perfect technical mastery, stylistic maturity, and profundity of expression,” in Lowinsky’s eloquent words. So obviously did it exemplify Josquin’s “mature motet style,” as Lowinsky put it in another study, that the historian allowed himself a categorical assertion.21 The work had to be written, he contended, after the change Aaron had described was essentially completed, and when composers had begun relying on what the German humanist Lampadius of Lüneburg, writing (like Listenius and Heyden) in the vintage year of 1537, called the tabula compositoria—a preliminary draft in full score that preceded the copying of the individual parts in choirbooks.

“A glance at this music,” Lowinsky wrote of the Ave Maria, “will be enough to suggest how greatly the conception of such a piece must have been facilitated by the introduction of the score.” Even more strongly, he claimed that “a polyphonic texture of this density can scarcely be manipulated without the aid of a score.” Since Lampadius implied that the use of scores had begun around 1500, and since an archival search yielded no full scores that could be dated much earlier than that, the turn of the century became by extension the presumed date of Josquin’s motet.

A highly erudite and resourceful scholar, Lowinsky refined the date still further, and even managed to infer the exact occasion for which Ave Maria … Virgo serena had been composed. He suggested that it was written for a votive service held on 23 September 1497 at the Church of the Blessed Virgin in Loreto (a shrine near Rome much favored by pilgrims), at the behest of Cardinal Ascanio Sforza, then Josquin’s patron, who had just recovered from a prolonged and serious illness, in fulfillment of a sickbed vow (voto, whence “votive”).

This was an admirably crafted hypothesis. The proposed date fell within the time frame stipulated by the “Copernican revolution” the motet was held to typify; it came close to the origins of the tabula compositoria as described by Lampadius; it was just early enough to account for the motet’s earliest sources, yet late enough to qualify as the work of Josquin’s full maturity. (According to his then extrapolated birth date, the composer would have been nearing sixty.) The proposal fit the facts insofar as facts were known (or at least believed), and also fit in with, and supported, an inventive and intellectually fertile assessment of the culture that produced it.

Facts and Myths

fig. 14-5 The tomb of Cardinal Ascanio Maria Sforza, Josquin’s employer (1509; in Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome).

Imagine both the excitement and the consternation, then, when a young American scholar named Thomas Noblitt asserted—in an article written in German and published in 1974, mainly consisting of a detailed physical description of a German manuscript that was one of the motet’s remoter sources—that Ave Maria … Virgo serena had reached Germany and was copied there no later than 1476.22 All at once the work went from being the very paradigm of Josquin’s ripest and most “humanistic” style to being his very earliest datable work. It now predated, in some cases by decades, all the developments it had formerly exemplified: musical humanism, “simultaneous conception,” the tabula compositoria, the “northern Renaissance” itself. The innocent redating of a source turned into a threat—to some, an intolerable threat—to the Josquin legend.

One reaction to the shattering news was denial. The article on Josquin des Prez in the 1980 edition of the New Grove Dictionary, the one that followed Noblitt’s report, dismissed his claim out of hand (as resting on unspecified “questionable assumptions”) and proceeded to argue on purely stylistic grounds that the famous motet “can hardly have been composed much more than 15 years earlier” than its publication by Petrucci, who had accorded it the place of honor.23 “In fact,” the venerable dictionary declared, Josquin’s Ave Maria self-evidently typified “the motet style of Josquin’s middle years,” namely “the mid-1480s.” The conclusion, and the evident premise on which the dating relied, was that “the musical form precisely mirrors that of the text, yet without any sense of constraint.” Of course, to base conclusions on premises is the very definition of circular reasoning. And the introduction into the argument of the inescapably value-laden concept of “constraint” and its overcoming gives considerable insight into the way myths arise and how they function. It begins to suggest what may have really been at stake, and what sort of a culture hero Josquin had really become.

Lowinsky, too, had charged his discussion of musical space and its changing conceptualization with matters of high cultural and ethical (not to say political) import. “Simultaneous conception,” as preached by Aaron and practiced by Josquin, meant “the emancipation of the composer from the cantus firmus technique.”24 Not only that, but “the principle of imitation,” as it “gradually penetrated all the voices,” was also an emancipating force, for “imitation was based on motives freely invented by the composer, who could now obey fully the impulses and inspiration he received from the text.” Josquin’s late works, of which Ave Maria … Virgo serena was one, were “great musical structures freed from all the shackles of the medieval tenor.”

We have, it seems, come back to the view of Josquin as a surrogate Beethoven: Beethoven as the voice of the French revolution, who proclaimed liberty and equality and in so doing became “The Man Who Freed Music,” to quote the subtitle of what was for a long time the standard popular biography of the great composer (by Robert Schauffler, first published in 1929). But we return to the Josquin/Beethoven nexus from a new perspective that allows us to see that the correspondence so often drawn between the two legendary figures is not drawn so “simply on the basis of their greatness,” but reaches much farther down into the stuff of the culture that does the drawing.

That culture—our culture—is one wedded to the ideal of personal liberation. That is a value that arose alongside modern historiography itself in the nineteenth century. It expresses above all the aspirations of a socially mobile, economically empowered, highly educated but nonpatrician segment of the population: in short, the expanding and optimistic nineteenth- and twentieth-century middle class. That is the class that has mainly supplied the world with its professional historians, and so it is not surprising that the stories professional historians have told express the values of that class, a class undreamed of in Josquin’s day.

If, having been brought up in a middle-class culture that professes social justice and equality of opportunity, we have learned to place a high value on political and personal freedom and on emancipation from shackles and constraints of every kind, then we are liable to see manifestations of these values in all areas of life, including art, as progressive, and will try to abet them. The converse of this tendency is the tendency to see all sequent narratives, including the narrative of musical style-evolution, as metaphors for the master narrative of progress and liberation.

If we are now becoming more acutely aware of this tendency and are taking steps (and alerting our students and readers) to spot it and possibly avoid it, it is neither because we are suddenly wiser than Lowinsky (as great a music historian as ever lived) and his contemporaries, or because our class-bred values have necessarily changed, or because we are no longer wedded to high ideals, but because the exponential increase in the amount of available (and often apparently contradictory) information, and the occasionally dramatic consequences of that growth (such as the controversy surrounding the re-dating of Ave Maria … Virgo serena) have forced a confrontation with basic questions of epistemology—questions of how we know what we know, and whether we really know it.

It is because commitment to high ideals, and the tendency to universalize them, can themselves shackle empirical perception and impede rational inference that we try to bring them to full consciousness and surmount them in our professional work. It betokens not the abandonment of emancipation as a goal but rather its application at a higher conceptual level, the one that conditions our own beliefs and actions. It is much easier to see how values become prejudices on the lower levels of scholarly work than at the higher ones. If, therefore, we raise our conceptual sights higher than before, it is in hopes of being freed to engage more directly with the perceptual materials of our trade (like manuscripts), and derive concepts from them (like the dates of their contents) with more confidence.

That is why it has been thought valuable to devote so much space in a book like this to so relatively dry and inconsequential a matter as the date of Josquin’s Ave Maria. Its ramifications are anything but inconsequential. They can alert us to the dangers of looking for “good vibes” in history. When Lowinsky’s excellent hypothesis was shown no longer “to fit the facts insofar as facts were known,” continued commitment to it is exposed as prejudice, no longer fitting facts but only a predefined notion of a Zeitgeist.

Thus, to believe that pervading imitation “emancipated” music or its composers from the “tyranny” of the cantus firmus, however thrilling or gratifying it may be to us personally, only makes problems for us as historians. For one thing, it renders us unable to understand how it is that imitation and cantus firmus techniques can coexist so happily—and especially in Josquin’s work, as we may see in Ex. 14-9, the beginning of Benedicta es, coelorum regina (“Blessed art thou, O Queen of the Heavens”), a sequence motet that circulated mainly during Josquin’s “posthumous” period (that is the period of his widespread dissemination in German prints). Benedicta es was a particular favorite of Glareanus himself, and popular, thanks to him, with all the German humanists.

Facts and MythsFacts and MythsFacts and Myths

ex. 14-9 Josquin des Prez, Benedicta es, coelorum regina, mm. 1-10

In fact, like so many ancient musical techniques, cantus firmus writing has never died out at all. Imitation no more replaced cantus firmus than (to recall an analogous discussion in the first chapter of this book) literacy replaced oral practices. The one joined the other, affecting it, to be sure, but never altogether supplanting it. Cantus firmus technique is still an available option, and one universally studied by aspiring composers even now. So neither literacy nor pervading imitation can be simply understood as liberations. Their histories are far more complex—and far more interesting—than that. And that is one more reason why the narrative in this book is making such strenuous and self-advertising efforts to avoid concepts like “The Middle Ages” and “The Renaissance.” When turned into dueling Zeitgeists they are obstacles, not aids, to seeing things, let alone understanding them.

What happens now if we accept the date that Thomas Noblitt’s physical evidence (specifically, the watermark in the paper on which it was copied) assigned to Josquin’s Ave Maria … Virgo serena? Nothing very terrible. Quite the contrary: all at once it takes its place in a new and telling context, that of the Milanese motetti missales. Compare it with the works of Gaspar van Weerbeke sampled in the previous chapter (Ex. 13-7, Ex. 13-8), or especially with Compére’s Ave Maria (Ex. 13-9), and its membership in their family becomes obvious. The reader may already have noticed, in fact, that Josquin’s opening quatrain is based on the very same sequence melody that Compére appropriated in the altus of his litany motet: a local favorite, no doubt.

Ave Maria … Virgo serena thus stands revealed as belonging to the tradition of the Milanese “ducal motets” identified in chapter 13 with Galeazzo Maria Sforza, the brother of Ascanio Sforza, Josquin’s sometime patron. Far from the revolutionary work that Lowinsky sought and found in it, it now appears to be fully representative of its fifteenth-century parent repertory, even if, as we are all likely to agree, its artistic quality far outstrips that of its companions. Though exceptionally realized and full of idiosyncratic detail, its style nevertheless reflects its time and place. Both in its avoidance of a cantus-firmus-bearing tenor and in its close-fitting text-music relationship it resonates less with lofty humanism than with its near-opposite, the stylistic “lowering” associated in chapter 13 with the influence of local, nonliterate popular genres.

When Noblitt’s article was published, Josquin des Prez was still erroneously identified with the Iudochus de Picardia who had sung in the Milanese cathedral choir as early as 1459. For a while, it was argued that the famous Ave Maria was actually intended for use in a “loco Mass” as described in the previous chapter. Now that Josquin’s early presence in Milan has been disproved, the relationship between his motet and the Milanese tradition is no longer quite so obvious. But Josquin certainly was in Milan during his time of service to Ascanio Sforza, most securely documented for the period 1484–85. Some scholars have tried to reconcile Noblitt’s source evidence with this later date, reasonably arguing that music copied on paper with a 1476 watermark need not have been entered immediately after the paper was procured, and that the year 1476 should not be regarded as anything more than a “terminus post quem”—the earliest possible date rather than necessarily the actual one.25

Even 1485, however, is too early a date to support the claims that Lowinsky made for the motet, or for its composer’s intentions. To acknowledge this, however, is by no means to deny the status of Ave Maria … Virgo serena as an exemplary (or even “prophetic”) sixteenth-century composition. It survived in print, in memory, and in use, and achieved renewed currency thanks to the work of the humanists who appropriated it. It did indeed play an important part in establishing a genuine tradition of musical humanism. Works of art certainly can and often do transcend their time and place of origin (as anyone attending concerts today can attest), and works that have so survived can exert influence at the farthest, most improbable temporal and geographic remove.

In the nineteenth century, for example, the first century to have a “modern” historical sense, the century-old vocal works of J. S. Bach were revived and had a far more direct impact on contemporary composition than they ever had during the composer’s lifetime. In the twentieth century, an even more history-obsessed age, much older repertories exhumed by musicology (including “medieval” and “Renaissance” ones) have often influenced the newest music.

The survival and posthumous influence of Josquin des Prez, and certain of his works, was an early example of this process of “remote reception”—perhaps the earliest. But if Ave Maria … Virgo serena was an exemplary sixteenth-century composition, it was not Josquin who made it so, but the sixteenth century.


(20) Edward E. Lowinsky, “The Concept of Physical and Musical Space in the Renaissance,” Papers of the American Musicological Society (1941): 57–84; rpt. in E. Lowinsky, Music in the Culture of the Renaissance and Other Essays, ed. Bonnie J. Blackburn (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), pp. 6–18 (quote is on p. 11).

(21) E. Lowinsky, “On the Use of Scores by Sixteenth-Century Musicians,” JAMS I (1948): 21 (rpt. in Music in the Culture of the Renaissance, p. 800).

(22) T. Noblitt, “Die Datierung der Handschrift Mus. Ms. 3154 der Staatsbibliothek Munchen,” Die Musikforschung XXVII (1974): 36–56.

(23) Jeremy Noble, “Josquin Desprez,” in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Vol. IX (London: Macmillan, 1980), p. 719.

(24) Lowinsky, “The Concept of Physical and Musical Space in the Renaissance,” in Music in the Culture of the Renaissance, p. 12.

(25) The point was made first by T. Elizabeth Cason in an unpublished paper (“The Dating of MS Munich 3154 Revisited”) presented at Duke University in 1999, and later elaborated by Joshua Rifkin in “Munich, Milan, and a Marian Motet: Dating Josquin’s Ave Maria…virgo serena,” JAMS LVI (2003): 239–350.

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. 29 Sep. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-014008.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 29 Sep. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-014008.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 29 Sep. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-014008.xml