Record companies and concert promoters love names. The problem with so much early music is that so much of it is by ‘Anon’, and there is no greater dampener to music sales than the mention of ‘Anon’. Whether it be contemporary recorded albums or 16th century motet publications, Anon is no good for business. Far better if you can claim that the mass setting which you have spent so much time committing to disc, or laboriously type-set for publication, is by somebody like – say – Josquin Desprez, perhaps the first superstar composer in Western music. And now that Josquin has reached  500 years in his grave at Condé-sur-l’Escaut, it is only right and proper that we have a new batch of fine recordings by which to engage with this wonderful repertoire.

Josquin’s reputation is not merely the concoction of modern musicology. In the decades immediately after his death in 1521, unscrupulous publishers were attributing to Josquin the works of lesser or wholly unknown musicians, such that Martin Luther – a great admirer of the composer – is quoted as having said, ‘Now that Josquin is dead, he is putting out more works than when he was alive.’ It is for the same reason that one still finds musicologists and performers tempted beyond what is reasonable to hypothesise about a Josquinian authorship. Even relatively well-known composers of the day suffered from the vast shadow cast by Josquin Desprez. The story is told of the young Adrian Willaert, himself no mean talent, arriving at St Peter’s, Rome and chancing upon a performance by the papal choir of one of his motets. His gratification was short-lived, for the singers were under the mistaken impression that the piece was by the great Josquin; and on being disabused by the true author, they no longer wished to sing it.

How had Josquin acquired this extraordinary snob appeal? Part of the answer lies in him being at the right places at the right times. We know less of Josquin’s biography than many of his contemporaries; and until recently there was amongst scholars a confusion between musicians of the same name which obscured even his approximate birth-date. We do at least know that he served in some of the most important musical institutions in early-modern Europe, including the Papal Chapel, the ducal chapels of Milan and Ferrara and the French royal court. He was at the peak of his abilities at the time when the printing of polyphonic music was being developed in Venice; and many of his works, secular as well as sacred, take pride of place in these volumes. But most significantly, he was a character who fitted the new Renaissance template of artistic genius: unpredictable, difficult and reassuringly expensive.

This is not only smoke and mirrors. There is something discernibly fresh and modern about the musical style pioneered by Josquin – and, to be fair, a number of his contemporaries – in the period around 1500. For many years I directed an ensemble whose core repertoire was the sacred polyphony of the 15th and early 16th centuries. When in concert we emerged from the dense, fascinating sound-world of earlier composers such as Dufay and Ockeghem into the clear, crystalline realms of Josquin, there would be a noticeable relaxation amongst the audience; a sense finally of recognition. The stylistic innovations of Josquin and his generation informed the development of polyphonic composition over many decades, establishing the deep grammar for what music historians have often referred to as the common language of 16th century European music. It was the language spoken by Victoria and Byrd, by Lassus and, crucially, by Palestrina, several of whose masses adapt themes taken from Josquin, and whose sacred music has been regarded for centuries as the acme of propriety in Church music. It is that language, albeit inflected with archaic forms, which audiences are recognising when they hear Josquin’s polyphony.

Take, for instance, the motet which Venetian music publisher Ottaviano Petrucci chose to open his very first collection of motets, dating from 1502. Ave Maria … virgo serena comprises short, simple melodic lines, presented and then strictly imitated in all four voice-parts. The text is set syllabically and thus intelligibly. At crucial moments the four voices coalesce and together declaim the text with hymn-like simplicity. Judging by the number of manuscript and print sources in which it appears, Ave Maria … virgo serena was top of the early Renaissance hit parade.

In truth, however, there is no ‘typical’ Josquin style. Each work does something slightly different: making use of chant or song influences in different ways, indulging in compositional puzzles, or challenging the composer to create variety in long or unyielding texts. One of his more eccentric motets is a setting of the Genealogy of Christ, consisting of a string of barely pronounceable names. If anyone were inclined to accuse Josquin of being humourless, note the way he sets the name of Zorobabel with childish exuberance. But this also presents a challenge to listeners and choirs seeking an entry-point into the repertoire.

There is no longer any shortage of good recordings of the music, and my Josquin Playlists 101 would include motets such as the Ave Maria mentioned earlier, Pater Noster – which Josquin requested to be sung on the anniversary of his death – and the lament on the death of Ockeghem, Nymphes des bois, a fascinating and straightforwardly beautiful hybrid of the sacred and secular. Of the mass settings, the place to start is – as I did, when a student – with Missa Pange lingua, which, like the greatest works of Bach, achieves the perfect balance of form, content and theology.

The difficulty for modern choirs in any music of this period is the voice distribution, which does not conform to our established Soprano-Alto-Tenor-Bass format but rather tends towards two voices parts of equal range in the middle of the ensemble. But if you are blessed with high tenors or with altos capable of plunging some distance below the stave, then any of the works mentioned above are within the grasp of ambitious amateur choirs. Nor is a doctorate required to interpret these works: there is no shame in pulling a score from CPDL and having a go. At the conclusion of Ave Maria, Josquin interpolates a very personal prayer: ‘memento mei.’ In this anniversary year, all lovers of church music should be paying Josquin this service.

This is an edited version of an article first published in Church Times.

Cambridge Choral Academy