Missa De beata virgine survives in no fewer than 69 sources, at the last count, making it by far the most widely disseminated of Josquin’s masses. Admittedly some of these are very incomplete transcriptions, but in five important choir books it stands as the opening number. This popularity is fascinating, since to our modern ears the music lacks obvious unity. Nowadays we want a multimovement polyphonic mass setting to be bound together in an audible way, like a symphony or a concerto; and in many settings from the sixteenth century this is managed by using a model, whose main features are quoted regularly throughout.
The popularity of Missa De beata virgine is fascinating, since to our modern ears the music lacks obvious unity.
But in De beata virgine the only unity is provided by the very old-fashioned technique of quoting chants associated with a common theme: in this case feasts of the virgin. Thematic and even tonal unity are therefore sacrificed to liturgical propriety. The fact that from the Credo onwards the four-part texture is expanded to five, by means of canon, also suggests that the work was not even conceived as a complete musical unity, since the four-voice Kyrie and Gloria do not have this device.
Paraphrased plainsong is the main constructional principle, using chants in differing modes. Indeed these modes are so varied that it has been suggested Josquin was deliberately creating a virtuoso exercise in modal relationships—making this the (unusual) raison d’être for the whole enterprise. Maybe, though it certainly leads to unpopular things for modern choirs like uneven voice ranges (and the Credo has to be transposed up a fourth to make it work at all). So, what are the rewards? They are subtle but can be as evident to us as they clearly were to the first listeners.
One can only guess at why so many writers, from periods when polyphony had long since been a dead art, were so impressed by De beata virgine, but elegance in complexity must surely have been one reason.
The main delight is in the canons, on which the five-voice movements (the Credo, Sanctus and Agnus) rely. All three movements have two chant-based voices in pure canon at the fifth; and to intensify the impact of this Josquin decided on occasion to write triple-time melodies over and around the canons. This led to the most famous passage of all: the section in the Credo which begins at “Qui cum Patre.” For theorists as far removed in time from Josquin as the middle of the eighteenth century this proved to be irresistible material, and it was quoted endlessly. The two tenor parts indulge in simple canonic declamation, while the altos and basses take up the music of both. Over this the sopranos sing a slow triplet melody of effortless beauty. One can only guess at why so many writers, from periods when polyphony had long since been a dead art, were so impressed by this, but elegance in complexity must surely have been one reason.
© Peter Phillips / Gimell Records