“Josquin is the master of the notes; others are mastered by them.”—Martin Luther
Perhaps the finest composer of the High Renaissance was Josquin des Prez, third in the trio of great fifteenth-century Franco-Flemish composers. His major works are the nineteen masses he composed in a dramatic and masterful fashion.
“He [Ockeghem] alone of all singers is free from all vice and abounds in all virtues.”—Francesco Flori
The Franco-Flemish composer Johannes Ockeghem succeeded Guillaume Dufay as the most celebrated composer of his period, and was praised for the “extraordinary sweetness and beauty” of his music.
Relatively few of Ockeghem’s compositions have survived, among them fourteen masses that were the most important of their time. The earliest of these masses were composed on the accepted pattern of the cantus firmus (an existing melody used as the basis for the polyphonic composition). Ockeghem later experimented with the pattern, freeing the cantus firmus from its usual tenor part; and he became the fist known composer to use melodies from his own songs as the cantus firmus in a number of his masses. Several of Ockeghem’s masses do not even rely on a cantus firmus, but are freely constructed from rhythmic and melodic fragments.
In the succession of medieval composers I have enjoyed so far, I seem to have made personal connections with every other one. Hildegarde von Bingen I adored; the representatives of the Notre Dame school—Perotin and Leonin—not so much; Guillaume Machaut I loved. So I wondered about Guillaume Dufay.
I bookmarked numerous pieces, but did not find any particularly compelling until my attention was captured by his beautiful motet Nuper Rosarum Flores. I was all the more intrigued when I learned it was composed for the 1436 consecration of the Basilica de Santa Maria de Fiore. This massive brick dome—which was then in the last stages of completion—was a feat of medieval technology, accomplished by Filippo Brunelleschi.
What just happened to be on my library book shelf?—Ross King’s excellent Brunelleschi’s Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture.
I love connections like this!
Interestingly, it has been argued that the proportional structure of the motet was inspired by I Kings 6:1-20, which gives the dimensions of Solomon’s temple.
Guillaume Machaut, a medieval French poet whose work was admired and imitated by Geoffrey Chaucer a century later, was also a composer in the ars nova style. He composed in a wide range of styles and forms, including secular songs, but he is most renowned for the Messe de Nostre Dame, the earliest known complete setting of the Ordinary Mass by a single composer.
Mauchaut was born around 1300 in the Region of Reims, and probably took his surname from the nearby town of Machault. He served in a number of royal households, including that of John I, his daughter Bonne, her sons Jean de Berry and Charles, and Charles II of Navarre.
brings moments of pleasure to those proud man-thoughts
gives to that war king worldly power-goods
hall and homeland to hold for his own
renders him ruler of regions of the earth
a broad kingdom—he cannot forsee
in his own unwisdom an end to such wealth.
He dwells in happiness no hindrance bothers him
no illness or age or evil reckoning
darkens his mind no deep serpent thoughts
edge-hate in his heart—but all thisloan-world
bends to his will welcomes him with gold
till high thron-ethoughts throng into his mind
gather in his head. Then the guardian sleeps
the soul’s warden—it slumbers too long
while a silent slayer slips close to him
shoots from his bow baleful arrows.
Deep into his heart hard under shield-guard
strikes the arrowhead—no armor withstands
that quiet marksman cold mind-killer.
What he long has held too little contents him
greed grapples him he gives no longer
gold-patterened rings reckons no ending
of borrowed treasure-years bright earth-fortune
granted by God the great Measurer.
The last of splendor slips into darkness
the loaned king-body cracks upon the pyre
swirls away in smoke—soon another one
steps to the gift-throne shares his goldhoard
turns that treachery to trust and reward.
Guard against life-bale beloved Beowulf
best of warriors win for your soul
eternal counsel—care not for pride
great shield-champion! The glory of your strength
lasts for a while but not long after
sickness or spear-point will sever you from life
or the fire’s embrace or the flood’s welling
or the file-hard sword or the flight of a spear
or bane-bearing age—the brightness of your eye
will dim and darken. Destiny is waiting
and death will take you down into the earth.
This is one of my favorite passages of Beowulf, in which the Danish king Hrothgar joyfully meets Beowulf after Beowulf’s victory over the troll-wife. But rather than delivering the effusive praise one might expect, Hrothgar warns Beowulf with ‘bountiful words’ against the entrapment of pride. I highly recommend Rebsamen’s vigorous translation of this anonymous Anglo-Saxon poem. ‘Each one among us shall mark the end of this worldly life. Let him who may earn deeds of glory before death takes him—after life-days honor-fame is best.’
“The various Teutonic tribes, the Goths, the Vandals, the Saxons, the Danes and the Vikings, who swept through Europe raiding and pillaging, were considered barbarians by those who valued Greek and Roman achievements in literature and art. In a sense they certainly were barbarians, but this need not mean that they had no feeling for beauty, no art of their own. They had skilled craftsmen experienced in finely wrought metalwork, and excellent woodcarvers… They loved complicated patterns which included the twisted bodies of dragons, or birds mysteriously interlaced…
“The monks and missionaries of Celtic Ireland and Saxon England tried to apply the traditions of these northern craftsmen to the tasks of Christian art… [T]he most amazing monuments to their success are some of the manuscripts made in England and Ireland during the seventh and eighth centuries.”
Ernst H. Gombrich, “Chapter 8: Western Art in the Melting Pot,” The Story of Art, 15th edition
Look! March-bloom, like on mealed-with-yellow sallows!
These are indeed the barn, withindoors house
The shocks. This piece-bright paling shuts the spouse
Christ home, Christ and his mother and all his hallows.
An abele is a white poplar.
Goethe said that everyone should read a little poetry and see a fine picture every day, to prevent worldly cares from overcoming our sense of the beautiful. Get your daily dose of beauty at Wrestle with the Angel.