Feature: Josquin Des Préz (circa 1440 –1521): Ave Maria

Annunciation - Master of Moulins (active 1480 - 1500) - Date 1500 - Technique Oil on wood Josquin Des Préz was (and remains) so famous, influential, and highly regarded as a composer that he is routinely referred to by his first name of ‘Josquin’.  He’s believed to have been born in the Duchy of Burgundy in what is now modern Belgium, and is known to have spent a lot of his adult life in Italy first as a singer and then as a keenly sought after master of music. His Italian sojourn ended in 1504 when the court of Ferrara was dissolved for fear of plague. Josquin retired to Condé where he took up a position as provost of the collegiate church of Notre Dame in Condé-sur-l’Escaut. At that time Notre Dame De Condé-sur-l’Escaut was  ranked very highly for the quality of its music among the churches of Hainaut I suspect that the availability of a good choir was one of the factors that made his sojourn there his last and longest. Sadly nothing remains of the church in whose service he spent the last seventeen years of his life, it was sacked by Huguenots during the Wars of Religion and was completely demolished during the French Revolution. (The site where it stood is now a square planted with trees).

Ave Maria

About a 100 of Josquin’s motets survive of these his ‘Ave Maria’ is probably the best known – it’s certainly one of the most beautiful. He probably composed it late in 1499 shortly after he had entered the service of the newly crowned Louis XII of France. You can gauge both its quality how quickly it established itself as a favourite by the fact that as early as 1502 Ottaviano Petrucci chose it as the introductory work to his first ever printing of collected motets and that it survives in several other sixteenth-century sources.

It’s a free setting of a five-versed poem devoted to the Marian feasts. As you might expect from Josquin it’s a beautifully serene piece of music in which his trademark use of paired contrasting voices, and canon make their appearance. It opens with a preface consisting of a paraphrased Gregorian chant of the pre-Tridentine sequence ‘Ave Maria’.  Once this is over the poem itself starts with the line ‘Ave cujus conceptio’ (‘Hail to you whose conception’) and proceeds through the poem’s verses each of which deals with one of the five major Marian feasts:

  1. Conception — ‘Ave cujus conceptio (Hail to you whose conception,)’ …
  2. Nativity— ‘Ave, cujus nativitas (Hail to you whose birth we celebrated,)’ …
  3. Annunciation— ‘Cujus annunciatio Nostra fuit salvatio  (you whose annunciation was our salvation)’ …
  4. Purification— ‘Cujus purificatio, Nostra fuit purgatio. (whose purification cleansed us also.)’ …
  5. Assumption— ‘Cujus fuit assumptio, Nostra glorificatio  (you whose as­sump­tion

    glorified us also.)’ …

The verses having been sung Josquin ends with the prayer ‘O Mater Dei, memento mei’ (‘O Mother of God, remember me). You’ll find it sung here by the Cambrdidge Sinngers conducted by John Rutter together with its text and a translation to English immediately below. Enjoy :-).


Verse No:LatinEnglish
Preface.Ave Maria, gratia plena,

Dominus tecum, Virgo serena.
Hail Mary, full of grace,

the Lord is with you, fair virgin.
1Ave cujus conceptio,

Solemni plena gaudio,

Caelestia, terrestria,

Nova replet laetitia.

Hail to you whose conception,

full of holy joy,

fills heaven and earth

with new rejoicing.

2Ave, cujus nativitas

Nostra fuit solemnitas,

Ut lucifer lux oriens

Verum solem praeveniens.

Hail to you whose birth

we celebrated,

like the day-star rising,

foretelling the true Sun.

3Ave pia humilitas,

Sine viro fecunditas,

Cujus annunciatio

Nostra fuit salvatio.

Hail, holy and humble one,

fruitful without a man,

you whose annunciation

was our salvation.

4Ave vera virginitas,

Immaculata castitas,

Cujus purificatio

Nostra fuit purgatio.

Hail, true virginity,

spotless chastity,

whose purification

cleansed us also

5Ave, praeclara omnibus

Angelicis virtutibus,

Cujus fuit assumptio

Nostra glorificatio.

Hail to you who excel in all the angelic virtues,

you whose assumption

glorified us also.


O Mater Dei,

Memento mei. Amen.

(Source: Anonymous ecclesiastical.

Text: Votive antiphon to the Virgin Mary)

O Mother of God,

remember me. Amen.

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