Feature: Josquin Des Prez (±1450 – 1521): Missa Ave Maris Stella

Josquin’s Missa Ave maris stella is a relatively early that must have been composed sometime between 1495 and 1505 when it appeared as the opening work in the second book of Josquin’s Masses published by Ottaviano Petrucci the Venetian master printer and publisher. It’s a cantus firmus work in other words Josquin used the melody of another piece of  music as the musical foundation for this setting of the Mass. As the name Missa Ave maris stella might lead you to expect the cantus firmus Josquin used was the Dorian mode Marian hymn of that name and which I include as the starting track in the recording below.

This hymn which was appointed to be sung at First Vespers on feasts of the Blessed Virgin Mary was very popular and very greatly loved. Even as Gregorian chant there are six settings of it that I know of and there could well have been more there’s also a very well-known setting by Dufay. Not being one to  pass up an opportunity Josquin’s setting makes heavy use of it as a cantus firmus. You can hear it throughout the Mass both as a structural voice subject to embellishment or as the foundation for some highly developed imitation. It’s a really stunning setting in which Josquin somehow manages to combine some quite severe contrapuntal writing with intensely declamatory treatment of the text and numinous euphony. It’s a compositional tour de force in which Josquin clearly set out to show what he could do and I find it very difficult to pick out one highlight over another so I’ll confine myself to mentioning just a few points.

There’s some very fine four-part writing at the start of the Gloria. When we come to ‘Qui tollis’ Josquin augments the intensity by shifting the mood inward and the pace down, while in the Credo the ‘Et incarnatus est’ is truly lovely. Josquin changes the mood at ‘Et resurrexit’ to highlight the fervour and joy caused by that event and sustains this elevated mood to the movement’s end. The Sanctus has some wonderfully energetic (and hard to sing) writing at ‘Pleni sunt caeli’.  All of these are superb but the ‘Hosannah is spectacular, for this Josquin takes the cantus firmus – the Marian hymn in the tenor and sustains it from the very first bar right through to the end in the tenor line. He weaves the other voices around this central thread over long stretches but he allows them to take a respite before they re-join the tenor they do this in sequences singing and resting the effect is one of a somewhat severe rhythmical ostinato and makes for some remarkably powerful music. In complete contrast to this is the concluding third part of the Agnus Dei which is a tranquil limpid flowing piece of four-part writing. It’s a wonderfully balanced piece of writing with a mellowness and tonal depth unequalled even by such luminaries as de Lassus and Palestrina the flow is which features a strict canon between superius and tenor takes the cantus firmus to its logical conclusion thus triumphantly concluding the Mass. When he was writing the program notes for their own recording of it the Tallis Scholars’ Peter Philips said that this Mass is "Josquin at his most inventive and his most inspired". Yes indeed. Enjoy :-).


Video and commentary source: Josquin Des Prez (±1450 – 1521): Missa Ave Maris Stella – YouTube Published on 15 Nov 2014 by markfromireland.

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