Music in Western Civilization by Wright/Simms
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Josquin des Prez, Ave Maria (c1485)


Recently, biographers of Josquin des Prez have been playing a game something akin to "Where's Waldo?" In this case, it is "Who's Josquin?" Thirty years ago we were certain that Josquin des Prez was born around 1435, was educated as a choirboy in St. Quentin, France, and was given first employment at the cathedral of Milan in 1459. Now it appears that his real name was Josquin Lebloitte (nicknamed des Prez), that he was born around 1450 (or perhaps as late as 1455), was educated in Cambrai, France, and first employed at the court of King René of Anjou in the late 1470s. There have been unconfirmed sightings of youthful Josquin also in Nancy, Troyes, Blois, and Paris-it turns out that more than one musician had the name "Josquin," or "Jossequin," or "Jodocus," or "Josquinus." Perhaps all the uncertainly about Josquin's early life really doesn't matter. What his biography does affect, however, is the way we view the development of the musical style of an individual who was surely one of the greatest composers of the Renaissance (some would say the greatest). Is his beautiful Ave Maria a relatively early work or a mid-career one? An early one, it turns out. Indeed, this motet is Josquin's earliest dateable work, appearing in a manuscript copied about 1485-1490. By way of comparison, his motet Miserere mei, Deus (Anthology, No. 59) is a mature work, while the great Missa Pange lingua (discussed previously in More Music and dating around 1510-1515) is a composition of his final years.

Josquin's Ave Maria is a "classic." Simultaneously, it demonstrates the restraint and formal control of Renaissance art generally, while it projects the best of Josquin's early compositional style. Josquin likely composed this motet in northern Italy about 1485 as a devotional piece for the Virgin Mary-such relatively uncomplicated motets were frequently written to be sung by church musicians standing before a statue or an icon of the Virgin before retiring at the end of the day. The text consists of an opening salutation to the Virgin, followed by five stanzas, each of which salutes one of the five principal events in Mary's life (her conception, nativity, annunciation, purification, and assumption) as celebrated in the five major Marian feast days of the Catholic Church year. The motet Ave Maria thus constitutes something of a curriculum vitae of the life of the Virgin Mary. The motet ends with a supplication to the Virgin, pleading for intercession and mercy at the moment of judgment.

Text and Translation
Ave Maria, gratia plena, Hail Mary, full of grace.
Dominus tecum, virgo serena. The Lord be with you, serene Virgin.
Ave cujus conceptio, Hail to you whose conception,
Solemni plena gaudio, With solemn rejoicing,
Caelestia, terrestria, Fills heaven and earth Fills heaven and earth
Nova replet laetitia. With new joy.
Ave cujus nativitas Hail to you whose birth
Nostra fuit solemnitas, Was to be our solemnity,
Ut Lucifer lux oriens, As the rising morning star
Verum solem praeveniens. Anticipates the true sun.
Ave pia humilitas, Hail pious humility,
Sine viro foecunditas, Fruitful without man,
Cujus annuntiatio, Whose annunciation
Nostra fuit salvation. Was to be our salvation.
Ave vera virginitas, Hail true virginity
Immaculata castitas, Immaculate chastity,
Cujus purificatio Whose purification
Nostra fuit purgatio. Was to be our purgation.
Ave praeclara omnibus Hail shining example
Angelicis virtutibus, Of all angelic virtues,
Cujus fuit assumptio Whose assumption
Nostra glorificatio. Was to be our glorification.
O Mater Dei, O Mother of God,
Memento mei. Amen. Be mindful of me. Amen.

To begin his motet, Josquin borrowed the opening phrase of a well-known sequence (see Chapter 5) in honor of the Virgin, Ave Maria, gratia plena. He then ornamented the phrase and distributed equally to all four voices in imitative fashion: soprano, alto, tenor, and bass. For the next three "Hails" (bars 16, 28, and 39) Josquin crafted his own melodic material, arranging it in pairs of imitating voices (soprano-alto, followed by tenor-bass). This technique of paired imitation was a favorite of Josquin. Perhaps to effect variety in the face of what has been a uniformly polyphonic texture in duple meter, Josquin switches at bar 48 to homophonic (homorhythmic) texture and triple meter, only to return to the original texture and meter, with more dueting, for the final "Hail" (bar 57). The concluding supplication "O Mater Dei, memento mei" (bar 73) is supported by a beautifully shaped arch of sonic sincerity, a fitting end to this restful votive offering to the Virgin.


For an important article on this motet, see Joshua Rifkin, "Munich, Milan, and a Marian Motet: Dating Josquin's Áve Maria," Journal of the American Musicological Society, 56 (2003), 239-350.