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Copious volumes have been written about Josquin des Prez and the ongoing research into his life and works by many of the finest musicologists still bears fruit from time to time. Only recently, a definitive date of composition has been ascertained for one of his last and most beautiful motets, Pater noster/Ave Maria, which the Linarol Consort will be performing later this month with the Binchois Consort.
Despite all this, biographical details of Josquin, the towering figure in the musical life of the late 15th and early 16th centuries, remain scarce and the cause of considerable debate. Neither the date nor the place of Josquin’s birth are known. He was probably born around 1450-1455 and probably not within the lands of the Lord of Condé. Near the end of his life, when living in Condé-sur-l’Escaut, for tax reasons he declared himself a foreigner, stating that he was born beyond the “Noir Eauwe”. The village of Prez is located just south of the river Eau Noire, on the border of Hainault (modern-day Belgium) and France and was just outside the Condé lands. Could this be the place of his birth?
For the first concrete record of Josquin as a musician, we have to wait until 19th April 1477, when we see him confirmed as a singer in the chapel of René of Anjou, Duc de Lorraine, at Aix-en-Provence. Records show that when René died in 1480, most of his singers were transferred to the royal chapel of Louis XI of France, but there is, tantalisingly, no specific mention of Josquin at this juncture. Circumstantial evidence suggesting that he too entered royal service includes the composition of In te Domine speravi around the time of the death of Louis in August, 1483. The king was said famously to have had those words on his lips during his final moments. In the same year, Josquin visited Condé-sur- l’Escaut to deal with the estate of his uncle and aunt, who had made him their sole heir. By this time we can see by the large number of manuscripts containing his compositions that he was already enjoying a considerable reputation. The Casanatense Manuscript (Rome, Biblioteca Casanatense Ms. 2856) was compiled in Ferrara for the betrothal of Isabella d’Este to Francesco Gonzaga in 1480 and includes three works in this programme: Adieu mes amours, Ile fantazies de Joskin and Que vous ma dame. There is still debate over whether or not Josquin was in the service of the d’Este family in Ferrara at this time. The attribution of six pieces in the Casanatense Manuscript might attest to his presence, but the case is weakened by the six different spellings of his name. If he were well-known in the court, scribes may well have adopted a consistent approach.
We next see Josquin in the service of the Sforza family in Milan around 1483. Here, he was awarded the benefices of a number of parishes, whilst successfully resisting ordination itself. Despite achieving an international reputation, our composer suffered throughout his career with patrons who were not always punctilious in the matter of remuneration of their servants, and the Sforza family was no exception. Whilst in the service of Ascanio Sforza in the early 1480s, a fellow musician and poet, Serafino dall’Aquila, composed the sonnet Ad Jusquino suo compagno musico in Ascanio, in which he advises Josquin not to become too despondent over the poor pay he is receiving. Adieu mes amours also seems to deal with the suffering endured through lack of money and the motet Memor esto (“Think upon thy servant, as concerning thy word: wherein thou hast caused me to put my trust.”) was said by the theorist Glarean to have been written to remind Louis XII of France that he had failed to honour a promise of a benefice.
In June 1489, Josquin joined the Papal chapel, where he remained until 1494 or ’95, during the papacies of Innocent VIII and, from 1492, the Borgia Pope Alexander VI. It is during this period that possibly the only example of his own hand survives – the carving of graffiti into the wall of the choir balcony in theSistine Chapel of “Josquinj”. His movements then become unclear again. Recently unearthed documents seem to suggest that he could have been in France in the late 1490s, although circumstantial evidence also points to the possibility of a second period of service in the household of Ascanio Sforza. In December 1498 Ludovico Gonzaga, bishop of Mantua, wrote to Rome that he was sending a servant named ‘Juschino’ to deliver some hunting dogs to Ascanio. In February 1499 Ascanio wrote to Isabella d’Este, thanking her for the gift of hunting dogs that had been delivered by his servant Juschino. It was probably about this time that Josquin composed the two frottole In te Domine speravi and El grillo, published by Petrucci with the ascription ‘Josquin Dascanio’. We do know that he entered the service of Ercole d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, in 1503. In early 1502, one of Ercole’s agents, Girolamo da Sestola, had been sent to Paris to propose to Josquin a position at Ferrara. Some months later, on 14 August 1502, the agent was back in Ferrara and wrote to recommend Josquin to Ercole, who was still in Milan:
“My Lord, I believe that there is neither lord nor king who will now have a better chapel than yours if Your Lordship sends for Josquin … and by having Josquin in our chapel I want to place a crown upon this chapel of ours.”
Some two weeks later, on 2 September, an opposing view arrived from another of Ercole’s agents, Gian de Artiganova, who recommended Heinrich Isaac:
“To me [Isaac] seems well suited to serve Your Lordship, more so than Josquin, because he is more good-natured and companionable, and 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 200 ducats in salary while Isaac will come for 120 – but Your Lordship will decide.”
Josquin remained in Ferrara as Maestro di Cappella for only one year (April 1502 – April 1503), receiving those 200 ducats, the highest ever salary paid to a musician in the court. An outbreak of the plague saw him fleeing the city in late April and his place was filled by Jacob Obrecht for half the salary. Obrecht was to succumb to the plague in 1504.
Josquin’s final years were spent in Condé-sur-l’Escaut as Provost of the collegiate church of Notre Dame. He must have travelled directly there from Ferrara, arriving on 3rd May 1503. Notre Dame had a large choir of some 22 singers and was usually under the leadership of musicians favoured by the Burgundian court. Cueurs desolez was probably composed during this period. Marguerite of Austria’s court poet, Jean Lemaire, wrote a long poem, La plainte du desiré, to commemorate the death in 1503 of the French military leader, Louis of Luxembourg. In a later version of the poem, Josquin is called upon to compose a lament based on the Lamentations of Jeremiah, and it has been supposed that the five-voice Cueurs desolez, with its cantus firmus Plorans ploravi taken from the Lamentations, is the result. The late chanson, Mille regretz, may well be one of those presented to Charles V in 1520. It made an immediate impact on the emperor , who ordered a large payment to be made for two singers from Condé, one called “Joskin”. It is certainly clear from later evidence that it remained one of Charles’s favourite pieces.
After his death on 27th August, 1521, Josquin’s house was sold in order to pay for commemorative services in his memory. One of these included the singing of one of his last motets, Pater noster/Ave Maria, on days of processions, to be sung when the procession halted before the image of the Blessed Virgin Mary attached to the wall of Josquin’s house, which stood on the market square. Josquin was buried in the graveyard of Notre Dame in a grave that was destroyed during the French Revolution in 1793. His tomb stone bore the following inscription:
“Here lies Master Josse Despres, formerly provost of this place; pray to God for the dead, that he grant them his paradise. He died in the year 1521 on 27 August. Thou hast ever been my hope.”
The 500 years between us make it almost impossible to know the character of the man (L. P. Hartley’s words “The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there” ring very true), but small insights into Josquin’s nature can be gleaned from occasional anecdotes. Johannes Manlius, a Lutheran humanist educated in the Erasmian circle in Basel, stated that whenever Josquin composed a new work he would give it to the choir to sing, and then walk about listening carefully. Whenever he heard something that displeased him, he would say: “Be silent; I will change that.” Manlius also reported that Josquin could be harsh: when a singer introduced ornaments into one of his works, he entered the choir and said:
“You donkey, why did you add embellishments? If I had wanted them, I would have written them myself. If you wish to correct musical works that have been composed in a natural or plain style, then write your own, but leave my works unaltered.”
Martin Luther delivered a famous judgment on Josquin during one of his Tischreden (table talks) in 1538, making particular reference to Josquin’s six-part Nimphes, nappés, built around a canonic cantus firmus on Circumdederunt me gemitus mortis. After singing the work with the Latin text Haec dicit Dominus, Luther commented:
“Josquin is the master of the notes, which must do as he wishes, while other composers must follow what the notes dictate. He most certainly possessed a great spirit … particularly since he was able to work Haec dicit Dominus and Circumdederunt together so effectively and melodiously.”
Luther is probably also the source of the wry comment that
“…now that Josquin is dead, he is putting out more works than when he was still alive.”
David Hatcher 2021
In te Domine speravi
In Thee O Lord did I hope to find pity for ever. But in a sad and dark hell I was, and suffered in vain.
Broken and thrown to the wind is all hope.
I have seen Heaven turn me to weeping. Only sighs and tears remain to me of my sad, strong hope.
I was wounded, but in my sorrow I called upon Thee. In Thee O Lord did I hope…
Rumour, whose life is speed, whose going gives her force; Timid and small at first, she soon lifts up her body in the air. She stalks the ground; her head is hidden in the clouds. Aeneid IV, 174-177
O relics, dear while fate and god allowed, receive my spirit and free me from these cares; for I have lived a life and completed the journey that fate gave me, and now my proud spirit will pass beneath the earth. Aeneid IV.651–4
Adieu mes amours
Farewell my loves, to God I commend you. Farewell I say until the spring. I am worried about what I shall live on. The reason why? I will tell you: I have no more money. Shall I live on air, if the king’s money does not come more often?
La deploration sur la mort d’Ockeghem
Wood-nymphs, goddesses of the fountains, Finest singers of every nation, turn you voices, strong, clear and lofty, to piercing cries and lamentations. For by Atropos’s* molestations your Ockeghem has been trapped.
The true treasurer of music and master, who, despite all that, will not escape. What great harm encompasses the earth. Put on mourning weeds: Josquin, Brumel, Pierre de la Rue, Compère, and weep great tears from your eyes. Your good father is lost.
Tenor: May they rest in peace. Amen.
* Atropos: the Fate whose role it was to cut the thread of human life with her shears.
“Kiss me, my sweetheart, as my true love, I beg you!” “Indeed I will not, and why? If I were foolish, my mother might be hurt: that’s why.”
A thousand regrets for abandoning you and leaving your loving face. I have such great sorrow and pain that soon my days will be seen to be numbered.
All the world’s regrets and the sufferings that pain both men and women are but light-hearted pleasures next to mine, that torment me in such heartless ways that my spirits know no longer what to do.
No more regrets and mournful joy. Come to me, wherever I am, and once and for all, without deception, assassinate my heart, so that it may dissolve in grief and tears.
Hearts, grieve for all the nation. Assemble sorrow and lamentation. Do not search for harmony anymore, for Orpheus’ lyre to rejoice, but plunge yourselves into desolation.
Tenor, from The Lamentations of Jeremiah: She weepeth sore in the night, and her tears are on her cheeks; she hath none to comfort her among all her lovers.
The Linarol Consort of Renaissance Viols draws together players who are leading exponents of the viol as both a consort and solo instrument, and focuses uniquely on their love of the instrument’s very earliest sound and repertoire.
The consort takes its name from the maker of the original viol on which the instruments they play are modelled: all are copies of one surviving viol by the Venetian maker Francesco Linarol, who was active throughout the early 16th century. It is currently displayed in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. David has worked closely with viol maker Richard Jones, who will shortly complete his 100th copy of the Linarol viol, a tenor for consort member Claire Horáček, to recreate two sets of viols: a “high” consort of treble, two tenors and a bass, and a “low” consort, pitched a fourth lower, comprising a tenor, two basses and a “great” bass.
Héloïse Bernard is a French-American singer based in Glasgow. A graduate of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, she also holds a Bachelor in Music from the Estonian National Academy of Music and Theatre and a Masters in French Literature from the University of Paris. Her operatic roles have included Missia in the Merry Widow, by Lehàr, Eurydice in Orphée aux Enfers, by Offenbach, both at the Festival d’Opera Bouffe d’Etriché, in France. She has sung Mélisande in Auri Jurna’s creation of Pelleas/Mélisande at the Theatre Von Glehni in Tallinn and at the International Student Drama Festival in Tartu, Susanna in Mozart’s Figaro with the Opera de Catelló, Amore, in L’incoronazione di Poppea by Monteverdi with the ensemble OrQuesta, or Lucy, in The Telephone, by Menotti. An actress since her childhood, she completed a degree in Drama at the Ecole Nationale de Créteil. Once in the the UK, she played the roles of Chorus, Boy and Catherine in Leo Graham’s staging of Henry V, by Shakespeare, in November 2017.
Very fond of baroque music, she has performed profane and sacred repertoire with various ensembles in France, the Netherlands and Estonia, where she has appeared as Dido in Dido and Aeneas with the Young Baroque Ensemble and more recently as Iris, in Eccles’s Semele with the Academy of Ancient music, directed by Julian Perkins. She collaborates with Estonian lutenist Kristiina Watt in the Ensemble Cordes en Ciel.
A keen chamber musican, Héloïse sings with pianist José Javier Ucendo. They were awarded the third prize in the Lied Duo competition in Tallinn in April 2016. Their collaboration has led them to the Oxford Lieder Festival where they participated in the Oxford lieder masterclasses for young duos.
Héloïse nourishes a deep interest in contemporary music, involving herself in projects with young poets and composers such as Electra Perivolaris.