Josquin’s setting of the Psalm Miserere mei, Deus
, associated with Ash Wednesday as well as other penitential occasions, is one of his most impressive creations. Its composition, in all probability, dates from Josquin’s year at the court of Ferrara, 1503–4. Since the entire Psalm is set but without doxology, thus corresponding to its liturgical use in Holy Week, its first performance may well have taken place at the beginning of April 1504. Due to the extreme length of the setting it might seem inappropriate for the liturgy, but the focus on Holy Week at Ferrara was well known, and in any case there are numerous spaces in the liturgy for extended meditations of the most austere kind, which this motet certainly is. At the end of the Maundy Thursday Mass, the altar and sanctuary are stripped of all their decorations, leaving only the bare framework of the table exposed. Josquin’s motet, most of all of this famously economical composer’s works, reflects this aesthetic perfectly. The tenor sings the same phrase of two pitches twenty-one times in total. During the first section it begins on high E and then works its way down an entire octave; in the second it reverses the process (but with note values half as long); and in the third it reverts to the longer notes, but descends only from E to A. Somewhat unusually, the statements of this ostinato theme are divided by varying numbers of rests: unlike in many pieces by Josquin, there is no rigid structure here, but form follows the exigencies of the text. It is this, together with the austerity of the surrounding counterpoint, with its heavy reliance on bare perfect intervals, and infrequent but telling use of homophony, that lends Josquin’s Miserere
its effect, described by David Fallows as ‘devotional and even hypnotic’. It is hardly surprising, given the quality of this and many others of his compositions, that the Low Countries musical community felt itself bereft when, on Tuesday 27 August 1521, Josquin died. He was buried in front of the high altar of the church of Notre Dame, Condé-sur-Escaut, of which he had been Provost since 1504.
from notes by Stephen Rice © 2012