If the Missa De beata virgine
is one of Josquin’s last works, Missa Ave maris stella
must be earlier, having been published by Petrucci in 1505. If one believes in the characteristics often ascribed to the middle-period works of creative artists, this setting illustrates many of them. Here is a Mass based throughout on a famous chant melody, building to three canons in each Agnus Dei. The writing everywhere is smooth and assured, giving the impression that Josquin was relaxing with techniques he had tried out before, in a more youthful way. His handling of the chant melody Ave maris stella
is a model of how to use motifs derived from a cantus firmus structurally over a long span. This is sometimes done in imitation, but the cross-references are so protean (one could almost say symphonic) that one comes away realizing there is little fat on these bones. My favourite piece of motivic tautness is the Amen of the Gloria. It only lasts nine bars but a whole world of perfection is there: the motif presented firstly as a duet, then a trio, then a pell-mell working in all four voices.
So tight is the compositional argument that the Agnus Dei canons are upon the listener before he realizes it. In this sense the whole setting might well be called a Missa Brevis. Strangely, it is only in the Sanctus that Josquin allowed himself to expand the style, with an unusually long trio at ‘pleni’, duets in the Benedictus and a big Hosanna. The Agnus then immediately carries one off into a different space, the central motif, which is well established by now, turning over and over on itself like the music of the spheres. This is surely Josquin at his most inventive and his most inspired.
from notes by Peter Phillips © 2011