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peter phillips Heaven and earth: a performer’s guide to Josquin’s masses

I am grateful to Rob C. Wegman, Kerry McCarthy and Timothy Symons for reading early drafts of this article.

1. The difficulty with determining the chronology of the masses of Josquin’s mature period is that ‘they explore different paths and solve different problems with nearly equal accomplishment’ (Jeremy Noble: ‘Josquin Desprez’, in Gustav Reese, Jeremy Noble et al.: The new Grove High Renaissance masters (New York & London, 1984), p.50. 2. Ottaviano Petrucci published three volumes dedicated entirely to the masses of Josquin: Misse Josquin (Venice, 1502), later reissued as Liber primus Missarum Josquin; Missarum Josquin Liber secundus (Venice, 1505); and Missarum Josquin Liber tertius (Fossombrone, 1514).

Difficult to sing, difficult to interpret, impossible to categorise,1 yet outstanding at everything he turned his mind to, Josquin had no rivals in his lifetime, and has had very few since. With someone as overwhelming as this, it is fruitless to try to define him by characteristic fingerprints of composition, as one can do with a Gombert or even a Byrd. He came up with so many individual ideas and procedures so regularly that one is soon reduced simply to acknowledging that here was a musical mind which was constantly looking for novelty, coupled to an astonishing certainty of thought. In this self-assured daring he has really only been rivalled by Bach, Wagner and Beethoven.

I became interested in Josquin’s masses as a set because I came to think that each one had its own method in its own soundworld, like Beethoven working through the possibilities of the symphony, a process which culminated in the most sophisticated symphony written up to that time; and so concluded that it would be fascinating to follow a composer of Josquin’s genius on a similar journey. Of course the masses are only part of the story. There are motets and secular pieces which, if anything, scale new, but different, heights. But in setting the text of the mass Ordinary repeatedly, it seemed that Josquin was trying to solve the same problems from different angles at different times in his career.

I am therefore keen to include in the set as many masses by Josquin as may be reasonably attributed to him. Put like that, this doesn’t have to be as complicated a task as many have made it. By far the most important sources for Josquin’s masses are three books dedicated solely to them by the Venetian printer Ottaviano Petrucci.2 They all appeared in the composer’s lifetime, in 1502, 1505 and 1514, and include every mass under discussion except the Missa Pange lingua, which may postdate the 1514 volume. Although the evidence provided by these volumes has been constantly questioned by scholars it suits my view to accept Petrucci’s belief that all the masses he published as being by Josquin were in fact by Josquin. I am prepared to accept that they form a complete oeuvre, which gives us the freedom to approach them as being the product of a single mind, rather than explaining their variety by trying to find several alternative minds. I accept of course that Petrucci might have been pulling the odd fast one, to boost sales, especially for the 1514 collection. But Josquin was still very much alive then, albeit far from the musical times Autumn 2018 3

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