Term Paper, Renaissance Music, April 20, 2009:
By all accounts, the role of the composer in the Renaissance was very different from the role of the composer in the Romantic era. And yet, many scholars continue to force a Romantic, Beethovenian model of the suffering musical genius onto composers of the past, especially Renaissance composer Josquin des Prez. The typical narrative begins with evidence of Josquin’s greatness, and proceeds to provide evidence of this greatness outside of the historical context of the Renaissance composer. Some of these narratives, such as the ones discussed below, conform to larger trends in historical thought such as modernist historicism and invented tradition. I apply critiques of both of these trends to the kind of modernist Josquin scholarship perpetuated in the recent Josquin Companion, and use these critiques to unveil hidden political agendas prevalent in Josquin scholarship from the 1960s to the present.
In his introduction to The Josquin Companion, Richard Sherr recites well-worn evidence of Josquin’s timeless and universal greatness. Like many other Josquin scholars, he quotes sixteenth-century Swiss humanist Henricus Glareanus, who asserts that Josquin is a genius, and the equal of Virgil. He also quotes Martin Luther, who claims Josquin is so masterful he can make notes bend to his will, unlike lesser composers who must resign themselves to the will of the notes. Sherr also promotes Josquin’s commercial clout, explaining that the first volume of polyphonic masses ever printed was devoted entirely to Josquin’s polyphonic masses, thus proving Josquin’s popularity. But ultimately, however, Sherr asserts that Josquin is great because his music stirs the emotions better than all other composers. Therefore, all in all, Josquin is great because his music stands the test of time: it remains both historically and aesthetically important, and perennially popular and moving.
Since at least the 1960s, scholars have sought to quantify Josquin’s greatness by establishing a definitive canon of his collected works. This would allow us to define his style, and thus prove that he is in fact the greatest composer of his generation, if not of the Renaissance, or of all time. Unfortunately, many pieces attributed to Josquin are considered inauthentic, and much of The Josquin Companion is devoted to parsing through works attributed to Josquin to determine what should and should not be considered the work of the master. Given his assumedly high level of craft, the best pieces attributed to Josquin are considered authentic, whereas pieces considered inferior “surely could not be Josquin.” According to Sherr, “even if all the works that people want to discard were removed and all that was left was the smaller repertory of works, those works would be enough to justify his contemporary and posthumous reputation.”
And what is that reputation? Joshua Rifkin explains that
Josquin is remarkably versatile and inventive, more than any other composer of his time, and his inventiveness is to be found in all the genres in which he composed, from the constructive world of the cantus-firmus mass to the freer world of motets and chansons and even instrumental pieces. Further, this inventiveness is to be found at all levels of his musical output, from large-scale structure to the surface elements of counterpoint and melodic invention, down to the details of motivicity.
Of course, Rifkin’s analysis requires the context of a defined canon of works, and the relationship of that canon to the canons of other, supposedly lesser composers. This is obviously the kind of analysis that perpetuates the need for an authentic Josquin canon. And within these canons, Rifkin praises Josquin for his versatility and inventiveness. Note that if you substitute Romantic era genres like “symphonies” and “piano sonatas” for “motets” and “chansons” in the above quotation, Rifkin could just as easily be describing Beethoven.