IVA: The Netherlanders from Josquin des Pres

Ockeghem was revered not only as composer but also as a teacher. Among his many students may well have been the incomparable Josquin des Prez, the most esteemed composer of his age. The historian Cosimo Bartoli in 1567 compared Josquin's stature as a musician to Michelangelo's as an artist. As late as 1711 Andrea Adami cited Josquin as the father of contrapuntal music, an unusual tribute for an era when musicians of even the immediately preceding generation were quickly forgotten. It was Josquin who more than any other composer set forth the principles of systematic imitation which were to form the stylistic basis of polyphonic music for the rest of the century. His exquisitely shaped lines, beguiling textures, and carefully ordered harmonies produced a music of surpassing breadth and formal logic, music so carefully articulated that it is surprisingly easy to follow even at its most complex.

If Josquin towered above his contemporaries, this does not devalue their work. For he was surrounded by a host of lesser luminaries, substantial composers in their own right. Among the most prominent names were Alexander Agricola, Jacob Obrecht, Loyset Compère, Heinrich Isaac, Jean Mouton, Antoine Brumel, and Pierre de la Rue. Even now, however, their works are so seldom performed and recorded that it is difficult to formulate more than a vague impression of their musical personalities. But it is clear enough that they were far more than carbon copies of Josquin. Consider Obrecht, la Rue, and Isaac. Obrecht's music lacks the textural variety, rhythmic animation, and emotional impact of Josquin, or for that matter the brooding whimsy of Ockeghem's, but it does possess a forthright vigor, a warmth, and quirky spontaneity that are immediately likable. La Rue, on the other hand, writes in a richly textured style full of contrapuntal artifice and sombre dignity. Heinrich Isaac was perhaps the greatest of Josquin's contemporaries, even more versatile and cosmopolitan than Josquin himself, a master of sonorous possibility and emotional penetration.

One of the great accomplishments of the composers of the High Renaissance, as Josquin's era has become known, was the development of systematic principles of imitation. Each phrase of text would be given its own "point of imitation," repeated in turn by every voice part before moving on to the next phrase in a continuously overlapping series. As time went on, the Franco-Flemish composers grew freer and freer in their imitative procedures, so that the imitative phrases were shorter and less recognizably drawn from a model, and the various entrances were less clearly defined. Moreover, the standard number of parts was expanded from four to five or six. The result was a denser, more seamless textural fabric.The major exponents of these techniques were Nicolas Gombert, Jacob Clemens non Papa, and Adrian Willaert. We list Willaert last, for though he was bom before Gombert and Clemens he outlived them both, and was by a considerable margin the most progressive of the three. During his service as chapelmaster at St. Mark's cathedral in Venice (1527-62) Willaert moved toward a new, "Venetian" style characterized by natural declamation, sensitive though restrained expression of the text, chordally oriented counterpoint, and antiphonal writing for two choirs. In so doing he established the basis for the subsequent achievements of Andrea Gabrieli and Giovanni Gabrieli and for entrance into a new world, that of the Baroque. He is considered more fully as part of Period IVN: The Venetian Style.

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