The Renaissance’s Most Influential Composer, 500 Years Later

One of the most surprising things I discovered recently is that on the Albert Memorial in London, opposite the Royal Albert Hall, there is a stone gallery of famous composers, the ones that a committee of English gentlemen in 1863 thought worth remembering. There are about 20 of them, and Josquin is there, next to Rossini. Schubert is not.

MUHLY What does it mean if a composer, like Josquin, sets the exact same text 30 times over and over again? Because I write a lot of choral music, I’ve done almost a dozen settings of the Magnificat, but in the more traditional parts of contemporary music, you’re kind of encouraged, if not expected, to be in a state of constant innovation.

PHILLIPS Well, that’s a very Romantic, 19th-century approach. We have to go back to what it was like in the 15th century. The words of the mass were extremely well known and Josquin set them 18 times; you can’t expect anyone to make much of every single word, every time, that often. And he didn’t; he took the words pretty well for granted.

Modern performers find that terribly hard to accept. They think they’re missing out on the one absolutely crucial thing they ought to be concentrating on — the words — when what they really ought to be concentrating on is making a good sound, so the music can come alive as music. They shouldn’t spend hours discussing the meaning of “Kyrie eleison.” In the 15th century, everyone knew what that meant.

MUHLY Something that compositionally I find so exciting about Josquin is that he is obsessively repetitive. Compared to other music of that time and in the centuries afterward, he doesn’t take a bit of music and then unspool it into this bigger thing that gets more and more ornate. It actually kind of curves back around itself, the exact same things happening.

PHILLIPS There are a lot of passages where he keeps going back to the same note. And as you say, the music doesn’t seem to advance; it just goes around. And it’s sort of a fascinating circle. He keeps hitting that note. The Amen of the Creed of the “Missa Faysant Regretz” is where he goes constantly, so constantly, back to a D, that one gets completely mesmerized by it. I mean, you become sort of crazy.


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