Three Pieces a Week (formerly A Piece a Day)

Josquin des Prez – Praeter rerum seriem (early 16th century)

Posted in 15??s, josquin by seventyyears on November 15, 2010

I never know what to write about pieces like this.  There’s no weird chromaticism or shocking texture changes — just beautifully written six-part vocal polyphony.  More than 400 years after Pérotin, there’s still a bit of chant turned into a cantus firmus, sung in ultra slow motion while the other voices play around it — but now the cantus firmus appears not only in the tenor but also in the superius, and the play of the other voices is largely built out of little canons.  (Hey, that sounds like a piece of architecture, doesn’t it?)  At times the combination of long held notes, harmonic stasis and frequent points of imitation create a texture that sounds awfully like someone singing through delay and reverb effects.  In fact, I recently heard a piece for sax quartet that intentionally imitated the sound of a delay pedal — Aristides Llaneza’s The second time I have looked out the window (2010) — and the effect wasn’t that different from what Josquin achieves.

The motet’s text is about the mystery of the virgin birth, and the music’s melanch0ly air seems to reflect Josquin’s sadness at being unable to fully understand the workings of the universe:  “Who can fathom the profundity of your labor’s beginning and its end?”  At the end, there’s something of an answer, but it’s one of those mystical answers that doesn’t really answer anything:  when the text refers to God having “ordered everything with such perfection,” the music switches to triple mensuration, a symbol of divine order since the Middle Ages.  It’s surprising how much continuity there is with Medieval music, here in this piece by the first composer ever to take the brash, arrogant, artist-comes-first attitude usually associated with Romanticism.


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  1. […] La secuencia medieval del siglo XIII cuyo texto trata el misterio de la Encarnación sirve a Desprez de cantus firmus, técnica habitual en el Renacimiento. He descrito la pieza como tardomedieval. ¿En qué estética situamos el motete flamenco? La figura de Josquin Desprez es pieza clave en el desarrollo de la polifonía del Renacimiento, sirviendo de modelo hasta el siglo XVII, cuando el Barroco abandona las técnicas anteriores. Sin embargo, el estilo flamenco que Josquin representa, y especialmente este motete, me recuerda inevitablemente las arquitecturas góticas de los siglos XIV y XV. La luz que desprenden los acordes finales de la obra es comparable a la que entra por los ventanales o el rosetón de una catedral coetánea al autor. Y hay quien opina algo parecido. […]

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