March 2019 Print

A Marian Catechism in Music: The Ave Maria by Josquin Desprez

by Dr. Andrew Childs

Ad Jesum per Mariam. This axiom of elegant simplicity and ultimate power stands as a supreme consolation to Catholics and a sobering rebuke to those who refuse Catholic Mariology. To dismiss the critical role the Blessed Virgin Mary plays in the plan of salvation represents not only a separation from Catholic doctrine, but from any reasonable conception of Christianity. The enemies of the Church deride as misty speculative theology the idea that the one chosen by God as His portal to humanity will also serve as humanity’s gate to Heaven; this is in fact a matter of simple sense. For those outside the Church who would claim to believe in the Blessed Trinity, the denial of her primacy implies a denial of His divinity: Christ as God made man is made of her flesh, and His extension of unique and powerful privilege to her could not reasonably have ended abruptly with His birth. As St. Bernard recalls to us:

“God, I repeat, to whom the angels are subject, whom the Principalities and Powers do obey, was subject to Mary; and not only to Mary, but to Joseph also for Mary’s sake. Marvel, therefore, both at God and man, and choose that which giveth greater wonder, whether it be the most loving condescension of the Son, or the exceeding great dignity of His Mother. Both amaze us, both are marvelous. That God should obey a woman is lowliness without parallel; that woman should rule over God, an elevation beyond comparison.”

On the Importance of the Work

What follows will not debate the veracity or particulars of any Marian apparition, though it seems unlikely that the Mother of God, after having cooperated so completely with the plan of salvation by bringing a divine Son into the world to be crucified before her eyes in reparation to her divine Spouse for the sins of mankind, would after the fact fail to manifest herself on occasion to men in tangible ways. Rather, this brief consideration will explore a supreme musical expression of Marian devotion, the Ave Maria by Josquin Desprez (c.1440-1521). Speaking generally, great composers—historically important composers—tend either to innovate (think Beethoven), or to perfect (think Mozart). Without embarking on too technical an explanation of his importance, Josquin’s work represents perhaps the crucial link between the melismatic modality of the pre-Renaissance, and the text-driven, harmonically motivated polyphony of the pre-Baroque—put simply, the technical and stylistic bridge connecting Dufay and Ockeghem with Palestrina.

Renaissance musicologist Gustave Reese states, “That Josquin was the greatest composer of the high Renaissance, the most varied in invention and the most profound in expression, has become almost a commonplace of musical history.” Though now lesser-known than Palestrina (1525-1594), scholars and performers at the time of his death considered him as important to music as they did Virgil to literature and Michelangelo to art. Widely published, disseminated, and emulated over a compositional career spanning nearly 60 years, one contemporary critic half-jokingly speculated, “now that Josquin is dead, he is putting out more works than when he was still alive.” Martin Luther, proving ultimately a better judge of musical quality than a Master of Theology, said of him, “Josquin is a master of the notes, which must express what he desires; on the other hand, other composers must do as the notes will.”

Mystery surrounds his early life. Born somewhere in northern France—perhaps near Condé-sur-l’Escaut, midway between Paris and Brussels—sometime around 1440, he first appears on a roster of singers for the Milan Cathedral listed as a “biscantor”—or adult singer rather than a choirboy—in 1459. In the service of Ascanio Cardinal Sforza, he appears on the roster of the papal chapel choir through the 1490’s. He worked in France, once composing a motet for King Louis XII, Memor esto verbi servo tuo, “Remember thy word to thy servant,” to remind the King of a promised but forgotten benefice (the King immediately honored his commitment). He worked briefly in Ferarra but forfeited his job to Jacob Obrecht—an important composer in his own right—when plague broke out (Obrecht died of the plague in 1505). He spent his remaining years as provost of the church of Notre Dame in Condé-sur-l’Escaut.

The Ave Maria crowns the middle period of Josquin’s compositional career, written likely sometime before 1490. Catechetical, meditative, and stylistically integrated, the motet, in seven sections, makes a concise yet profound examination of five crucial episodes in the life of Our Lady: her Conception, birth, Annunciation, Purification, and Assumption. Each episode manifests some aspect of her unique privilege as spouse of the Holy Ghost and Theotokos, and Josquin provides distinct music for each section, in terms of texture, counterpoint, rhythmic complexity, and meter. The supplication that closes the piece remains one of the most profound and starkly beautiful musical utterances ever composed.

Angelic Salutation—“Hail, Mary, Full of Grace, the Lord is with Thee, Serene Virgin”

The initial melodic fragment is a study in reverence and humility, perfectly outlining both the word stresses in its rising-then-falling contour, and the C-major tonality. In the first phrase, “Ave Maria, Gratia plena,” each voice, from highest to lowest, restates the phrase in its own range creating a marvelous effect of gentle descent and arrival. The voices overlap so subtly that each remains distinct, delivering the individual salutation in turn. Immediately, the second phrase begins in the soprano, the first half of the second line of the text, “gratia plena,” overlapping the final initial utterance of the bass. Josquin reverses the shape of the initial melodic fragment here—falling-then-rising—creating a perfectly rounded pair of phrases. The music of the second line of the couplet imitates the melodic fragments of the opening line, but with a flourish of rhythmic complexity and playful contrapuntal interplay between the voices that seems to indicate the delight of the angelic messenger. The bass alone maintains a staid composure and restores order to close this wondrous opening section by gently guiding the other three voices to the final C-major cadence.

“Hail to Her, Whose Conception, Full of Solemn Jubilation Fills Heaven and Earth with New Joy”

The texts of the five strophes consist of pairs of rhyming couplets. Josquin immediately changes texture, from the strict imitation of the opening salutation, to duets between the upper and lower voices on the rising-then-falling melodic phrase “Ave cujus conceptio.” The subtle but delightful rhythmic variation between the duet partners underscores the individuality of the voices. After the two-measure soprano and alto duet, the tenor and bass would seem to have their turn, but after only half a measure, the alto immediately joins in, descending below the tenor as if attempting to escape detection in the duet turned trio. Finally, Josquin brings all the voices together at “solemni plena gaudia,” in a robust celebration of tightly overlapping and imitative lines, each with its own rhythmic interest.

“Hail to Her Whose Birth Was our Solemn Feast, Like the Morning Star Rising, Foretelling the True Sun”

Summarizing the procedures employed so far, Josquin returns initially to the duet texture and echoes the melody of the Salutation. The pairs of voices—soprano and alto, tenor and bass—now finish each other’s phrases in the first line, while in the second line reverting to the pattern of descending sequential entrances. The stability of this section highlights the clear textual opposition and wordplay between the “lucifer” of the morning sun, and the True “Sun.”

“Hail, Pious Humility, Fruitful Without a Man, Whose Annunciation Was Our Salvation”

The text underscores the fact that no distinction exists between the person of the Blessed Virgin and her virtues; she who refers to herself as the Immaculate Conception the poet addresses as pious humility. Here, Josquin employs the duet texture scrupulously and in perfect accord with the text: the soprano and alto sing “Hail, pious humility,” trading the rhythmic variations of the first strophe, and “untouched” by the pair of men’s voices who sing “fruitful without a man” with great respect (and perhaps the slightest hint of mirthful irony). They repeat this procedure with the phrases “cujus annunciatio,” and “nostra fuit salvatio.” An additional half bar at the final cadence provides enhanced stability, in preparation for the breathtaking metrical shift about to occur.

“Hail, True Virginity, Immaculate Chastity, Whose Purification Purged Our Sins”

We reach the poetic and musical heart of the masterpiece. Until now, Josquin has employed a duple meter, referred to as “imperfect” in medieval and early Renaissance music theory. As the poet addresses Our Lady as “true virginity, immaculate chastity,” Josquin shifts seamlessly to triple, or “perfect” meter, barely perceptible if the performers maintain the proper Renaissance metrical relationship, where the pulse of the duple half bar equals the whole triple bar (half-note=dotted-half-note). This relationship enlivens the triple meter in a marvelous way, increasing the relative speed of the “small” beats (now a 3:2 ratio), creating an exciting sense of increased forward momentum, while maintaining the stability of the constant “big” beat pulse (conducting equal quarter-notes destroys this effect, proportionally slowing the triple meter). The tenor, delayed by a single small beat on each entrance, heightens the full texture, allowing for a continuous reinforcement of the word stress by way of an echo effect. For the astute listener or performer, Josquin embeds a cadential hemiola, one final magnificent layer of rhythmic detail and vitality. The entire section soars, radiating love and joy.

“Hail, Most Excellent in All Angelic Virtues, Whose Assumption Was Our Glorification”

The alto lingers an extra bar, repeating the word “purgatio” of the previous strophe. This serves both to underscore the importance of the theological concept, and to allow a single voice to navigate the return of the duple meter (the effect feels something like exiting a moving walkway). Josquin again employs a combination of procedures, melodic imitation and paired entrances of upper and lower voices. Once again, the duet teams repeat rather than complete each other’s phrases, lending a sense of rhetorical relaxation; the music seems to taper to the close as the soprano drops out for the final phrase, a rhythmically dazzling though melodically and dynamically subdued trio for alto, tenor, and bass which ends in hushed reverence on an open cadence, one lacking the emotional definition of a major or minor third.

Supplication—“O Mother of God, Remember Me”

The piece has ended; so definitely, that Josquin indicates a half bar of silence. What follows transcends all that has preceded it, which structurally, rhetorically, and musically is essentially perfect. For the final supplication, complete in itself, Josquin strips all art away. Stylistically, he disappears completely, and these few bars echo—as Gregorian chant does—immortality, no longer bound by any recognizable marks of chronological identification. A bare altar of petition remains, the soul with direct, humble, and confident recourse to the Theotokos. Josquin employs a near-perfect homophonic texture, seemingly incongruous after the subdued virtuosity of the motet, yet fitting given the petition: “O mother of God”—the bass and tenor give the slightest rhythmic hint of disquiet, perhaps a remembrance of things past which have made imploring the aid of the Mediatrix so necessary—“remember me”—the alto, with the humble confidence of one who hopes, alters her line, dipping from the fifth to the third scale degree, allowing for a stunning ascending passing tone, highlighting the word “mei.” The final open cadential “Amen” puts the piece to rest and the soul at peace, as the final vision of the Immaculate fades into the dream of Heaven.

Mother of God, remember me. Amen.