Josquin des Prez – Ave Maria…virgo serena
Josquin des Prez [Josquin Lebloitte dit Desprez] lived from about 1450 to 1521. Regarded by many as one of the greatest composers of all time, he was very popular while he was alive. As with many composers from before the Baroque era, there are significant gaps in our biographical knowledge of Josquin.
He most likely grew up in northern France, between Paris and Brussels, probably in or near Saint Quentin. Through his early career, he served René, duke of Anjou, as a singer and composer, moving on with many of the other musicians in the Duke’s employ to serve King Louis XI in the 1480s. In the following years, and through much of his career, Josquin worked in Italy, taking posts in Milan, Rome, and Ferrara. It is clearly shown that his final post was at the church of Notre Dame in Condé-sur-l’Escaut, where he served as provost from 1504 to his death in 1521.
Josquin defied the artistic stereotype of the starving artist, toiling in obscurity (an image that was not a stereotype at all during the time when Josquin lived). In fact, researchers have found that during his tenure as maestro di cappella (“chapel master” or choirmaster) to Duke Ercole I d’Este in Ferrar in 1503, he received the largest salary in the history of the chapel, largely based on the prestige the duke knew would follow him.
Like all notable composers of this period, Josquin primarily composed vocal music, the vast majority of it religious. Musicologists are fortunate that the the works of Josquin has been relatively easy to find compared to many other composers of the time period. This is largely thanks to the composer’s fame, which led to extensive publication of his work. Ottaviano Petrucci, the first printer of polyphonic music, published three volumes of his masses, totally 18 works. There have also been dozens of confirmed motets and chansons by Josquin, several of which included instruments (a fairly uncommon practice at the time). I say “confirmed” works because his popularity was something of a double-edged sword.
Following his death, many publishers scrambled to publish his work. Many of these publishers also published the work of other composers under his name, hoping to capitalize on his popularity. As a result, researchers now have to be skeptical when examining works attributed to Josquin.
Ave Maria…virgo serena was composed sometime around 1485. This work is an example of a motet, which at the time referred generally to single-movement polyphonic vocal works with religious Latin texts. Like previous generations of composers, Josquin wrote vocal lines that strove for clarity and fluidity in contour and form. His works have clear tonal centers and tuneful melodies. The texture of the work, though often involving somewhat dense counterpoint, is always handled carefully to allow for clarity so the text can be understood. Josquin is among the first generation of composers to consistently focus on depicting the meaning of the text through the music, using devices like shifts in tessitura, melodic contour, texture, and harmonic construction to elaborate on the emotions of the words.
This work opens with what is called imitative counterpoint, which is characterized by the sequential introduction of the same melodic line in each of the four voices of the ensemble. This process repeats three times, then after the last voice enters, the counterpoint becomes more free as it leads to the end of the phrase. This is followed by a brief call and response, leading into a section of rhythmic unison. Notice throughout this section and the rest of the piece how the accented syllables of the text are accented both through tessitura (using higher pitches) and through agogic accenting (using longer durations on accented syllables. In particular, pay special attention in this work to how Josquin uses shift from polyphonic (contrapuntal) texture to homophonic (chorale-like) texture for specific phrases, such as “solemni plena gaudio” (full of solemn [or great] jubilation).
These techniques and devices are used throughout this short, lovely work, illustrating beautifully the craft that made Josquin the master of his day. Try to take the time to listen to the piece multiple times, first listening casually, then paying greater attention to the details pointed out above. Then try following the Josquin’s use of these devices throughout the rest of the work. Look at the phrases Josquin chooses to accent, and ask yourself why he chose to do so.
This page has a great translation of the text with a breakdown of the overall progression of the work’s texture along a timeline:
A transcription of the score of the work (without text) can be found here:
Information Drawn from:
Burkholder, J. Peter, Donald J. Grout, and Claude V. Palisca. A History of Western Music. 7th ed. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2006.