Josquin Despres: Sanctus from Missa Hercules dux Ferrariae

Biography of Josquin
Josquin Desprez was one of many northern European composers whose careers flourished in Southern Europe; after growing up in Flanders, he travelled to Italy and became the leading composer of the early sixteenth century. In his music we begin to see a true Late Renaissance sensibility grounded in humanism.
With the development of printing and the rediscovery of many Classical texts in fifteenth century Italy, an entirely new collection of Latin and Greek literature, grammar, rhetoric and dialectic was able to be explored. Some texts caused consternation among Chruch fathers who had difficulty reconciling the tenets of Christianity with the ideas of antiquity.
In music, the influence of humanism was seen in the new approach to text setting, in which the text's integrity was paramount, and its rhythms, accents and structure could drive the musical phrase. Whereas before a word such as "Kyrie" might be attenuated over a long melisma, composers of the Late Renaissance would keep the phrase short and more syllabic, perhaps repeating the words for rhetorical emphasis.
Nonetheless, Early Renaissance procedures did not disappear overnight and compostions could remain couched in artifice for a generation or more. Josquin somehow managed to straddle these stylistic boundaires, writing something modern in which the music reflected and enhanced the text in one composition, while in another he might writing something utterly complex in which tricks were played with the cantus firmus and riddles about people and society were hidden within the music.
When Josquin was commissioned to write a mass for Duke Hercules of Ferrara, he proceeded to make an elaborate musical riddle as his cantus firmus. He took the vowels of Hercules name and matched them with the syllables of the scale: ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la ti (at the time "do" was known as "ut"). Using this method, Hercules dux Ferrariae became re, ut, re, ut, re, fa, mi, re: a particularly useful cantus firmus for the entire Mass. It is because of Josquin's unique tribute that anyone remembers this obscure Duke.

Things to Note
Late Renaissance style is characterized by an appreciation of the text. Instead of long shapeless melodies interacting obliquely if at all; composers of the late Renaissance began to work with more free, fluid, long-breathed melodic lines that interacted in a more democratic way. Imitation begins to be used between voices and each singer's melody becomes less rangy and more tied to the text.
This composition is very transitional in style. While early Renaissance cantus firmus techniques are used, late Renaissance ideas of text setting and imitation are also prevalent. There is even a shift from the idea of cantus firmus as scaffolding on which polyphonic voices are constructed to cantus firmus as "soul" and pervasive throughout the composition. In works that use the cantus firmus as a soul, the melody is deconstructed and remade as a repository of motives for the vocal parts, rather than a scaffolding.

Josquin Desprez (1455-1521)
Important for this developing clarity of the late Renaissance style was the idea of imitation. Composers no longer simply wrote out enormous amounts of unrelated, yet technically proficient, counterpoint but instead began writing counterpoint that was aware of its relationship to what had come before and what would happen after in all parts of the music. Counterpoint began not to be written for its own sake but rather for the sake of the narrative structure of the composition. Furthermore this development of imitation created an entirely new understanding of the relationship between individual voices in a composition: no longer was one voice subservient to another, or one voice a master to another, instead they all fed off each other.
This new awareness also played out in a harmonic (vertical) dimension as well. Sections such as the beginning of the Christe show a notion of tensions and releases developed through chords (simultaneous sounding of three or more pitches), rather than in the fleeting relationships of lines.
The Sanctus and Benedictus are among the oldest portions of the Mass. It concludes the first half of the Mass and prepares the way for the reenactment of the Last Supper that is the communion ceremony. Traditionally, the Benedictus is scored for a slightly smaller group than that of the Sanctus.

Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus Dominus Deus Sabaoth
Pleni sunt caeli et terra gloria tua.
Hosanna in excelsis.
Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini.
Hosanna in excelsis

Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts.
Heaven and Earth are full of his glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.

Listening Chart

Josquin: Sanctus, Benedictus from Missa Hercules dux Ferrariae (before 1505)

Sanctus.. 0:00 Long notes hold cantus firmus while other voices exhibit imitation.
Pleni sunt... 1:10 A freely composed section without cantus firmus. Scored for smaller forces.
Hosanna.. 2:35 Another freely composed section without cantus firmus. Scored for somewhat larger forces. Some imitation.
Benedictus... 0:00 Cantus firmus returns. Above it various individual voices sing expressive counterpoint.
Hosanna.. 1:05 A return of the music of the previous Hosanna.


All text © Todd Tarantino 2002-2012.
Not to be reprinted without permission.