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Josquin’s sublime, brief tribute to the memory of Ockeghem—Nymphes des bois—is the emotional core of a programme which explores Josquin’s own influence on some of the great names of his time.
Taking inspiration from Josquin’s 500th-anniversary year in 2021, The Gesualdo Six now explore Josquin’s legacy in Ferrara, a particular destination for composers from France and the Low Countries who were dubbed the ‘Oltremontani’. This album explores some of the chief musical relationships between these composers in the early sixteenth century and how these were influenced by Josquin’s tenure.
Our programme begins with Johannes Ockeghem’s Intemerata Dei mater. This five-voice setting of an obscure Marian text in three parts which pleads for the intercession of the Virgin Mary is a tour de force, showcasing Ockeghem’s range of vocal textures, from dense and intricate polyphony to the use of homophony, such as that used to describe ‘dulci quos nectare potas’. Here Ockeghem uses longer note values to allow for a corporate and languid approach to the text, conjuring to the singers’ throats the sensations of the sweet nectar given to humankind.
When Gilles Binchois, one of the foremost composers of his generation, died in 1460, Ockeghem wrote a motet-chanson, Mort, tu as navré / Miserere, deploring his death. Much of Binchois’s biographical information is understood primarily from this first historical example of a motet-chanson, and it is one of the earliest recorded musical deplorations: works which lament the death of someone important to the composer. In lamenting the death of Binchois, Ockeghem intentionally set himself up alongside one the most famous musicians of the early fifteenth century. Binchois’s music appears in manuscripts copied in Ferrara during the mid-fifteenth century, including a simple composition based on the chant Da pacem, Domine.
The emotional core of our programme is centred around Josquin’s Nymphes des bois (subtitled ‘Déploration sur la mort de Johannes Ockeghem’), a beautiful and personal work which echoes Ockeghem’s own deploration for Binchois, extending Ockeghem’s musical ‘genealogy’ to Josquin—itself later continued by deploration settings for Josquin by Gombert, Jacquet of Mantua and others.
Josquin sets Molinet’s Art de rhetorique, which employs techniques that might feel more suited to twenty-first-century French rap: ‘Car Atropos, tres terrible satrappe, / A vostre Okgem, atrape en sa trape’ (‘Because Atropos, such a terrible satrap, / has caught your Ockeghem in her trap’).
Molinet’s Nymphes des bois is itself responding to Guillaume Crétin’s significantly longer poem ‘Déploration … sur le trépas de Jean Okeghem’, which calls upon a host of famous composers such as Agricola, Prioris and Verbonnet to lament the passing of their ‘bon père’ Ockeghem. Molinet opts to mention a more select group of only four: ‘Acoutrez vous d’abitz de deuil; / Josquin, Brumel, Pierchon, Compère’ (‘Put on your mourning clothes; / Josquin, Brumel, La Rue, Compère’).
Recent work by Dr Jeannette Jones suggests that Nymphes des bois could well date from 1502/3, immediately before Josquin’s arrival in Ferrara from Lyon. In early sources Nymphes des bois is written in black notation to signify mourning, and Josquin uses the Requiem aeternam text as a cantus firmus in the tenor part, with the chant stretched out in long notes underpinning almost all of the work. He transposes this chant, the introit for the Office of the Dead, down a step into the Phyrigian mode, giving the chant an unearthly quality. This may even be a reference to some of Ockeghem’s more mysterious works, in which by writing without a musical clef he omits to specify the relationships between pitches, as in his three-part canon Prenez sur moi.
Loyset Compère was a Franco-Flemish composer and regular correspondent with Josquin. It is thought that he even swapped benefices with Josquin to enable him to spend his year in Ferrara. Compère’s Quis numerare queat (which draws upon a text also set by Jacob Obrecht) was possibly written to celebrate the Treaty of Bagnolo, signed in 1484, which brought peace between Ferrara and a coalition of the Venetian and Papal states. The chant Da pacem, Domine appears as a canon, providing a double cantus firmus in all three sections in different parts—a technique employed by other composers with Ferrarese connections, extending all the way to Gesualdo over a century later.
The main Latin text is a quasi-political screed in support of peace in Italy; it is set very syllabically, giving the work momentum and a sense of inevitability. Quis numerare queat closes with an extended sequence of falling thirds in the highest part, a technique thought to be archetypal of Josquin’s writing, as demonstrated in the list of composers in Nymphes des bois. As Quis numerare queat is thought to predate Nymphes des bois by over a decade, it is possible that Compère’s work provided Josquin with inspiration for his own use of the technique.
Another Oltremontani composer, Antoine Brumel was made maestro di cappella at Ferrara by Ercole I’s heir, Duke Alfonso I, in 1506 as a waning of the plague and relative peace with Ferrara’s neighbours allowed for the re-formation of a large chapel choir. Already a highly reputed musician, Brumel was also a prolific composer, and several works of his were included in songbooks presented to King Henry VIII and his wives. Tous les regretz is a wistful chanson based on a text set also by Pierre de La Rue and Gombert, and it forms part of a group of works called ‘Regretz chansons’. Josquin wrote several of these, including the famous Mille regretz, and there are also instances from the other members of Molinet’s circle: La Rue and Compère.
Originally ascribed to Josquin himself, it is now thought that Absalon fili mi was written by Pierre de La Rue, a celebrated composer at the French Court. Depicting a topic later notably tackled by Gombert, Tomkins and Weelkes, this early and astonishing setting of King David’s lament for his dead son was printed in extremely low clefs, and we perform it here in that original key. Low clefs were used to indicate seriousness and gravity, similar to their use in many early fifteenth-century settings of the Lamentations of Jeremiah.
Josquin’s Illibata Dei virgo nutrix displays perhaps a more flamboyant side to his compositional style and sets a Marian text written possibly by Josquin himself—the text of the prima pars forms the acrostic ‘IOSQVIN Des PREZ’. Illibata is an intensely structured work and features extended duets which go on to combine with a cantus firmus of la–mi–la, a soggetto cavato. This technique, pioneered by Josquin and named by the Venetian music theorist Gioseffo Zarlino, involves the creation of a musical subject literally ‘carved’ from the vowels of a word or phrase (here from ‘Maria’) and turned into the pitches of Guido d’Arezzo’s notational ‘solmization’ technique: ‘Maria’ → ‘a i a’ → ‘la mi la’. Josquin also famously used this technique for his Missa Hercules Dux Ferrarie, presumably written during his time at Ferrara and dedicated to Duke Ercole I.
Both Antoine de Févin and his brother Robert were prolific composers, and Antoine and his fellow Oltremontano Jean Mouton are known to have been at Ferrara alongside Brumel in the 1510s. Nesciens mater, a reasonably rarely set Christmas antiphon, is attributed to Antoine de Févin and may have been known to Mouton, potentially inspiring his own more famous setting with an 8-ex-4 canon (where eight parts are produced from four notated parts performed in canon, often at a different pitch). Févin’s work is highly melismatic, with a lack of textual repetition and the resulting scarcity of consonants giving the phrases a pleasingly transparent texture.
Jean Mouton’s Qui ne regrettoit is a relatively simple but heartfelt 4-ex-2 canon: four voices being produced from two notated parts. Lamenting Févin’s death in 1511/12, the work was published in Venice in 1520 alongside canons by Willaert and La Rue as well as Da pacem canons by Brumel and Prioris. More understated than Josquin’s Nymphes des bois, Mouton’s Qui ne regrettoit belies its visual simplicity and hints at a profound friendship between Févin and Mouton, the latter also having used this canon as the basis for his eight-voice motet Ave Maria, gemma virginum.
The Este family and Duke Ercole I in particular were supporters of the Ferrara-born radical preacher and sometime ruler of Florence, Girolamo Savonarola. The Duke wrote several letters to Savonarola in 1495, as well as enacting some religious reforms in Ferrara which echoed those in Savonarola’s Florence. However, Savonarola’s power rapidly waned and in May 1498 he was tortured, hanged and burned by a mob in Florence’s Piazza della Signoria. A gifted orator, he penned two texts from prison as he awaited his fate. The first, Infelix ego, is a meditation on Psalm 50 and was published in Ferrara later that year, inspiring Josquin’s famous Miserere mei, Deus.
Savonarolan texts were very important to the Este court and they continued to be set by a series of composers with links to Ferrara and the Este family. The first to set Infelix ego was Adrian Willaert, another Oltremontani composer, famous for his long career as maestro di cappella at St Mark’s, Venice. Between 1515 and his appointment at San Marco in 1527, Willaert was in the employ of various members of the Este family. Looking back to Josquin’s Miserere, Willaert’s Infelix ego uses a descending and ascending cantus firmus of Miserere mei, Deus high in the texture, with the words of Psalm 50 echoing in and out of focus and culminating as the other five voices join the final statement.
It is a sign of the high regard in which the Este family held courtly music that Duke Ercole I appointed Josquin to the role of maestro di cappella at Ferrara ahead of Heinrich Isaac in 1503, despite the now-famous letter written by the ill-fated male soprano and court spy Gian de Artiganova to Duke Ercole in 1502:
To me he [Isaac] seems well suited to serve Your Lordship, more so than Josquin, because he is better-natured and more companionable, and he will compose new works more often. It is true that Josquin composes better, but he composes when he wants to, and not when one wants him to, and he is asking for 200 ducats in salary while Isaac will come for 120—but Your Lordship will decide.
Esto mihi is from Heinrich Isaac’s well-known Choralis Constantinus, which the composer wrote in the years following his unsuccessful competition with Josquin. The work draws its text from Psalm 30, ‘In te, Domine, speravi’, the concluding statement of Savonarola’s unfinished second meditation from prison, Tristitia obsedit me.
Josquin’s O virgo prudentissima uses a double-canon cantus firmus of Beata mater et innupta virgo and is one of two settings by Josquin of a Marian text by Medici-educated polymath Angelo Poliziano. Although unlikely to have been composed during Josquin’s time at Ferrara, the text of the secunda pars alludes to the ancient hymn Sub tuum praesidium, itself set by many composers with Ferrarese connections, including Brumel, Lhéritier, Willaert and Rore.
Tu solus qui facis mirabilia is often taken as a classic example of Josquin’s Milanese style from the later 1400s. The work is primarily in Latin, includes several short duets and trios, and is largely homophonic. At the start of the secunda pars, however, Josquin again pays homage to Ockeghem by prefixing the two opening lines of text with the opening phrase of his chanson D’ung aultre amer.
We conclude with Jean Lhéritier’s Miserere mei, Domine. Another Oltremontano composer found in the choir registers of Ferrara, Lhéritier employs texts from Psalms 6 and 50. Some hints at Josquin’s Miserere are apparent in scoring and chosen text, but the work’s Ferrarese connections go further: Lhéritier uses a double-canon cantus firmus of Da pacem to provide the structure of the motet, with the same altus and tenor voices echoing the canon in Compère’s Quis numerare queat. Among Lhéritier’s motets are also several settings of psalms with Savonarolan context and a parody mass on a chanson attributed to Févin. These connections start to illuminate a considerable fraternity of Oltremontani composers working in Ferrara in the decades after Josquin’s stay.
Guy James © 2021