It is often said that scholars know almost nothing about Shakespeare’s life. The assertion helps sustain the continuing claims that his works were really written by someone else.
In fact, as far as early modern British dramatists are concerned, a lot is known about the author of Hamlet. But the same cannot be said of the magnificent Franco-Flemish composer Josquin des Prez (1450/55?-1521). One of the masters of the new high Renaissance style of polyphony, Josquin’s musical presence was to be outshadowed only by Palestrina.
It is certain that significant pieces by “Josquin” really were written by someone else. Such was his fame that copyists and publishers cheerfully lent his name, posthumously, to all kinds of other pieces in the expectation of improving sales. Josquin, it seemed, wrote more pieces after his death than before.
But faking Josquin’s authorship is different from being inspired by him. And on this new disc from Owen Rees’s Contrapunctus, the music of three of Josquin’s Spanish admirers – Cristóbal de Morales, Francisco Guerrero and Tomás Luis de Victoria – explores and extends his sound world with exceptional beauty. The temperament of the Counter-Reformation gives to Victoria a kind of Tintoretto-like energy that is different from Josquin’s ethereal skeining-out of counterpoint. But the influence is still audible.
At its best, this recording manages sonically to suggest the visionary commitment of these writers. They work in a form of musical impasto; their creations are about layers, about textures. Just occasionally, Contrapunctus manages eerily to take the sound out of the present and into what really feels like 16th-century Catholic Spain: odd and wonderful moments of a kind of musical psychogeography; of worship both in and out of time and place.
The most substantial work is Victoria’s Missa Gaudeamus, based on Morales’s motet, Iubilate Deo. That was written in 1538 to mark Pope Paul III’s success in bringing peace between Francis I of France and Charles V of Spain. Embedded in this captivating Mass setting – it makes graceful sweeping gestures, like the opening of a swan’s wing – is the presence of Josquin’s noble Mass of the same name from the 1480s.
Owen Rees produces a purity of sound that is lovely. A haunting clarity possesses this recording of a composer’s legacy that is much clearer than his actual life. Like High Renaissance Venetian painter Giorgione, Josquin – as here – can be a spirit in another man’s art.
Francis O’Gorman is Saintsbury Professor of English Literature at the University of Edinburgh and tweets at @francis_ogorman
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