Renaissance Music III: Josquin des Prez (1450-1520)

Josquin des Prez was the best composer of his time, with a gift for melody that surpassed his peers. Beginning with Josquin, musical evolution begins in earnest.  Why?  Look no further than Guttenberg—and you thought that was important only for bibles (spoiler alert).  His printing press, quickly employed to print sheet music, disseminated musical ideas on paper all over Europe.  Now, composers could study on paper what they previously would have either had to travel to witness or, more distressingly, rely on oral accounts of. 

Josquin was the first to not only to ensure that his lyrics were clearly understandable, but that his music reflected the emotions of the text.  The idea that music and lyrics should express the same emotions seems second nature to us. Consider this classic rock track written by Eric Clapton:

Derek and the Dominoes, Layla

Where is Clapton’s anguish expressed more clearly?  In his lyrics or in his guitar? The music works on the same emotional level as the text.

But music didn’t always express the emotive power of the lyrics or the idea behind the composition.  Someone had to invent that concept and that guy was Josquin.  While the struggle between composer and librettist is eternal, no composer before Josquin gave any thought to the meaning of the words they were setting to music.  Josquin’s revolution connecting the emotions of music to the emotions of the words is made palpable by one of his most famous motets—his Miserere mei, Deus (“Have mercy on me, Lord.”), written while he was the court composer for the Duke of Ferrara. 

The story behind this composition is epic. I don’t trust myself to tell the story correctly, so I consulted Wikipedia.  Here is an excerpt from the Wikipedia entry (with some edits from me): 

During the 1490s, the Duke of Ferrara, Ercole I d’Este, kept in close contact with Savonarola [the revolutionary priest of Florence who briefly deposed the Medici and whose cell can be viewed at the Dormitorio di San Marco today—forget David, this is the best thing to see in Florence], who was also from Ferrara, and supported him in his efforts to reform the Roman Catholic Church. About a dozen letters between the two survive: the Duke sought advice both on spiritual and political matters.  Even after Savonarola’s arrest, Duke Ercole attempted to have him freed, but his last letter to the church authorities in Florence, in April 1498, went unanswered. After Savonarola’s execution, Ercole, then in his eighties, probably commissioned his newly hired composer, Josquin, to write him a musical testament, very likely for performance during Holy Week of 1504.

Savonarola’s impassioned meditation on sin and repentance, Infelix ego, composed in prison after his torture, and published in Ferrara in mid-1498 shortly after his death, was the probable model for Josquin’s setting.  It is an extended prayer to the God against whom he believes he has sinned, based closely on Psalm 51, and unified by a boldface-type repetition of the phrase “Miserere mei, Deus” throughout the text.  In keeping with Savonarola’s dislike of polyphony and musical display, the Miserere is written in a spare, austere style . . . The tenor part, which contains the repeating phrase “Miserere mei, Deus,” was likely written to be sung by the Duke himself, who was a trained musician and often sang with the musicians in his chapel. . . As the tenor sings these words, the other voices join in one at a time to reinforce the first, an effect analogous to boldface type in a printed text. 

Savanarola’s text was nothing less than a condemnation of the Borgia papacy and their banker-allies the Medici.  Setting this text to music was a powerful political statement.  Thanks to the printing press, both the text and the music traveled like wildfire throughout Europe, influencing composers across the continent.  There are many wonderful inventions in Josquin’s music, including the use of a cascading downwards chorus to replicate the tears falling and having all parts come together after a pause to sing block chords.  These inventions have been copied by composers ever since and across all forms of music, from jazz to pop. 

Also revolutionary was his setting of a highly political text to music.  If history is any guide, this musical stone cast at the Church may have done as much damage as Martin Luther would do the following decade.  I struggled to find a recording that lives up the hype but failed.  I would urge you to seek out the recording by the Capella Amsterdam under Daniel Reuss and crank it to 11.  With the addition of female voices, the music soars above this more historically accurate version.

Josquin des Prez, Miserere mei, Deus

Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are a Changin’?  Billie Holliday’s Strange Fruit?  That tradition of protest music began here, 500 years ago.

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