Skip to content

Saturday morning quotes 7.21: Musical Icons

February 9, 2019

josquin-des-pres-circa-1440-1521-engraved-from-a-work-in-st-gudule-cathedral-brusselsMusical icons, whether particular composers or their specific masterworks, enter into the public consciousness and gain iconic status for a variety of reasons.

In the realm of classical music, Beethoven’s enduring symphonies are considered iconic in view of the composer’s bold harmonic language and his strident use of dynamics. But iconic musical pieces eventually become the norm and even grow tiresome over time—like the effect of having a collection of “greatest hits” stored as data on a person’s device.  But with a better understanding of the context of the composer’s creation and the significance of his or her innovation, today’s listeners who devote a little time and attention may begin to see what was so novel and what made the work so enduring.

“If we’re talking about how music was never the same again after Beethoven, there’s a problem. Harmony has a dynamic function in Beethoven. But, in life, Beethoven’s harmonies have become habitual, accepted, robbed of their capacity to crash the threshold. Music we love listening to. Music we don’t necessarily hear. Classics for pleasure.”

– Philip Clark, “How Beethoven’s symphonies changed the world“, Gramophone, July 2014.

Today, the music of Josquin Des Prez (c.1450 – 1521) is considered representative of the late 15th- and early 16th centuries, and his particular skill and compositional innovations are taken somewhat for granted. But Josquin was the “Beethoven” of his time—not because his music grabbed the listener by the lapels and bludgeoned the ears with extrovert devices.  Josquin’s music stretched musical forms and devices in common use to their limits through his skillful use of canon, his sublime melodies, and his expressive harmonic language. Remarkably, Josquin accomplished all this with the greatest subtlety; an outward sense of dignified elegance that caresses the ear based upon an inward sense of expressive text-setting that moves the soul.

Narrowing our iconic musical landmarks to the Renaissance,  Josquin’s iconic setting of the Stabat Mater soars to the surface.  The Stabat Mater text depicts the sorrow of Mary at the foot of the cross, lamenting the death of her son, a gripping emotional scene that only a grieving mother could fully understand.  The Stabat Mater text is conventionally ascribed to Jacopone da Todi, (c. 1230 – 1306), but there is an earlier copy of the text preserved in a 13th-century gradual now in the Bologna Museo Civico Medievale. The text paraphrases passages in John 19:25, Luke 2:35, Zacharias 13:6, Second Corinthians 4:10, and Galatians 6:17.  Eliminated as a liturgical sequence after the Council(s) of Trent, the Stabat Mater was restored in 1727 by Pope Benedict XIII, and is proper for Feasts of the Seven Sorrows of the Virgin Mary, which occur during Holy Week and also in September.

Josquin’s Stabat Mater dolorosa setting dates from circa 1480, and might possibly be the first polyphonic setting of the text.  But the pulse is gentle, the polyphony is subtle and the melodic contours are smooth, and effective interpretation demands that we discard the spiky, angular approach that is so prevalent in modern performances of 15th-century music.

The motet for five-voices employs as a cantus firmus the tenor of the chanson, Comme femme desconfortée, attributed to Gilles Binchois (c.1400 – 1460).

Comme femme desconfortée
sur toutes aultres esgarée,
qui n’ay jour de ma vie espoir
d’en estre en mon temps consolée,
maiz en nul mal plus agravée
desire la mort main et soir.

As a disconsolate woman,
Distraught more than all others,
I have no hope of consolation
for the rest of my life,
but evermore oppressed by misfortune
I long for death morning and night.

The quotation of a popular song as a cantus firmus was an innovation in 15th-century  polyphonic motets and Mass settings, including Josquin’s own Mass on the popular chanson D’ung aultre amer by Ockeghem.  But probing into the 15th-century context, David J. Rothenberg and others have identified a host of what were previously considered  popular secular chansons on themes of love and loss as having Marian connotations. This implicit integration of the sacred and secular is no surprise to scholars who embrace the larger context of 15th-century music with an open mind, and who do not blindly cleave to the modern secularization of historical music.

Josquin’s sublime setting of the Stabat Mater was quite popular well into the 16th century, with printed versions arranged for solo lute by the likes of Valentin Bakfark, Simon Gintzler and Francesco da Milano.  Our performance for solo voice and lute is edited from an historical version published by Pierre Phalese in 1553, with the addition of a bowed viol on the important tenor line.

An iconic piece, Josquin’s Stabat Mater is subjected to a variety of approaches, many of which appear to entirely disregard the deeply emotional text.  For instance, when Josquin’s music eases into triple time he was invoking the Trinity, not adding a bit of jollification.  Without apology, we feel strongly that our historical performance medium of solo voice, lute and viol conveys the text and the emotion of Josquin’s masterpiece to its best advantage.

One Comment

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Saturday morning quotes 7.36: Espoir | Unquiet Thoughts

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: