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Cinquecento Commemorates Josquin


On August 27, 1521, one of the greatest composers of the entire Renaissance, one whose reputation lasted long after him, Josquin des Prez, died in Condé-sur-l’Escaut. Already at the time of his death (when he was about seventy years old, he had long been sought after by patrons and highly regarded by music lovers like Martin Luther, who notably remarked that Josquin could make the notes do his bidding, while other composers needed to do as the notes required. So there is no surprise that a major program of the 2021 Boston Early Music Festival should be devoted to the commemoration of the 500th year of his passing.

Normally a program for such an occasion would be made up largely of the music of the composer being commemorated, and perhaps a few pieces that reflect his influence. On this occasion, though, a fascinating variant on that sort of planning was undertaken by the Viennese vocal quintet Cinquecento (the group’s name is the Italian word for “500,” used as a shorthand for the 1500s, the 16th century. The ensemble, consists of five singers representing different European countries. They note in the official program biography that this composition is very similar to that of vocal ensembles in the period of the music they perform, when gifted singers were requested, transferred, hired, and even kidnapped between courts and cathedral choirs.

As repertory to recall the great Josquin, the prepared a large Requiem Mass by Jean Richafort (ca. 1480-ca. 1550), who was reputed to have been a student of Josquin’s. Such assertions rarely bear precise documentation; they could equally well simply mean that Richafort studied Josquin’s music closely. But Richafort’s interest in Josquin, at the very least, is evident from the fact a few of his works contain quotations from works by Josquin.

One of Richafort’s works is a large setting of the Mass for the Dead, composed in six vocal parts, which makes it larger and more demanding—and more expensive to perform—than the more common four-part liturgical pieces, or the five-part pieces that were becoming established as a standard size. Six voices was still rare in the early decades of the sixteenth century.

Susannah Clark’s pre-concert lecture effectively made the point that, even though Richafort’s Requiem might have been performed for Josquin in 1521, a work of such scope is more likely to have been composed an aristocratic, even royal, funeral. She suggested therefore, that Richafort may well have composed this score, rather large in scale for its time, for the funeral of the French king Louis XII in 1515, building its structure, in part on musical ideas derived from Josquin (a favorite composer of the king’s). The references include a cantus firmus theme from a plainsong melody used in the Matins service for the dead, which Josquin had arranged as a canon at the fifth and a distance of three breves, a structural arrangement that Richafort follows.

Richafort also quotes actual material from works by Josquin, not simply a structural arrangement. Early in the Requiem, he quotes Josquin’s Nymphes, nappé, a relatively somber chanson underneath which Josquin created the canonic cantus firmus used in the Mass, but Richafort also paraphrases some of the other voices in the opening movements of the Requiem.

More surprising, perhaps, in the Gradual, is a chanson singing of “a grief like no other.” But in this case, the “grief” is not caused by the death of a loved one, but rather by Faulte d’argent–lack of money. And the closing line of  the chanson (though not quoted here, it was surely recognized by some listeners at least!) was quite nonliturgical: “a sleeping woman wakes up for cash.”

The entire program presented the Requiem à 6, alternating the plainsong passages as solo lines between the portions set as six-part counterpoint. But the first part was a singing of the plainsong Circumdederunt me, followed by the Josquin chanson, Nymphes, nappés in 6 parts with the previous plainsong used as a canonic cantus firmus, as described above. 

Then the bulk of what remained was the alternating plainsong and Requiem passages, Just before the Gradual, this pattern was interrupted for the singing of the lament for lack of money, Faulte d’argent, which Richafort quotes in the next Mass portion. Thereafter the remainder of the Mass unfolds with the alternating segments of plainsong and polyphony.

Finally, when the Requiem has ended, the singers of Cnquecento performed an extraordinary chanson by Josquin composed as his lament on the death of his great predecessor (“your good father”) Ockeghem, an indication of the tradition of musical laments of the time, and one of the most moving. During the course of it, the poem calls upon four of the leading composers of the time—Josquin, Brumel, Pierson, Compěre—to don mourning clothes and to “weep heavy tears.” This passage is one of the most remarkable in the entire Renaissance, because, as the names are called, Josquin sets up a melodic-harmonic sequence that anticipates a rotation around the circle of fifths, a concept all but unknown at the time.

The five singers of Cinquecento—countertenor Terry Wey, tenors Achim Schulz, Tore Tom Denyx, and Tim Scott Whitelye, and bass Ulried Staber—were joined by guest tenor Bernd Oliver Fröhlich in this intense contrapuntal work, which they performed with extraordinary clear contrapuntal interplay and appropriately somber expression, given the character and purpose of the work. The only passage that seemed too somber in general was the light-hearted song about the lack of money, which, in a secular context would have surely been lighter and livelier. Yet since here it was a demonstration of material about to be inserted into a Requiem Mass, the darker performance style was in no way inappropriate.

The performance was filmed in the Hofburgkapelle, the Imperial Chapel, in Vienna, where the sensibility and the acoustics were exactly what was required, for the Requiem, and for the last word coming from the master, Josquin, himself.

Steven Ledbetter is a freelance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.

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