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Josquin Des Prez Essay

In the following paper, I will prove that Josquin’s Miserere is that of “typical” sixteenth century piece. While the Miserere has been noted as anything but typical, for use in this paper “typical” will be defined as “possessing all the qualities” of a sixteenth century five-voiced motet. I will demonstrate that Josquin adhered to the “typical” counterpoint rules in the sixteenth century.

Josquin’s life

For all of his musical fame, Josquin des Prez still remains a “surprisingly elusive historical figure.”[2] Because there are many periods in Josquin’s life where his specific activities and involvement cannot be traced exactly, there is dispute between historians about the exact chronology of Josquin.

The most recent research into the life of Josquin reports that he was born between 1450 and 1455 in an unknown place. He was also educated in an unknown location, possibly Saint-Quentin or perhaps in residence at Conde-sur-Escaut, France. From 1475 to circa 1480 he was believed to be a member of the chapel of King Rene of Anjou in Aix-en-Provence. From 1484- 1485 he was a member of the household of Cardinal Ascanio Sforza in Milan and Rome, Italy.

It is believed that he was a member of the ducal chapel in Milan from 1489 to circa 1495, then member of the papal chapel in Rome. From 1498 – 1499 he was in the household of Cardinal Ascanio Sforza in Rome. In 1502 he was recruited by Ercole d’Este and became a member of the chapel of Ercole d’Este in Ferrara. From 1504- 1521 he had a residence in Conde-sur-Escaut as provost of the collegiate church of Notre-Dame. In 1521, he died in Conde-sur-Escaut. At present, this seems to be the most academically accepted timeline of Josquin’s life.[3] [pic][4]

Once a timeline of his life has been established a timeline for his music must be established. However, this task is not quite as simple as it sounds. Even the leading experts on the study of Josquin des Prez cannot derive a chronological order of his works that is credible. “One of the most problematic features of Josquin research is that no single tool yet discovered has alone been sufficient to establish a secure chronology.”[5]

Despite all the chronological discrepancies, it is known for certain that even in the fifteenth century, Josquin was a well-known composer. He was modeled by his peers and revered by all. His music was seen as the epitome of polyphonic bliss. “Few musicians have enjoyed higher renown while they lived or exercised more profound and lasting influence than Josquin des Prez.”[6]

Actually, Josquin’s documented career would have hardly seemed notable had it not been for the recorded high praise of his peers.[7] “Contemporaries hailed him as ‘the best of the composers of our time,’ and the ‘father of musicians.’”[8] “Josquin was without peer in music, on a par with Michelangelo in architecture, painting and sculpture.”[9] These quotes are only a brief glimpse into how much his contemporaries admired and desired to emulate his work.

Josquin’s peers not only loved his work, they wanted it for their own. It is known that his contemporaries reinterpreted his compositions: they would omit or add voice parts, change rhythmic and melodic details, retext, rearrange, and revise existing works. While they aided in perpetuating his memory they commonly appropriated his music and made it their own. They even went so far as to copy and print other works under his name; print his works of under the names of others; or print his works under no name at all.[10] Typical characteristics of the five-voiced motet of the sixteenth century

With the motet as the forerunner, counterpoint in the sixteenth century was becoming a true stylistic art. “The motet . . . may be considered to be the most important polyphonic vocal [composition] of religious character in the sixteenth century.”[11] At this time, a motet was defined as “almost any polyphonic composition on a Latin text other than the Ordinary of the Mass.”[12] “The musical form was sectional: each division of the text set to different thematic material.”[13] This process is similar to what we now call through-composed.

Whether it is a motet for three, four, or even five voices, each structure had general characteristics which were adhered to and developed to their fullest by the greatest composers of this time, notably Josquin. For easy reference I have taken the defining characteristics of the sixteenth century five-voiced motet from Soderlund and listed them in a numbered order which will be used as a guide later.

Musical Devices

1. Imitation
2. Motives
3. Initial theme occurs on the first beat
4. White notation used
5. Units of time were the breve, long, and double long
6. Use of 4/2 time
7. Homophonic sections contrasting with polyphony
8. Dueting
9. Augmentation/Diminution
10. Agogic accents
11. Metirical accents coinciding with musical (textual) accents 12. Scalar motion
13. Tendency to approach and leave a skip in the opposite direction, by step or by skip
14. Incursions of 3/1 or 3/2 time
15. Melody gathers speed near the beginning
16. Sparse use of skips

A. Cadences and Modulations
1. Cadence is in two parts, the approach was from above in one voice and below in another
2. The common cadences of the Phrygian mode (mode III) a. Common: E, A, or G

b. Infrequent: D or C
c. Rare: F
3. Change of harmonic center which might point to modulation

B. Intervals and Skips
1. Frequently used
a. Major second and minor second (M2 and m2) ascending and descending b. Major third and minor third (M3 and m3) ascending and descending
c. Perfect fourth and Perfect fifth (P4 and P5) ascending and descending
2. Less frequently used

a. minor sixth (m6) ascending
b. Perfect Octave (PO) ascending and descending
3. Rare
a. Major sixth (M6) ascending[14]

*It should be noted here that all other intervals not mentioned were generally considered dissonant or undesirable to the composer and listener (ex. tritone) and not practically used. The tritone was corrected through musica ficta, most commonly Bb, F#, C#, G#, and sometimes Eb. Chromaticism was very limited.

Analysis of Miserere, mei deus

It is known that Miserere, mei deus was “one of the most famous works of the sixteenth century”[15] and is written in the Phrygian mode (mode III). The text, taken from Psalm 50, cries to the lord to please have mercy upon me. For this dramatic cry, Miserere incorporates a repeated text refrain derived from the first few words of the psalm.

Each instance of the refrain occurs after a verse and two are interjected into the middle of verses: one in verse 1 and one in verse 13. A soggetto ostinato is achieved as the refrain occurs on each note of the e to e1 scale. The tenor 1 in the prima pars intones the refrain descending from e1 to e, using semibreves. The ostinato reappears in the secunda pars using ascending minims from e to e1. Finally, the last statement of the ostinato in the tertia pars descends from e1 to a in the original note values.[16]

Given the discrepancies in Josquin’s true history, it is natural that there would be a discrepancy in sources as to the actual date of composition for the Miserere, mei deus. One source indicates a composition date of 1505 under Hercules I in Ferrara.[17] However, more recent research sets the date of composition around 1503. In 1503, it is believed that Josquin composed the lengthy motet while in the service of and for the Duke Ercole I d’Este of Ferrara[18].

Examples of musical devices.

So many of the musical devices listed above pervade the music in such a way that listing each and every instance would not only be time-consuming, it would be close to impossible. Hence, one or two examples of each device listed above will be supplied in this section of the paper. These and many other instances of the following devices are labeled on the attached analysis of the Miserere. These extended points of imitation are a common characteristic in motets of this time period.

In the prima pars measures 1-4 in the tenor 2 are exactly imitated by measures 7-10 in the superius. Also, in the secunda pars measures 210-212 in the altus are exactly imitated by the bassus in 292-296.

Four motives exist throughout the work. All are introduced in the prima pars and labeled on the attached score. Motif A, the initial theme, occurs on the first beat in the prima pars in the tenor 2 voice. One can see from the example used below that white notation was used overall. The white notation on this century would be equilavent the the “open” notes such as the whole note or half note. Black notes creep in every now and then but the basic unit of time is the breve in 4/2 time.

In the secunda pars measures 253 – 255 demonstrates homophony between four voices. In measures 284 – 295 homophony is demonstrated in all five voices. Composers of this time period typically used homophonic sectioning to set the sections apart. Generally, the composers wanted these sections to stand out to the listeners as important. Measures 62 – 66 between the superius and tenor 2, “Quoniam iniquitatem meam”, displays a classic duet. Measures 290 – 295 in the tertia pars between the altus and superius is another fine example. Dueting occurs as a device to add to the overall texture of the piece. Multiple duets create more interest and action in the piece.

Diminution is a musical device in which the composer takes a previously stated rhythm and makes the note values shorter (ex. a half note after diminution could be a quarter note) while the pitches remain the same. Augmentation is just the opposite. In augmentation, the composer takes a previously stated rhythm and makes the note values longer (ex. a half note after augmentation could be whole note). Both are useful devices which add flavor to a work. Diminution is noted at measures 45 – 50 in the altus and measures 337 – 338 in the superius. While augmentation was a common practice of the time, none was noted here.

Since there were no bar lines in music at this time, it was crucial for composers to use agogic and metrical accents to give their pieces a sense of strong and weak beats. Throughout the work the long or double long occurs on the strong beat, either one or three. The only instances where the long is not placed on the strong beat are in obvious instances of strategically planned syncopation such as measure 55 in the altus of the prima pars.

Scalar motion abounds in all three movements. In the prima pars, measures 59 – 61 the tenor 2 displays a full descending octave (Motif D). In the secunda pars at measure 176 a descending fifth occurs in the tenor 2 as well. Also, all of the Motives mentioned above are based on scalar motion

The secunda pars was analyzed intensely for tendency to approach and leave a skip in the opposite direction, by step or by skip. In the 595 measures analyzed (119 measures in 5 voices) 106 instances of skip resolutions occurred. Eighty-nine (89) skip patterns were resolved in the mentioned fashioned. Seventeen (17) were resolved by a skip and the resolution in the same direction.

Incursions of 3/2 time occur in measures 23 – 24 in the tenor 2 voice part and measures 26 – 28 in the superius. Since bar lines were not in use at the time one must analyze the agogic accent of the beat. When a piece is moving along in 4/2 (duple) time the agogic accent falls on the strong beats of one and three. An incursion of 3/2 (triple) time exists when the accent shifts to the beats of one and four (which become one and one in triple time). The incursion feels like a hemiola and adds more depth to the piece. Sometimes composers would set entire sections of a work in 3/2 time to make these sections stand out. However, Josquin chose to sprinkle the incursions lightly throughout the work. The random placement of this device in single voices leads one to believe that Josquin simply enjoyed the sound of the hemiola in his Miserere.

In the beginning of the prima pars the melody starts very slow consisting mainly of longs. At measures 31 -36, “dinem miscationum tuarum”, the melody begins to pick up speed in the superius. This gathering of momentum is a notable characteristic of much Renaissance music and most significantly of the sixteenth century motet.

Even in sixteenth century counterpoint cadences were handled in a certain way. One governing aspect of the cadence included contrary motion between two parts when approaching the cadence. For example, in measure 216 the tenor 2 moves up to close the cadence, while the bassus moves down, demonstrating contrary motion.

Seventy-three (73) cadences exist in the Miserere, written in the Phrygian mode. In the Phrygian mode cadences on E, A, or G are considered common; cadences on D or C are infrequent; and a cadence on F is rare. Of the seventy-three (73) cadences in the Miserere forty-six (46) are common, twenty-six (26) are infrequent, and none are rare.

A change of harmonic center is also common in this time. This device occurs at the measures that contain a cadence on D; this represents a shift to the Dorian. In the Phrygian mode, the tonal center is E with the dominant tone being C. The tonal center is D with the dominant on A in the Dorian mode. See the charts below.

Distribution of cadences:

The tertia pars was analyzed in-depth for the use of intervals, specifically the use of skips. Of the 670 measures (134 measures in 5 voices) only 130 skips were noted. Just as cadences, skips of this time are grouped as well. The frequent intervals can be a M3, m3, P4, or P5 ascending and descending; the less frequent intervals include the m6 ascending and the PO ascending and descending; and the rare interval is the M6 ascending. Of the 130 skips noted in the tertia pars, 122 skips are of frequent use, seven are of less frequent use, and a single minor 10 no was the only other interval counted.

Musica ficta is a practice of raising or lowering the fourth scale degree to avoid the tritone. However, this practice was more of a singer’s skill than of a composer’s mark. Sometimes the flat or sharp would be notated above the note to be altered, but most times it was not. It was simply common knowledge to alter the fourth scale degree during performance to avoid the tritone.

In the sixteenth century, the most common alterations to the fourth scale degree included the Bb, F#, C#, G# and sometimes Eb. The noted examples of musica ficta (which is evident throughout the work) occur at measures 197 in the superius in the form of a C# and measure 327 in the altus in the form of a G#. This practice of altering the fourth scale degree grew from the musicians desire to make the “consonances sound sweeter and because they were expanding their tonal vocabulary to include the notes of the chromatic scale.”[21]

How the tertia, secunda, and prima partes fit together

The four melodic motifs which are based on the inflections and accents of the Latin text become the essential building blocks for the overall shaping of the motet. All motives are introduced in the first two verses and are recalled throughout the length of the piece. “The overall shape of the motet is in part governed by the placement of these motifs so that the prima, secunda, and tertia partes can be divided into three subgroups. The divisions are primarily based on clear groupings of the motivic material, even to the extent of linking verses together by means of the same motif, and secondly of the articulation of the individual subgroups through clear internal cadence.”[22]

Sherr provides the following explanation and table of the division of the partes in Miserere: “The distribution of verses for the prima pars is 2 + 2 + 3 (verses 1-2, 3-4, 5-7), while the secunda pars divides the verses into the reverse order of 3 + 2 + 2 (verses 8-10, 11-12, 13-14). Yet if we take the statements of the soggetto ostinato into account, we find an extra interjection in verse 1 and a corresponding interjection in the secunda pars in verse 13. Thus one statement of the ostinato is added to the first subgroup of the prima pars and to the last subgroup of the secunda pars, producing a balanced structure of 3 + 2 + 3 statements of the ostinato in both parts. Josquin thereby creates a symmetrical placement of the interjection near the beginning of the prima pars and near the end of the secunda pars. On the other hand, musical factors indicate that the tertia pars provides an approximate reversal of the distribution with its units of 1 + 3 + 1 verses (verses 15, 16-18, 19).”[23] See table 16.2 [pic]

After analysis it becomes clear that motifs with similar material are grouped together in cohesive units to become one larger unit. Secondly, distinct cadences aid in the distinction between groups of verses. For example, motivic material might continue throughout two verses, linking the two; or the two verses might be separated completely by a firm cadence with no suspension or motivic carry-over from the previous verse. The linkages and delineations are clearly marked on the attached analyzed score of Miserere.

The prima pars introduces all the motivic material which comes to govern the piece and acts a general introduction of what is to come. The overall purpose of the prima pars is to prepare the audience for the entourage of musical devices and to set up a basic premise the piece will follow. The division of the verses is based on 3 + 2 + 3 with the two sections of three being the strongest.

While the division of verses might be similar in the prima and secunda partes (3 + 2 + 3), each pars has unique characteristics. For example, the secunda pars is significantly shorter than its counterparts and rhythms of the soggetto ostinato are faster. The overall texture and body of the refrains are thinner in comparison to the refrains of the prima and tertia partes. In the secunda pars, the refrains are built on mostly three or four voices. In the prima and tertia partes, the refrains consist mainly of five voices.[24]

The tertia pars is set apart from its predecessors in the fact that the strongest statements of motivic action and variation are seen in this section. “The tertia pars, progresses from the hushed static reciting tones for the opening at verse 15, to the cascading lines of Motif D in verses 16, 17, and 18- leading finally to the repeated motifs . . . on A and C in verse 19. The tertia pars is then successful to ‘leave some very strong argument fresh in the hearer’s mind’ at the end of [the work].”[25]

These verses combined make for one very strong, very significant motet of the sixteenth century. There is a tripartite pattern of strong-medium-strong which pervades every level of the motet from the highest to lowest levels. Such division is that of which takes great skill, planning, and decisive execution from the “master of the notes”[26] himself. Sherr explains: “A tripartite pattern of strong-medium-strong thus occurs at three different levels of the motet: at the highest level, the strong prima and tertia partes frame the medium secunda pars, at the middle level of subgroups of verses (3 + 2 + 3) in the prima and secunda partes the outer groups of three are stronger, and at the lower level of phrase structure in the tertia pars in verses 16,17, and part of 18, again the opening and closing phrases are stronger.”[27]

It is obvious that Josquin’s music is “among the most beautiful in the whole history of music.”[28] He was of the greatest composers of the sixteenth century. Considering all the aspects required of a “typical” sixteenth century motet, and the documented reverence and assimilation of his works by his peers, one can conclude that he not only “followed” the rules that had been in place before his birth, he became the model for composition. Josquin’s musical mastery in his Miserere, mei deus is truly the epitome of sixteenth century counterpoint perfection.


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