musica Dei donum

CD reviews

JOSQUIN DESPREZ (c1450 - 1521): Sacred & secular music

[I] "Miserere mei Deus - Funeral Motets & Deplorations"
Cappella Amsterdam
Dir: Daniel Reuss
rec: July 2018, Amsterdam, Waalse Kerk
Harmonia mundi - HMM 902620 (© 2018) (66'10")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Nicolas GOMBERT (c1495-c1560): Musae Jovis; JOSQUIN DESPREZ; Absalon, fili mi a 4; Absolve quaesumus, Domine a 6; De profundis/Requiem aeternam a 5; Déploration sur la mort d'Ockeghem a 5; In principio erat Verbum a 4; Miserere mei, Deus a 5; Nimphes, nappés a 6; Pater noster/Ave Maria a 6; Planxit autem David a 4

Marijke van der Harst, Maria Köpcke, Laura Rodrigues Lopes, Inga Schneider, soprano; Beat Duddeck, alto; Ross Buddie, Jon Etxabe Arzuaga, Adriaan de Koster, Endrik Üksvärav, Robert van der Vinne, tenor; Jan Douwes, Christoph Drescher, Andrew Hopper, Harry van der Kamp, bass

[II] "Stabat Mater - Marian motets and instrumental songs"
Cantica Symphonia
Dir: Giuseppe Maletto
rec: August 7 - 9, 2018, Cumiana (Turin), Confraternita del Santi Rosso e Sebastiano; Feb 10 - 11, 2020, Malo (Venezia), Santuario di Maria Liberatrice; June 2, 2020, Roletto (Turin), Chiesa della B.V. Maria del Monte Carmelo al Colletto
Glossa - GCD P31909 (© 2020) (68'48")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - no translations
Cover, track-list & booklet

Ave Maria a 4; Benedicta es celorum regina a 6; Bergerette Savoyenne a 4; De tous biens plaine a 4; Ecce tu pulchra es a 4; Entre je suis a 4; Fortuna desperata a 3; La Bernardina a 3; Nimphes, nappés a 6; Salve Regina a 5; Stabat mater a 5; Vultum tuum deprecabuntur a 4

Laura Fabris, Giulia Beatini, soprano; Elena Carzaniga, contralto; Giuseppe Maletto, Gianluca Ferrarini, Massimo Altieri, Livio Cavallo, tenor; Marco Scavazza, Matteo Bellotto, bass
Mauro Morini, slide trumpet, sackbut; David Yacus, sackbut; Efix Puleo, Laura Bertolino, fiddle; Marta Graziolino, harp; Guido Magnano, organ


One of the features of the Renaissance is the importance of the individual. Most music - in particular sacred music - of the Middle Ages has come down to us without the name of the composer. That was often deliberate: the aim was to honour God, the Virgin Mary or a saint, and the author of the music (and often also the text) did not really matter. The first disc under review here opens with the famous Déploration sur la mort d'Ockeghem, in which Josquin pays tribute to the celebrated composer, one of the founders of the Franco-Flemish school. This piece is an indication of what has been stated above. Josquin also benefitted from this new mentality. It resulted in his becoming the most celebrated composer of his time. Baldassare Castiglione, in his Il Libro del Cortegiano (Book of the Courtier), writes that "when a motet was sung before the Duchess [of Urbino], it pleased no one and was not found good, until it was known to be the work of Josquin de Pres". Cappella Amsterdam ends its programme with a tribute to Josquin by Nicolas Gombert, comparable with Josquin's Déploration, and even musically referring to it.

The latter piece sets the tone for the entire programme, which is devoted to funeral motets and laments, if we have to believe the subtitle. That is questionable, but I'll turn to that in a moment. Two aspects are noteworthy. First, as Alice Tacaille writes in her liner-notes, we don't always know at what occasions such pieces were performed. Some were intended for liturgical use, such as the setting of Miserere mei Deus, one of the seven penitential psalms to be sung during Lent, but in other cases pieces have a kind of para-liturgical character, and may have been performed outside the church, probably at some moment during processions. Second, in the Déploration, but also in Nymphes nappés, a secular text in French - in which images from classical mythology are used - is combined with a sacred cantus firmus in Latin. This documents that at that time, the sacred and the secular were not seen as opposing spheres, but rather as two ways to look at the same world.

The time, in which composers aimed at illustrating a text in their music, had not come yet. Even so, in these pieces one can find passages in which Josquin depicts the text. A striking example is Absalon, fili mi, the lament of King David about his son Absalom. It opens with a rising figure in one of the voices, which has here a rhetorical function of emphasizing the text "O Absalom, my son". On the last lines of the text, the music moves in the lower regions of the motet's range, effectively depicting the words: "I shall live no more but descend to the grave weeping". In the ensuing motet Planxit autem David, David's lament on the death of King Saul and his son Jonathan, Josquin uses homophony to emphasize the urge not to tell the enemies - the Philistines - about their fate. In contrast, De profundis clamavi, another of the seven penitential psalms, does not open with a rising figure as in many settings written in later times.

As far as the programme is concerned, in some cases it is hard to see how they fit into the programme. There is nothing lamenting about Pater noster - Ave Maria, and the same goes for In principio, which is the setting of the opening of the Gospel after St John. One may argue that one of the key elements in this text is the notion that Jesus as the Son of God came into the world but was rejected: "And the light shineth in darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it. (...) He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not". However, it seems a little far-fetched to use this as an argument to rank this motet among the laments, let alone that it is a funeral motet. The liner-notes almost entirely focus on the laments at the start and the end of the programme, and hardly discuss any of the other pieces.

It is a little blot on a fine production. The Cappella Amsterdam is a top-class ensemble, which performs renaissance polyphony with the same ease as baroque repertoire and music from the 19th century until our own time. Here the lines are beautifully shaped, the blending of the voices is immaculate, and there is a maximum transparency, despite the line-up with more than one voice per part. In liturgical pieces this may well be justified, but in the case of the laments I find it hard to believe that they were meant for a performance with more than one voice per part. Unfortunately, we know little about when and where the various pieces may have been performed, which makes it virtually impossible to decide which line-up is 'historically correct'. That also regards the way the Latin texts are pronounced: here the common Italian pronunciation is used.

This disc may raise some questions, but it is definitely a worthwile addition to the discography, even though Josquin is very well represented in the catalogue.

The many recordings of Josquin's oeuvre reflect his standing in music history. In his time he was considered the main composer in Europe, and even after his death his reputation did not diminish. In 1547 the theorist Heinrich Glarean stated that "[no] composer has been better qualified than Josquin in expressing the passions of the soul through their music (...)". Even in later centuries, he was not forgotten, as Johann Gottfried Walther included a short entry on him in his Musikalisches Lexikon (1732) and Charles Burney scored several of his works. As this year his death in 1521 is commemorated, we certainly will see the release of quite a number of new recordings and reissues of older ones. The second disc under review here seems part of the commemoration. Giuseppe Maletto decided to focus on one particular aspect of Josquin's oeuvre: motets devoted to the Virgin Mary.

The motet was the genre for which Josquin was especially famous, and Marian devotion takes a special place in his output, as more than half of his motets are connected to Mary. The programme opens with a setting of the Stabat mater. The author of the text is unknown, but it is assumed it was a Franciscan monk from the 13th century. At the end of the 15th century it became part of the Feast of the Compassion of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a celebration which was instigated by the Council of Cologne in 1423. It was to be removed from the liturgy by the Council of Trent (1545-1563). This setting is for five voices, and based upon the tenor part of a rondeau by Gilles Binchois (Comme femme descomfortée). The tenor consists of long notes, which is the reason that it is performed here instrumentally. Salve Regina is one of the Marian antiphons, which Josquin set twice: once for four, and once for five voices. The five-part motet is performed here. The plainchant head motif (with the four solmization notes of A-G-A-D) is repeated 24 times in a tenor (Quinta vox) ostinato with the addition of four supplementary notes. "[In] this way a total of one hundred notes is arrived at. A Gospel verse (Matthew X:22) (...), "But he that shall persevere to the end, he shall be saved", appears to illustrate the symbolic significance of the ostinato: he who sings these hundred notes, he will gain eternal life" (booklet). The tenors of the ensemble have missed that opportunity, as this part is performed by two sackbuts in alternation...

In many cases it is not known when and where Josquin composed his music. An example is Vultum tuum, a cycle of seven motets which has caused some debate among scholars. It is an example of specific genre, so-called motetti missale, motets which were performed during mass, as substitutes for the usual chants of the Ordinary and the Propers. This seems to have been a speciality of Milan, in the chapel of Duke Galeazzo Maria Sforza, as no other place is known where this genre was cultivated. Such works are known from the pen of Loyset Compčre and Gaspar van Weerbeke. For some time Josquin was also in the service of the Milan court, but stylistically, this work seems not to correspond to Josquin's stay there. Benedicta es is a motet for six voices in three sections. The second is a duet of the two highest voices. Ecce tu pulchra es is a setting of verses from the Song of Songs. They are a dialogue between the man and the woman who are the main characters in that book, but the music does not reflect that. Composers of later generations would deal with such texts in very different ways.

Obviously Josquin's most famous motet Ave Maria could not be omitted. It is sung across the world by many choirs and vocal ensembles, both professional and amateur. Its popularity is not something of our time; from Josquin's own time two printed editions and 23 manuscript versions are known. Other pieces included here have also been preserved in quite a number of sources, which bears witness to Josquin's standing in his time.

According to the liner-notes, "[this] selection is completed by instrumental compositions performed on two fiddles, harp and organ". Strictly speaking, that is not correct, as only La Bernardina has been preserved without a text. The other pieces are secular vocal works, performed here instrumentally, which is perfectly in line with performance habits at the time. Fortunata desperata is one of the most popular tunes at the time, often used for mass settings by composers of the Franco-Flemish school. The setting performed here is of doubtful authenticity.

Some pieces are performed with one voice per part, the Stabat mater and Ave Maria with two voices per part. In the former, the tenor part is performed instrumentally, but the two voices in every part are also joined by one instrument. I would have liked to read the arguments for this practice. The disc ends with Nymphes nappés, but then in a very different performance than that by the Cappella Amsterdam. Here the parts with French text are played by instruments; only the Latin plainchant cantus firmus is sung. I find that decision rather odd: if the French text is not sung - and it is not even printed in the booklet - its very meaning is lost.

Fortunately, that is about the only issue here. The singing and playing by Cantica Symphonia is admirable and does ample justice to the music selected for this programme. The voices blend perfectly, and there is also a good balance between voices and instruments. The instrumentalists do a fine job in the secular pieces. The programme is nicely structured, in that the vocal and instrumental items are performed in alternation. It is just a shame that the booklet omits translations of the lyrics. Given that most of them are rather common, these may be found at the internet. Even so, it is a serious omission.

This is the first disc whose release is connected to the Josquin year that has landed on my desk. A very fine one it is, and it is hopefully not the last.

Johan van Veen (© 2021)

Relevant links:

Cantica Symphonia
Cappella Amsterdam

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