It is the 27th of August 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org, I’m Dan van Voorhis.
Recently on the Almanac, we heard about Ira Sankey and the contributions he made in trying a new kind of Gospel song to the new Evangelicalism and forever changed church music.
And the music he was deviating from was the tradition put in place by Lowell Mason. We talked about him recently and discussed how he imported a European classical tradition into the first and most popular hymn books.
Today we are going to take a step back from both Sankey and Mason to the great grandfather of Western church music. It was on this, the 27th of August in 1521 that Josquin Deprez died at Condé-sur-l’Escaut. Praised by both Proto-Protestants and Popes the composer would take church music from the plainchant into the world of modern polyphony. Let’s start with what we know about Josquin. (It looks like Jo-squin Des-prez)
Ok, this is kind of fun. We know very little about him. Until the 1950s we thought we knew more but that was until historians fessed up to having confused this Josquin with another Josquin (it wasn’t an uncommon name- it was the name of a local saint). He was born around 1450 near the French and Flemish border (think Belgium). In the 1470s we have record of him singing in choirs tied to the court of Anjou. He would later sing at the court of Milan and between 1486-1494 he performed at the Papal chapel.
What does this tell us?
He was good. Obvs.
He was part of the great immigration of musical talent to Italy made possible by trade routes and the influx of wealth created during the Renaissance. Think of it like music scenes today.
Where did Disco come from? NYC. Jazz? New Orleans. Grunge? Seattle. Of course, genres expand and migrate but the collection of generational talents in one place sparks the movement. This is the story of the Renaissance. And of course, this is the first age of printing.
The big question, of course, is what was so great about Josquin? Martin Luther famously said of Josquin "He is the master of the notes. They must do as he wills; as for the other composers, they have to do as the notes will.” What does this mean?
Let me break it down. Josquin wrote Masses, Motets, and Chansons.
Masses you get. The order of worship. Think to chant, Latin, etc…
Chansons are popular songs. Tunes for pubs, etc…
Josquin could do those- but it was the motet where he stood out. What’s a motet? Literally “words”. “Mot” is French for “Word”. Were there no words in the masses and Chansons? There were but either they were silly or chanted in such a way that made them unintelligible, think one word stretched out over multiple notes.
We see Josquin's ability to marry notes and words most famously in his Miserere based on the prayer written by Savonarola (the mad prophet who ran out the DeMedici’s in Florence only to find his fate at the stake). Savonarola wrote a famous prayer in his cell that circulated widely. Josquin put it to music and the words were so clear it was obvious that Josquin's text was based on Savonarola’s text.
Josquin’s works would be the first pieces of mass-printed music in 1503. His name became so synonymous with excellence that for over a century folks would put his name on others' works to increase sales and their own prestige.
He is an interesting model for a talent in the church who would become something of a celebrity. We don’t know much about him, just his works. He seems to have not been flamboyant or eager to make a splash. Most of the details of his life have been lost to the past- but we know him for what he did. Josquin De Prez who revolutionized music by bending the notes to fit the words- the father of modern (circa 1500) church music died on this, the 27th of August in 1521.
The last word for today comes from the beginning of Psalm 30 from which Josquin took language to create his Miserere:
I will extol you, O Lord, for you have drawn me up,
and did not let my foes rejoice over me.
O Lord my God, I cried to you for help,
and you have healed me.
O Lord, you brought up my soul from Sheol,
restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit.
Sing praises to the Lord, O you his faithful ones,
and give thanks to his holy name.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 27th of August 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
The show is produced by a man who grew up near Lafayette Indiana, home to the modern composers Axl Rose and Izzy Stradlin from Guns N Roses. He is Christoper Gillespie.
The show is written and read by a man from Irvine California- some call it the paradise city Where the Grass is green and the people are petty… I am Dan van Voorhis
You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.