Hyperion Records

Credo quarti toni 'Cambrai Credo'
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Exactly what music did Josquin compose? The question is tricky for all manner of reasons. First, it now seems likely that in the decades around 1500 more than one musician called ‘Josquin’ was actively composing, and it is sometimes hard to know whether or not a specific piece is correctly by ‘our’ Josquin – which is to say, the man known from documentary sources as ‘Jossequin Lebloitte dit Desprez’. Second, the demand for new works by Josquin evidently out­stripped supply, and counterfeits were almost certainly being created both during his lifetime and long after his death. Some of these forgeries are fine pieces in their own right, but excellence is no proof that they were written by ‘Jossequin Lebloitte dit Desprez’. Third, reputedly a whole host of younger composers studied with Josquin, and exercises could have been written during their apprenticeships that bear traces of the master’s guidance or intervention. Small wonder if such works should then bear attri­butions to ‘Josquin’. Fourth, according to Heinrich Glarean, Josquin released his new compositions to the public only after keeping them to himself for deliberation and refinement. By implication, some works may never have been finished to his own satisfaction, and would have been available to few people if indeed anyone at all.

Into which of those categories might the Credo quarti toni fall? This piece survives by the skin of its teeth, in a single manuscript in Cambrai copied around the time of Josquin’s death. Some authorities have questioned Josquin’s authorship on the grounds that the piece was so little circulated; but Josquin did have links with Cambrai stretching back to his childhood, and the manuscript firmly ascribes this work to ‘Jossequin des Prez’. Moreover it has been copied in the company of two Masses securely by Josquin, the Missa Gaudeamus, which features earlier in the manuscript, and the Missa De beata virgine, which is placed directly before the Credo, again attributed to ‘Jossequin des Prez’. On these grounds, Josquin’s claim to the Credo quarti toni really ought to be taken seriously. But what of its musical content?

Some experts reckon the piece to be stylistically uncharacteristic. Matters change, however, when it is viewed from the perspective of how it was made. Its composer has taken one of the most familiar of all medieval melodies, the plainchant formula commonly used to sing the words of the Creed, and has miraculously converted this tune into a tight canon for tenor and baritone. Both voices sing the outline contours of the chant, but they start on different notes – the tenor a fifth higher than the baritone – and at slightly different times. To accom­pany them, the composer has added two superb outer voices, an alto and a bass, both of which move athletically through exceptionally wide ranges, sometimes singing very low, elsewhere very high. Although the four voices perform together for much of the time, in places the canon falls silent, leaving the alto and bass to cavort on their own. And elsewhere it is the outer voices that take a rest, the texture reducing to its conceptual backbone of chant-based canon.

This work does possess a context of sorts. Two other Josquin Masses, the Missa Sine nomine and the Missa De beata virgine, also have canonic Creeds based on this plainchant melody; so it would seem that Josquin tackled the same challenge three times over, arriving at three different solutions. Moreover the Creeds of the Missa Sine nomine and the Missa De beata virgine sometimes sound remarkably simi­lar to the Credo quarti toni, raising the possibility that the Cambrai setting was a prototype that the later Masses later cannibalized. In the Cambrai manuscript the Credo quarti toni is copied immediately after the Missa De beata virgine. Might Josquin therefore have drafted it to be part of that Mass, but quickly rejected it, composing instead the five-voice setting that then became standard? The theory has its appeal; but as so often with Josquin, we may never know the truth.

from notes by John Milsom © 2011

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