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This recording explores the six-voice music of the most influential of all Renaissance composers, Josquin Desprez. It includes all the six-voice songs that seem likely to be by him as well as most of his six-voice motets (the main exception being Praeter rerum seriem) His only other six-voice music is in the last Agnus Dei of three Mass cycles-L'homme arme sexti toni, Hercules dux Ferrariae and Malheur me bat.
The six-voice medium was very rare before 1500; Josquin was the first composer to cultivate it extensively, and it seems clear that he did so only in his last years, with most of his known output already behind him. His masses are all essentially in four voices, as are the vast majority of his motets. If he was really born in about 1440, as is currently believed, he was well over 60 when he spent his year as choirmaster at the Ferrara court, 1503-4; in April 1504 he returned north to become provost of Notre-Dame, Conde, staying there until his death in August 1521. The picture that emerges from recent research is that in those years he composed relatively little but concentrated on exploring new genres; most particularly, he seems to have focused his attention on secular music.
Of the motets, the great Pater noster may be one of his last, since it was the piece he asked to have sung in his memory at Conde during all general processions. If Jaap van Benthem is right in believing that Absolve quesumus is in memory of King Ferdinand the Catholic (d. February 1516), this too is very late. But the same years apparently saw the composition of the tiny six-voice songs, immaculately worked gems of condensed musical expression.
A glance at the list of Josquin's music in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians will show that almost half the works ascribed to him are now considered spurious (and their number is constantly growing). For the songs in six voices (and indeed those in five voices), the earliest real source is a volume printed by the Antwerp publisher Tylman Susato in 1545, 24 years after Josquin's death; and Pierre Attaingnant republished them in Paris four years later. In most cases there is no earlier source and no other authority to say that Josquin composed them. Over the years this has caused much heart-searching among Josquin scholars; at various times Allegez moy, Basies moy, Pour souhaitter, Vous Varez and Vous ne l' arez have all been judged inauthentic; but the case has never been clear. The opportunity of hearing them all together (and alongside the six-voice motets) may help the listener to approach new judgments.
Generally the six-voice music of these years is built on a canonic basis: two voices in pure canon with a free polyphonic texture around them. In most cases this canon is buried within the texture and thus is hard to hear. But there is a wide range of canonic techniques employed; and the different canonic intervals have wide-reaching harmonic implications-thus there is a clearly audible difference in the move, in Pater noster, from canon at the fifth for the prima pars to unison canon in the secunda pars. That is why the canonic intervals are itemized along with the texts in this booklet.
Also important is the choice of textures. Like most composers of his time, Josquin basically worked with three voice ranges, which we can call high, middle and low (h, m, l). For the six-voice music he used three different distributions, as follows:
(1) hhmmll: Mass L'homme arme sexti toni (Agnus III), Mass Hercules dux Ferrariae (Agnus III), Petite camusette
(2) hmmmll: Mass Malheur me bat (Agnus III), Benedicta es, Praeter rerum seriem, O virgo virginum, Allegez moy.
(3) hmmmml: Pater noster, O virgo prudentissima, Absolve quesumus, Regretz sans fin, Nymphes nappees, Vous l' arez, Vous ne Varez pas, Si congie prens, Basies moy (6vv version), Pour souhaitter.
This hardly resolves the question of Josquin chronology for the late works, but it remains true that the known evidence appears to support this as a broad outline; and certainly the different voice-distributions bring with them different kinds of texture, handled in a characteristically masterful way. Hearing them all together may perhaps help the listener to understand those varieties of texture.
The other pieces recorded here can be summarized briefly. Four are three-voice songs: two of them on the En I'ombre theme, plainly related in both their texts and their musical style, though in the event strikingly different works; the other two in the "chanson-motet" genre, using a forme-fixe for the upper voices above a stylized plainchant-derived bassus line, works that may be among his earliest. In addition there are two of his most famous songs, the four-voice Mille regretz and the five-voice lament for Johannes Okeghem (d. 1497), Nymphes des bois-this last in particular so different from what we otherwise know of Josquin's style as to prompt a certain caution in over-hasty conclusions about which works are his.
1 There are in fact five more six-voice songs ascribed to Josquin in the sources. Two are fragmentary: only three voices survive of his six-voice Adieu mes amours, and only one of his Fors seulement. J'ay bien cause, printed only in a late German collection, is based on a melody by Loyset Compere, and Ma bouche rit was almost certainly composed as a five-voice work; both seem to be instrumental pieces and neither is likely to be by him. Tenez moy is firmly rejected by Jaap van Benthem, who prepared the editions for this recording.
2 It would be idle to summarize here the complexities of the ascription and status of Josquin's six-voice motets, though there is now far more agreement than for the six-voice songs.