Nota Bene: ‘Like A Virgin’ programme

NOTA BENE viol consort

Joanna Blendulf – Wendy Gillespie – Sarah Mead – Emily Walhout
with guest
Julie Jeffrey
Recorded August 22, 2021
Avaloch Farm Music Institute, Boscawen, NH


Inviolata, integra et casta Salve regina

  • Josquin des Prez (ca.1450-1520)


Comme femme desconfortée
Comme femme (à3 & à4)
Inviolata, integra et casta/Comme femme

  • Giles Binchois (?) (ca.1400-1460)
  • Alexander Agricola (1445-1506)
  • Johannes Ghiselin (f.1491-1507)


Stabat mater/Comme femme
Ave rosa sine spinis/Comme femme

  • Josquin
  • Ludwig Senfl (ca1486-1543)


Comment peult avoir joye
Missa “Wohlauf, gut Gsell von Hinnen” – Agnus Dei
Fortuna desperata
Missa “Fortuna desperata” – Agnus Dei; Kyrie

  • Josquin
  • Heinrich Isaac (ca.1450-1517)
  • Antoine Busnois (?) (ca.1430-1492)
  • Josquin


Dulces exuviae
Dulces exuviae
Dulces exuviae

  • Josquin
  • Marbrianus de Orto (ca.1460-1529)
  • Adrian Willaert (ca.1490-1562)


Fama malum
Mon mari m’a diffamée Mon mari m’a diffamée Mon mari m’a diffamée

  • Josquin
  • [Anon, Canti C](1503)
  • Josquin
  • Willaert


Le villain
Si, j’ay perdu mon amy
Je me complains de mon amy
N’est-ce pas ung grant desplaisir

  • Josquin

NOTA BENE recorded this program on a set of Renaissance viols built in the 1980’s by Canadian luthier and musicologist Ray Nurse, based on surviving instruments from Brescian workshops of the 1580’s. The maker believes that these instruments reflected an established tradition of viol-making that went back more than a generation in Northern Italy, to a time when many of the pieces on this program were first circulated in the area. The popularity of home music-making helped to fuel the growth of the music publishing industry in the first half of the 16th century, and it is quite likely that pieces like these would have been played on quite similar instruments around the table on long winter evenings.

The set of five Brescian-style instruments by Ray Nurse (alto, three basses, and great bass) are supplemented by a treble viol built on a similar model by the Brazilian luthier Fernando Ferreira, now working in Cremona, Italy. The matched acacia bows were made for the consort by Coen Engelhard in southern France.

LIKE A VIRGIN – The original idea for this program came from consort-member Wendy Gillespie, who was struck by the number of sacred pieces dedicated to the Virgin Mary from the early part of the 16th century which incorporated the secular song Comme femme desconfortée as a cantus firmus. The song, embodying the universal image of a woman’s suffering, thus became the inner core of several motets glorifying the ultimate religious symbol of womanhood.

Barely anything is known about Josquin’s private life, and nothing at all about the women he must inevitably have encountered and interacted with in his journey from infancy to old age; still, a perusal of the texts he chose to set shows both reverence and empathy (in addition to the inevitable suggestive or longing courtship poems that were a large part of the day’s secular repertoire). We know that the aging musician and cleric left explicit instructions in his will for the regular singing of one of his Marian motets in front of an image of the Virgin outside his home in Condé. His most autobiographical composition (Illibata Dei Virgo nutrix – in which he hides clues to his name and origins in the form of an acrostic) invokes Mary as the “sole parent of the world” and calls for her support of all who make music in her honor.

The evidence of the composer’s personal attachment to the image of the Virgin Mother elucidates his choice of cantus firmus in his only surviving setting of the 13th-c hymn Stabat Mater dolorosa, in which the Mother of Jesus is depicted weeping at the foot of the cross. The well-known song Comme femme desconfortée asks us to identify with the plight of all disconsolate women; by incorporating this melody into the hymn, Josquin draws our individual experience into the holy narrative. In contrast, Josquin’s contemporary Ghiselin used this same evocative tune in a motet whose text celebrates Mary’s perfection and chastity rather than her suffering. Ludwig Senfl, a great admirer of the older composer, used the same cantus firmus in combination with a text that hails Mary as “preserved from all suffering.”

Josquin and his contemporaries would have been very familiar with the song Fortuna desperata, which appeared in many forms throughout the latter part of the 15th century. Of course he used a number of popular songs as the basis for his masses, with a variety of original texts, so we cannot read too much meaning into his use of this particular one. However, both worshippers and singers would have recognized the tune and its attendant accompanying lines as they wove through his mass setting, and may subconsciously have been reminded of the vicissitudes of fate, particularly as it can affect a woman’s reputation. Josquin set another chanson on a similar theme with Comment peut avoir joye. Putting the melody in a canon between the top voice and the tenor, he subtly illustrates the last line of the song: “singing doesn’t help when you’re unhappy.” The same melody appears with an alternate religious text in Germany as Wohlauf gut gsell. Josquin’s contemporary, Heinrich Isaac, exploited its adaptability in the Agnus of his mass on that tune by rendering it as a triple canon, paired with two energetic bass parts.

One of history’s most famous “disconsolate women” was the legendary Dido in Virgil’s Aeneid. The anguished speech before her tragic suicide would have been a part of every literate person’s education in Renaissance Europe. It became the basis of a number of secular motets, including the three heard here: the first by Josquin himself, the second by Marbrianus de Orto Josquin’s colleague in the Sistine Chapel choir, and the third by Willaert, a great admirer of Josquin’s work.

Virgil’s description of the destructive power of rumor is another well-known passage from the Aeneid. Josquin illustrates the poet’s images in his setting of Fama malum, beginning with a falling motive in close imitation that evokes mocking voices repeating each other’s accusations. As Virgil describes how rumor gains strength from the speed of its spread, the music illustrates its velocity. The hesitancy with which a new rumor appears is introduced in a duet in the upper voices, while the lower voices join in the clamor as it gains in magnitude. Rumor can smear a good reputation (as it does in the song Fortuna desperata heard earlier in the program). But rancor can cut both ways. The song Mon mary m’a diffamée clearly was a source of amusement to several composers of Josquin’s time, who had fun characterizing this scene of marital strife and feminine assertiveness, from the anonymous setting in Petrucci’s third book of Flemish songs for the Italian market to Josquin’s simple three-voice chanson to the clever double-canon of Willaert.

We end our program with four of Josquin’s songs which illustrate some of the troubles a woman might encounter with men. The original text of Le villain has not yet been found, but the title sums up the subject: a brutish man, an oaf, a ne’er-do-well – definitely nobody’s idea of a great boyfriend. In the following songs we hear the complaints of women who have been dumped, stood up, or denied their autonomy. From the most elevated sorrows of Mary and Dido to the everyday woes of a slighted woman, Josquin as a composer seems to have been able to embody and express a woman’s voice in a world where it was rarely heard.

Although this program is performed instrumentally, the texts infuse each composition with shape and meaning that would have been well understood by players of the period. A summary of each text follows:

Inviolata, integra et casta es Maria:  
Quae es effecta fulgida caeli porta…    
O benigna! O Regina! O Maria!          
Quae sola inviolata permansisti.

Inviolate, whole and chaste are you,Mary:
you are the shining gate of heaven…   O kindly one! O Queen! O Mary!
you alone remain inviolate.

Salve Regina, Mater misericordiae,     
Vita, dulcedo, et spes nostra, Salve!… 
Eja ergo, advocata nostra,    
Illos tuos misericordes oculos ad nos converte…              
O clemens, O pia, O dulcis Virgo Maria

Hail, Holy Queen, Mother of mercy, Our life, our sweetness and our hope, hail!… Turn, then, most gracious advocate, thine eyes of mercy toward us… O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary.

Comme femme desconfortée sur toutes aultres esgarée Qui n’ay jour de ma vye espoir d’estre en mon temps consolée,  Mais en mon mal plus agrevée desire la mort main et soir.

Like a disconsolate woman more miserable than any other, With no hope – ever in my life – of being consoled while I live, But ever more grieved by my ills, I desire death day and night.

Stabat mater dolorosa/juxta crucem lacrimosa,           
dum pendebat Filius.             

The grieving mother stood next to the cross, tearful, While her son hung…

Ave rosa sine spinis/te quam Pater in divinis   
Majestate sublimavit/et ab omni vae purgavit.  

Hail, rose without thorns, you whom the heavenly Father elevated in majesty and preserved from all suffering

Comment peult avoir joye qui fortune contrent?… De chanter il n’a cure qui vit en desplaisir.        

How can you feel joy when fortune gets in the way?… Singing doesn’t help when you’re unhappy

Fortuna desperata, iniqua e maledecta, Che de tal dona electa la fama hai denigrata.       

Cruel fate, unfair and cursed, which has slandered the good name of such a fine woman.

Dulces exuviae, dum fata deusque sinebat, accipiter hanc animam meque his exsolvite curis…  felix, heu nimium felix, si litora tantum numquam Dardaniae tetigissent nostra carinae.


Sweet mementos, while the divine fates allow, Receive this my spirit and free me from these troubles… Happy – alas, too happy – if those Trojan keels Had never reached our shores.                  Virgil – Aeneid IV: the death of Dido

Fama malum qua non aliud velocius ullum,    
mobilitate viget, viresque adquirit eundo,          
parva metu primo, mox sese attollit in auras        
ingrediturque solo et caput inter nubila condit.                 

Rumor – of all evils the swiftest – gains strength from speed, and vigor from motion. Small and timid at first, she soon mounts up to heaven and treads the ground with her head among the clouds.
Virgil – Aeneid, IV: rumor

Mon mary m’a diffamée pour l’amour de mon amy.  Pour la longe demourée que j’ay faict avecque luy.  En despit de mon mary qui me va tout jour batant,  j’en feray pis que devant.      

My husband has smeared my name for loving my boyfriend, and for spending so much time with him. To get back at my husband (who is always beating me) I’m going to behave even worse than before.

Si j’ay perdu mon amy, je n’ay pas cause de rire.  Je l’avoye sur tous choisi; vray dieu, que voules vous dire?            

Yes, I’ve lost my boyfriend, and it’s not funny. I chose him over all the rest – dear God, what’s the point?

Ie me complains de mon amy               
qui me souloit venir veoir la fresche matinee.     
Or est il prime’ et ses midi    
et si nay nouvelle de luy s’aproche la vespree.  

I’m in a state about my boyfriend who usually comes first thing in the morning. But now it’s almost noon, and it could be evening before I hear from him

Nesse pas ung grant desplaisir/Quant je n’ose pour mon plaisir, Pour mon bien et ma santé/Faire du mien ma volonté, et si n’ay point aultre desir?                  

Isn’t it a great displeasure when I don’t dare, for my pleasure,  for my own health & well-being, do what I want with what is my own even if it’s the only thing I want?