Josquin Despres (c. 1440-1521) was acknowledged by his contemporaries as the most accomplished composer of his time. Martin Luther proclaimed that, “Josquin is a master of notes, which must express what he desires; on the other hand, other choral composers must do what the notes dictate.” Although very little is known about Josquin’s early life in the lowland region of northern France, he most likely received his musical training through his service as a singer at the chapel of the Milan cathedral in Italy. His career was spent as a composer attached to various churches in northern Italy and France, and most of his compositions are sacred, either settings of the mass or motets, sacred compositions based on Latin poetry suitable for inclusion in a church setting. Josquin's four-voice motet Ave Maria...virgo serena (1502) is an outstanding Renaissance choral work. This Latin prayer to the Virgin is set to delicate and serene music. Josquin connected the composition to music already existing within the church by adapting the melody for the opening phrases from a Gregorian chant, a technique known as parody. The rest of the motet was not based on a chant melody.
Following the predominant practice of the time, the setting of Ave Maria is a cappella, a term now taken to mean that only voices are used but derived from its literal meaning, “as it is in the chapel.” The opening uses polyphonic imitation, in which each voice sings the same melody in succession. In this style, the voices often continue to add secondary melodies to accompany the following voice entries as at the text “dominus tecum.” In addition to the imitation among individual voices, imitation occurs between pairs of voices. Duets between the high voices are imitated by the two lower voices at the text “Ave, cuius conceptio.” All four voices participate in singing the phrase “virgo serena,” creating a skillful closing punctuation to this musical section. Throughout this section of the motet, as well as in the rest of the piece not heard in this excerpt, Josquin skillfully varies the textures, using the contrast between two, three, or four voices to create distinct musical sections. Whereas the works of composers of polyphonic music before Josquin mainly relied upon the processes of polyphonic composition to spin out their works, Josquin’s use of contrast signifies a more modern approach to creating musical form.
|00:00 |Ave Maria, |Hail Mary, | |00:14 |gratia plena |full of grace | |00:32 |dominus tecum, |the Lord is with thee, | |00:49 |virgo serena. |serene Virgin. | |01:02 | Ave, cuius conceptio, . . . |Hail, whose conception, . . . | |01:20 |End of excerpt | |
Thomas Weelkes: As Vesta Was Descending
Throughout the 16th-century, Italian composers became increasingly attracted to a secular genre called the madrigal. In this genre, an emotionally expressive poem, often dealing with love, was set to vocal music that attempted to musically illustrate the words or their emotional content through a technique known as word painting. Madrigals were the musical counterpart of the literature and visual arts of humanistic movement. Members of the courts and other upper class citizens performed madrigals for each other as...