Renaissance Perspectives

How Music and the Visual Arts Came Alive

The lack of discussion about what may connect music with the other arts has always mystified me. It is as if music is a language reserved for specialists, with the result that since that language supposedly cannot be understood by ordinary people, its practitioners are forever treated as eccentric outsiders. Music is often held to be an art apart, but at least when it is secular music it is left alone without being trivialized. The problem for church musicians, on the other hand, is that they have to conform to the standardly ignorant demands of the clergy, who in a sense own these musicians, pushing them into the shadowy places—the organ loft or choir room—from where they periodically emerge, ready to try to fit in with the latest fad of religious worship, servants.

It is in this context that Josquin des Prez stands out as such a remarkable and inspiring historical figure. In his time, it was unknown for a professional musician to live independently of wealthy patrons, which almost always included the church: he was probably the first musician ever to have lived outside this system. There is plenty of contemporary evidence that shows he went where he pleased, charged what he pleased, and probably did not suffer fools gladly. It is very likely that he was not popular: the way he wrote two such show-off mass settings of the “L’homme armé” melody must have irritated plenty of his colleagues, who struggled to write one of any worth; yet his allure was such that everyone wanted him in their community.

When did Josquin sit down with Leonardo da Vinci and discuss technique?

It comes as no surprise that this unique independence of mind led to uniquely visionary music. Nonetheless, despite his evident self-esteem, there is no concrete evidence that he was interested in getting round the block which has so long separated music from the other arts. He may have sat down with the Duke of Milan and played cards with him (as suggested in the way his Missa Di dadi has been transmitted), but when did he sit down with Leonardo da Vinci and discuss technique? That would have been an interesting conversation to have overheard and reported. For that matter when did Palestrina sit down with Michelangelo, for all that they both worked for years in the Vatican, and would have known each other well by sight and reputation? Or Shakespeare and Byrd in London in the early years of the 17th century? They seem to have lived in bubbles, restricted by habit; and it may be because of this block that music has standardly lagged behind in taking on the new aesthetic ideas the more visual arts have promoted. Josquin was unusually well-placed, by temperament and reputation, to reverse this lag. Perhaps he tried, only to find that music was not only held to be incomprehensible but too old-fashioned to be interesting to a painter or poet, living in more up-to-date milieux. My guess is that he didn’t think to try.

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Filippo Brunelleschi’s portrait in Giorgio Vasari’s 1550 “Vite de’ più eccellenti pittori, scultori, e architettori” (© Austrian National Library)

The person I would most like him to have met, and exchanged ideas with, was Filippo Brunelleschi. This would have been impossible, since Brunelleschi, architect of the famous cupola on Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, died in 1446, before Josquin was born. But the exchange would surely have been fascinating, since Brunelleschi was the first visual artist to experiment with how mathematics could be used to control space, whether two-dimensional on canvas, or three in buildings. Before him in painting there had been at least two centuries of trying to represent the three-dimensional world realistically: a progression which went from the flat-surface work of the Byzantine-influenced masters, through the instinctive use of perspective by men such as Cimabue and subsequently Giotto, until the Sienese school took this way of thinking as far as it could go.

Here was a completely new way to organize pictorial space, controlled by the most exact measurement.

At that point what was needed was structure rather than inspired guesswork. Brunelleschi’s playing with grids, reverse images, and mirrors outside the baptistery of Santa Maria del Fiore and the neighboring Palazzo Vecchio in the early 15th century would eventually produce exactly the theoretical back-up which could turn instinctive perspective into what is now called linear perspective. Nothing that went before him in painting was able to deliver a picture like Masaccio’s Trinità fresco in the Florentine church of Santa Maria Novella. Here was a completely new way to organize pictorial space, controlled by the most exact measurement. Unsurprisingly Brunelleschi’s discoveries were soon taken further; and it is my contention that at some level, whether consciously or not, Josquin was influenced by him.

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Masaccio’s “Trinità” fresco of 1427 in Santa Maria Novella, Florence (© Graham Fellows)

The developmental lag has long fueled the impression that music is not fully of its time, when with hindsight we can see that it was following the same lines of thought all along, in its own terms. It is very unlikely that either Josquin or Brunelleschi would have been able to see this, even though Josquin, when he started writing music, was artistically poised exactly where Brunelleschi found himself when he started his professional work, some 75 years earlier. They had both inherited a style which was struggling to broaden its impact, both styles stuck in gestures which were associated with late medieval thinking, all well explored and wearing thin by the time these two men were born.

In both art forms it was the strictness of the mathematical background which alone could lead the observer deep into the picture, whether visual or aural.

It will become apparent, when we look in greater detail at the paintings Josquin could have seen, either as a youth growing up in Flanders, or from his traveling in Italy, that the musical equivalent of painterly perspective was what is called imitation between the voice parts of a choral composition. Just as visual artists of the 14th century started out with approximate placement in their representations of the world (instinctive perspective), so Josquin started out with quite rough and ready imitation, not always including every voice in the scheme, and often deploying the method at the octave and unison only, where in his last works, and those of his followers, the full effect would require the fifth as well. Just as Brunelleschi came to realize that only the most precise mathematics could depict what might be called relentless depth of field, so Josquin refined his use of mathematics to be able to write strict imitation between all his voices. In both art forms it was the strictness of the mathematical background which alone could lead the observer deep into the picture, whether visual or aural.

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Francesco di Giorgio Martini, Architectural Perspective, c. 1492 (© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie / photo: Jörg P. Anders)

There was never a moment in music that was as defining as Brunelleschi’s rules of linear perspective, but such rules weren’t really needed. In his mass settings Josquin developed his use of imitation, until by the last settings the desired depth of field was securely in place. In the context of music history, Josquin’s discoveries were quite as influential as Brunelleschi’s in art theory, leading smoothly on to his innumerable “pupils,” especially Adrian Willaert, Clemens non Papa, and Nicolas Gombert. But although musicians tend not to shout so loudly about their innovative methods as painters and architects—unless they are Claudio Monteverdi—the role played by Josquin in this humanizing and democratizing of musical language was crucial to everything that followed in the High Renaissance. Palestrina’s smoothly sonorous style would have been impossible without it, just as Raphael’s highly controlled and refined designs would have been impossible without Brunelleschi’s innovations.

But there again, the music of Palestrina lagged the same 75 years behind the art of Raphael. We can see now that they were going in the same basic directions, though they themselves could not have referred to it, even if they could have met. In one instance I regret this time lag particularly. Maybe Josquin did have the chance to visit the Pazzi Chapel in Florence when he was working in Italy. Either way I would like its architect, Brunelleschi, to have taken him into the newly built chapel—it was finished in 1443—and waited for his reaction. To me the harmony and proportions of that chapel are the perfect setting for the kind of music Josquin was writing for much of his life: small in scale, controlled by a sophisticated understanding of proportions, harmonious in all their angles, light and airy.

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Brunelleschi’s Pazzi Chapel in Florence (© Steven Zucker)

Yet for a long time now it has been assumed that the most suitable buildings for the performance of Renaissance polyphony are from the medieval period. Why? Gothic cathedrals are immense, often rambling, and can be forbidding and dark; and, at least in the early stages of experimenting with them, put together with so little knowledge of basic mathematics that they were overbuilt to provide extra security against disaster. Part of the problem is that there were not many religious buildings built in the Renaissance period, not least because there were already very many Gothic ones. Music was written to be sung in services, and the services were customarily held in Gothic interiors. It is my opinion that we have never escaped from the mindset that that historical accident engendered. In effect this has meant that we are pre-conditioned against understanding polyphony for what it really is, hearing it as an adjunct to the Gothic world.

I remain entranced by the possibility of hearing Josquin’s music sung in a building designed by a properly Renaissance architect. Modern performers can do their best to lead the listener into hearing how light, sonorous, playful, logically constructed it is in their singing, but to experience it between walls which were designed on the same creative principles would be revelatory. The next best thing I can do is show how linear perspective came to inform both the music and the architecture, though 75 years apart. If the leading geniuses had had the cultural context to talk their sources of inspiration through, they would surely have seen the similarities and built on them. Since they didn’t, all we can do is map out their separated progresses with the benefit of hindsight.

Peter Phillips is the founder and director of The Tallis Scholars, with whom he has appeared in concert all over the world and released over 60 award-winning recordings. He has written several books on Renaissance choral music and his work with the ensemble, contributed a regular music column to The Spectator for 33 years, and has been the publisher of The Musical Times since 1995.

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.