Sounding Out Josquin

Josquin des Prez has a unique position in the history of music. His works were published and published again, and so much music by other composers was attributed to him that it was said that he was composing more posthumously than when he had been alive. One might have thought that every early music ensemble would be queuing up to perform and record the work of a composer of this stature, but while it is true that Josquin has never lacked for advocates, only The Tallis Scholars and Peter Phillips have made a monumental attempt to understand his work and to make it available in the form of recordings. Over more than three decades, they have released a staggering nine discs of all the 18 masses believed to have been written by Josquin, together with the Missa Da pacem now widely credited to Noel Bauldeweyn.

The Tallis Scholars were probably not the most obvious ensemble to take on this repertoire. But the enormous success of the first disc changed that perception very radically.

One of the fascinating aspects of this phenomenon is that Josquin (and, indeed, music of his time in general) has been seen as suitable for male-voice ensembles, with the possible occasional addition of male sopranos or children’s voices. The Tallis Scholars, whose sound was (or was at least perceived to be) founded on the more richly scored music, both from Britain and continental Europe, from the later Renaissance, were possibly not the most obvious ensemble to take on this repertoire. But in fact, the enormous success of the first disc in the series, containing the Missa Pange lingua and the Missa La sol fa re mi, which became the first disc in the early music category ever to win the Gramophone Disc of the Year award in 1987, changed that perception very radically, and The Tallis Scholars themselves continued to build on that achievement.

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Peter Phillips and the Tallis Scholars, winners of the 1987 Gramophone Award (© Gimell Records)

The recording industry itself has seen significant disruptive changes since then, of course, but it is clear that that first disc set in motion a phenomenal wave of discovery that is only now, 34 years later, coming to an end. When I asked Peter Phillips about this, he notes that in fact things have not changed hugely for the group: “We still do exactly what we did at the beginning of the series—a stereo microphone positioned on the sweet spot in a carefully chosen building. Then we encourage the singers to sing out. Not to have banks of faders and a forest of mikes was unusual in 1986—now what we (still) do is normal. We do record a lot of takes, and we do a lot of editing. I suppose what’s changed most for us is the development of digital editing. We can now go into, and refine the performance in much greater detail.” Indeed: though the personnel has, inevitably, changed over the years, one is struck, on listening through the entire sequence, by its remarkable consistency of sound.

“What attracted me to Josquin’s masses as a set was the hope that here was a composer of genius who was prepared to start afresh pretty well every time he put the pen to paper.”—Peter Phillips

Recording Josquin’s masses and coming to an understanding of the way they work has resulted in a distillation of this knowledge in an extensive article by Peter Phillips, published in Musical Times in 2018 and also available on this website, which I recommend as a listener’s as much as a performer’s guide. To follow the series in chronological sequence (insofar as this can be accurately determined) is to follow in the clearest way the evolution of Josquin’s style and technique. But what precisely is it about Josquin that led The Tallis Scholars to undertake this monumental series? “What attracted me to him in the first place,” says Peter Phillips, “was the quality of the writing that I already knew and his reputation in his lifetime. What attracted me to his masses as a set was the hope that here was a composer of genius who was prepared to start afresh pretty well every time he put pen to paper. So unlike Palestrina! I wanted to find out if he could work his magic every time, while trying out something new every time. I could have chosen the motets, but there was a neatness about dealing in the same texts across the set.”

To travel from the earliest masses to the astounding smooth maturity of the Missa Pange lingua is genuinely riveting.

But was the set planned as such right from the beginning? “I didn’t know whether he would hold up when we started in 1986 (in fact we didn’t plan the set for some years) but I increasingly had the impression that every mass had its own sound world. This impression has been born out, thrillingly. And it was up to us to find those differences. The end result is evidence that he was as good as everyone said at the time, although it is almost impossible to define ‘Josquin’s style.’” It’s a fascinating journey: to travel from the earliest masses to the astounding smooth maturity of the Missa Pange lingua is genuinely riveting, and, in spite of doubts that still subsist concerning the actual dates of composition, the experience can be compared to following the progress of Beethoven, for example, through his symphonies or piano concertos.

Listening to the masses in this way is also, of course, to follow the changes in the approach of The Tallis Scholars over the years. Though the ensemble has always been renowned for the smooth perfection of its sound, I would argue that to compare the first, Gramophone Award–winning recording of this series, with the final disc, containing three masses (Hercules Dux Ferrariae, D’ung aultre amer, and Faysant regretz) is to become aware of a very much greater understanding and projection of Josquin’s sound world.


The final disc of the Josquin masses series, released in 2020 (© Gimell Records)

That reflection leads me to return, despite the consistency of recorded sound I noted earlier, to the question of scoring, given that the standard Tallis Scholars lineup, as well as the larger part of their repertoire, suggests being geared to later Renaissance music. “Yes, we set up the group to sing High Renaissance music, with two soprano parts, and for most of the first 12 years this was all we did. But once we had done a lot of it, I decided to go back in time and not forwards. That was a defining decision—not to search for Palestrina in Monteverdi, but to search for him in earlier composers. Josquin was the first step in that process, which eventually led to Obrecht, Ockeghem, and the Eton Choirbook. For all this we needed to rearrange ourselves. A few aberrations apart, I think Josquin’s basic choir—wherever he went—was low soprano/alto, tenor, tenor/baritone, bass. This was an international standard everywhere outside England, where the five-voice basic layout changed everything.” This is, of course, why only certain of Josquin’s works ever became part of the repertoire of most modern choirs: the Missa Pange lingua became the best-known of the mass settings not only because of its quality, but because it can seem to fit the standard four-part choir format if you transpose it far enough up.

This fact also had an immediate practical implication for The Tallis Scholars in terms of which voices would sing this music: “The real issue is the overall range of just about all the parts, at times. I’ve gone into detail on this in my article, but practically speaking no pitch is going to sort them out completely. No one is trained nowadays to sing a two-octave range into a symphony hall unmiked. The only answer is to have two overlapping voices singing together; and once you agree to that, the sky’s the limit. Authenticity is gone, but then it was never really there, because we simply don’t produce our voices as they did.”

Peter Phillips was never seeking “authenticity,” but instead to create an ensemble sound that best and most appropriately serves the music.

Indeed, Peter Phillips has always been quite clear that he was never seeking “authenticity,” but seeking instead to create an ensemble sound that best and most appropriately serves the music. The decision, therefore, to find the sound that best fitted Josquin, using overlapping voices, is both unsurprising and entirely logical. And the resulting sound is quite unlike that which many other ensembles have chosen when performing not only Josquin, but music from the 15th and early 16th centuries generally.

To listen now to the pioneering recording of the Missa Di dadi by the Medieval Ensemble of London, for example, made for Decca L’Oiseau-Lyre in 1984, is to be aware that the group’s sound arose from a vision of this period as being built on the achievements of the composers of the Middle Ages: this was, after all, an ensemble that also recorded Machaut and Mateo da Perugia, as well as the complete secular music of Dufay and Ockeghem. One may say the same of Ensemble Organum’s recording of the Missa Pange lingua for Harmonia Mundi, from two years later. In that context, Peter Phillips’s decision to go in the opposite direction, from the composers of High Renaissance to Josquin and his generation, not only seems daring but explains the nature of the sound produced in this repertoire.

This philosophy has in fact characterized the group from the very beginning. “Even for the first concert in November 1973,” says Peter Phillips, “I was trying to find singers who were likely to make the sound I wanted. I had heard this sound in embryo around me in Oxford in the preceding year, not least from the Clerkes of Oxenford, which I sang in. Ever since that first concert I have been trying to recapture the sound that I think I heard. Every concert since then has been a search for that sound live on stage, which quickly became an idealized sound, not easy to reproduce. Nonetheless I start again every time, with the singers I have in front of me.”

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The Tallis Scholars and Peter Phillips in Oxford, 1977 (© Gimell Records)

The struggle to make the transition from an amateur group to a professional one is familiar to many who work in the choral world in Britain, but Peter Phillips makes the point that, “in effect, The Tallis Scholars were never amateur. Some of those first singers were being paid as professionals elsewhere (Christ Church for example), though not by me in the very first concerts. However, I had started to pay some of them by the mid-1970s. The move to becoming a ‘professional’ group was really only an extension of my desire to get better and more suitable singers for my sound. To get them to come over from Cambridge, for example, I had to find some money (which came entirely from door receipts—I had no private money and no sponsors).” Nevertheless, there was a struggle in terms of perception: “The professional world we aspired to inhabit was something else, of course. It took years to be accepted—whether or how much I was paying was not really the issue. We stumbled several times, and it wasn’t until the 1987 Gramophone Award that we obliged that outside world to take us, the sound, and Josquin seriously.”

“I think those early discs were influential and the result is that nowadays many groups have the opportunity to explore ever smaller areas of the repertoire”—Peter Phillips

And this inevitably leads me to ask how Peter Phillips sees his exploration of Josquin in the wider context of what The Tallis Scholars set out to achieve. Have the group’s recordings changed public perception of Josquin as a composer, or perhaps of the music of the Renaissance in a more general sense? “Public perception of the Renaissance subtly changes every few months, a process which has become increasingly international in recent years. Originally, I just set out to map the territory, like a schoolboy collecting things. So we recorded lots of basic High Renaissance stuff, before we came to the Josquin period. This policy was not profit-driven, incidentally; I just did the next thing I thought needed doing, following my plan. Josquin was next. I think those early discs were influential (look at the effect the Cardoso one had), and the result is that nowadays many groups have the opportunity to explore ever smaller areas of the repertoire, supported by public interest and often with video backup. Our recent efforts—Mouton, Taverner, Pärt—have got subsumed into a healthy scene. To remain visible in the contemporary marketplace we needed to do two things—give the best concerts of their kind without pricing ourselves out of the market; and record something no one else was doing that was worth the effort and expense. Josquin was the perfect answer, because although he is very well known, his music is not—I even hesitate to put him on concert programs in some places—and yet people are curious. He’s got what it takes, and slowly the world will discover this, as they discovered Clemens, Sheppard, Cardoso, and Brumel from us years ago.”

It is difficult to imagine a more appropriate tribute to a composer whom The Tallis Scholars have helped place before the public in a way he had never before been, than to perform the whole series of his 18 masses live at the Pierre Boulez Saal—celebrating not only Josquin but also a project that has surely been one of the greatest undertakings in the history of recorded music.

This article was originally published in Gramophone, November 2020, and is reproduced here with kind permission of the publisher.
© Mark Allen Group. All rights reserved.

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The Tallis Scholars performing at the Sistine Chapel, Rome, in 1994 (© NTV Japan)

Essays & Videos

Essays & Videos

Simon Marmion, Scenes from the Life of St. Bertin (1459, detail) © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie (photo: Christoph Schmidt)

Take a look behind the scenes and join The Tallis Scholars for a rehearsal in preparation for their concerts at the Pierre Boulez Saal! In addition, a selection of essays on various topics from the seemingly inexhaustible cosmos of Renaissanc music adds a few more layers to the picture.

Peter Phillips

Renaissance Perspectives

What would Josquin des Prez and architect Filippo Brunelleschi have talked about if they had ever met? Read Peter Phillips’s thoughts on a hypothetical conversation between two of the most influential artists of the Renaissance, exploring fascinating parallels and paradoxes between music and visual arts.

The Tallis Scholars in Rehearsal

Take a look behind the scenes: The Tallis Scholars invited us to join one of their rehearsals in preparation for their concerts at the Pierre Boulez Saal. We learned a lot about Josquin, the singers, and the history of the extraordinary ensemble.

Harry Haskell

Josquin Immortal

Why do we still perform, record, celebrate, and listen to Josquin’s music half a millennium after his death? Harry Haskell looks back on the unique history of the composer’s reception through the centuries and sheds light on what the generations before us have made of his genius.

Ivan Moody

Sounding Out Josquin

With their recording of Josquin’s Missa Pange lingua in 1987, Peter Phillips and The Tallis Scholars started what today stands as one of the most ambitious early-music projects in recording history. Following the final release of the series in 2020, Phillips spoke with composer and musicologist Ivan Moody for Gramophone magazine about how it all started and where the journey took them.

Anthony Parr

Mapping Renaissance Europe

The span of Josquin’s life is roughly framed by two momentous events in European history: the invention of the printing press around 1450, and Luther’s 1517 attack on corruption in the Catholic church. His career was essentially a product of what art historians call the quattrocento, the era of the 1400s that first saw the revival of arts and learning known as the European Renaissance. Anthony Parr explores a fascinating and turbulent period of innovation.

Jenny Körber

Himmlische Töne – Irdische Klänge (In German)

As much as the difference between music and painting has been emphasized since antiquity, their close connection has also been pointed out again and again. But in Christian art, music and sound have always been closely associated with the divine and thus with the unrepresentable per se. So how can music and heavenly sounds be represented in the earthly medium of painting? Art historian Jenny Körber seeks and finds answers in a painting by the Venetian painter Vittore Carpaccio.

Peter Phillips

A Performer’s Guide to Josquin’s Masses

Peter Phillips, founder and director of The Tallis Scholars, has explored and championed Josquin’s masses like few other musicians today—both from a performer’s and from a scholar’s perspective. In 2018, he distilled his experience and knowledge in an extensive essay for the Musical Times, providing in-depth analysis and insights into each of the masses. This is our advanced course on Josquin—dive in and lose yourself in the music!

Michael Kube

Josquin’s Motets and Chansons (In German)

In addition to his 18 mass settings, Josquin wrote numerous motets and chansons during his lifetime, which equally secured his enduring fame. Michael Kube presents a selection of his most fascinating contributions to these genres.