Jan 092009


To analyze Josquin is to confront, head on, the incommensur­ability between analytical systems and true artistic greatness.  There is a sense in which approaching him with modern tools of dissection is catching sand in a sieve; no tool of deeper analysis — of the sort favored by composers and theoreticians from the common practice period to the present — will ever yield an entirely satisfactory understanding of his music.  The analysis may indeed provide insight into the less fundamental levels of a works’ structure: motivic parsing may yield a facile understanding of the linear building blocks of a work, and the study of fugal techniques might explain, simply enough, the manner of their deployment. But all of this is on the surface. At the basic, “skeletal” level, an ordinary structural analysis turns up strangely blank. When we ask the most important question—the question of what gives the work meaning, direction, unity—the answer proves opaque.  The explanation why follows an obscure path outward, through questions that are technical, linguistic, and finally philosophical.

There are probably three fundamental paradigms through which the deeper structure of music can be approached.  These I will term, for the sake of this argument, the Schenkerian, the Schoenbergian, and the architectonic.  Each must be carefully turned over, its relevance to the music of the early Renaissance deciphered, and the rest, for the moment, thrown out.  From the remnants, and from a largely unguided study of the score of Josquin’s Missa L’Homme Armé Super Voces Musicales, I will attempt to construct a method which is technically and philosophically coherent with Josquin’s music.  This, hopefully, will itself provide further insight into the score.

The Schenkerian approach is perhaps the most fundamentally reductive of the three, imagining music as the “composing out” of a basic process—a scalar passage and harmonic progression.  To what extent can this apply to music not of the common practice period?  Schenker himself is said to have had a certain degree of difficulty applying his theories to Brahms, and to have found them entirely incompatible with Wagner—a fact, characteristically, that he believed to invalidate the music rather than the system.  This does not, however, necessarily imply a similar incompatibility with older music.  The aspect of functional progression we can discard out of hand; but the notion of a scalar process embedded in the music may be of some use.  Indeed, it is reinforced by Josquin’s explicit use of such processes, of which the transpositions of the cantus firmus in the Missa L’Homme Armé is one outstanding instance.  But this is likely, again, to be an abstract game,

The second of these paradigms, the Schoenbergian, is perhaps the most similar in technique to the basic substance of the Josquin generation.  The saturation of a contrapuntal texture with linear iterations of a basic motive or set of motives has its precedent in Brahms, who also made a thorough study of the Renaissance polyphonists.  Theoretically, however, it is predominantly the provenance of non-tonal music; what Schoenberg found in Brahms he treats, in his own music, primarily as a substitute for the order of tonality.  In this lies its usefulness in relation to an understanding of Josquin.  However, in Schoenberg’s music itself, this system operates, except in rare cases, alongside the third, architectonic system.  It is no surprise that it was in the mature works of Webern, the member of the Second Viennese School most intimately involved with the music of Josquin’s period, that we find its purest application.

Perhaps even more important in this relation is the treatment of serialism in the late works of Stravinsky, whose music is often described, tellingly, as “hieratic,” and whose cherished esthetic of “objectivity,” one of the most radical aspects of his break with the Romantic past, may more closely approximate certain elements of the Medieval and Renaissance mind than does any musical paradigm to have arisen during the interim.  There are, I would argue, vital clues to Josquin in this notion of “objectivity.”  Formulated at first with an eye toward the Classical and Baroque periods, as an anodyne to Wagnerism, it may in fact partake most intimately of the Renaissance.  Hence it is no accident that Stravinsky, who approached twelve-tone technique predominantly through the works of Webern, also returned, in the serial works, to forms and techniques explicitly referential of Renaissance polyphony.  In Threni, his setting of the Lamentations of Jeremiah, the rhythmic values in many places overtly mimic those of white-note mensural notation, and the various row-forms of the work are often treated as the raw material for the construction of canonic duets the like of which permeate the masses of Josquin.  Similarly, the twelve-tone works of Webern, though texturally far more distant from the music of the early Renaissance, nonetheless abound in the quintessentially Franco-Flemish artifices of strict double canon, mirror forms, and even forms of mensuration canon.  Likewise, he shares a distinctly Flemish aversion to any spare musical “flesh”; all material that does not contribute directly to the intricate contrapuntal argument is ruthlessly discarded in favor of silence.  In light of these facts, it seems clear that both composers saw a clear relationship between the technical and esthetic means of their own serial music and those of the Renaissance.

So, in a sense, the ideal of complete linear saturation is another important tool for the understanding of this music.  This is pointed up particularly by Joshua Rifkin’s comments about “motivicity” in Josquin’s music:

We might define motivicity informally as the maximum permeation of a polyphonic texture by a single linear denominator or set of denominators. […] I must distinguish what I have in mind here from our common conceptions of motive and motivic treatment as we inherit them from the analysis of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century music.  For one thing, the units I refer to do not—or not, for the most part, in any structurally meaningful sense—undergo the kind of evolution we consider part  and parcel of tonal composition since the Classic era. […] They do not necessarily have a distinctive profile, nor, even more important, do they necessarily initiate events or otherwise function as incises… we may better liken them to modules, or to “segments” in twelve-tone theory. [1]

It may then prove valuable, to a certain extent, to approach the Franco-Flemish period through a form of motivic/serial analysis. Unfortunately, this still leaves us inadequately equipped for an analytical approach to Josquin’s music, in precisely the same way that it fails to adequately explain the very works based on it; motivic working of this form can provide an explanation of formal continuity, but it cannot adequately explain the source of fundamental direction, the “narrative” of the work.

This leads us to the final of these three tools of vivisection, the “architectonic” approach to a work’s structure.  By “architectonic” I do not mean the reductio ad absurdum of academic theory in which the standard forms of the classical period are parsed into their functionally related harmonic areas, divided into thematic and transitional sections, and finally fitted to the procrustean bed of one or another simplified label.  This is, so to speak, a linguistic feature of common practice tonality, rather than a structural feature of an individual work; insofar as it is treated as a universally applicable mold, it is of dubious value even in the study of the works for which it was designed, much less in the study of pre-tonal music.  Rather I mean the term to be understood in the broader and more useful sense: to describe not the unconscious linguistic factors of common practice music, but the very concrete, conscious structural device of setting up within a given work a unique and fundamental architectonic conflict.  This conflict tends, in its nature, to be extralinguistic; its power derives from its intrusion upon the natural fabric of the language, the manner in which it lies outside, and hence disturbs and modifies, the natural flow of the musical dialect.  Witness, in this respect, the Neapolitan tonal areas in middle Beethoven, or the mediant and submediant tonal areas in Brahms.  In a work such as, say, the Appassionata sonata, the theme is introduced in the Neapolitan immediately following its initial tonic statement.  This creates a parity of sorts between the two harmonic areas and sets the stage for their elemental conflict, a kind of dialectical process in which the Neapolitan serves as a foreign irritant, an alien harmonic area whose progressive growth alongside, clash with, and ultimate assuagement and integration into the home key form the backbone, both intellectual and visceral, of the work’s drama.

This pattern also applies, in dramatically expanded form, in Wagner.  Vitally, as a way of thinking, it persists even in much music that has ceased to be tonal; early, freely atonal Schoenberg often treats motive and rhythm in terms of the same underlying dialectic of elemental conflict—see, for example, the first of the Five Orchestral Pieces, in which a single three-note motive is juxtaposed in incompatible rhythmic patterns, which clash with and conquer each other in the same manner as the halves of a Beethovenian harmonic duality. Understood in this sense, the architectonic conflict can be seen as the essential underlying schema of music after the Baroque.  The predominant way to understand what the composer is doing, at a psychological level, is to understand this systematization of irregularity.

I believe that this will be in a sense the most fruitful tool for understanding Josquin’s music—precisely by virtue of its total absence.  In the Missa L’Homme Armé we will find nowhere such a use of structural dissonance.  Such dissonances as occur are largely a product of contrapuntal motion; harmonic areas never stray so far away as to come into fundamental conflict with the tonic.  The modality of the work is, in a sense, neutral; Dorian is favored, and movements and sections may stray to different finals with little sense of a friction with the surrounding structure.  Rather, each modal digression is a different “view” of sorts, a vision of the modal material from a slightly altered perspective.

In other words, I am trying first to understand this music by what it is not; and it is not the Beethovenian archetype of music, in form or in meaning.  This may seem to be stating the obvious, but in fact it is quite the opposite; for the most part, this archetype has become so large in our vision of art music that we are no longer even capable of seeing it.  Rather than remaking Josquin in Beethoven’s image, or in Bach’s, as an analytical method derived from the study of their archetypes would encourage, the best way to approach this music is as an archetype of its own, conspicuously alien to the post-Beethovenian tradition, and, for that matter, to the modern mind.


It is in fact possible to rigourously argue the nature of this archetype, if we accept as possible a couple of postulates.  The first and most crucial of these is that great art tends toward a unity of style and substance—in other words, that the philosophical or visceral “essence” of a work tends to find some kind of objective mirror in the very nature of its structure.  The intimate relationship between the architectonic duality and the Beethovenian rhetoric of suffering is a case in point.  The second postulate is that there is at least an inkling of validity in the centuries-old notion, now fallen victim to the relativism of the present age, of some sort of emotional or even biological relation between dissonance and pain.  The final postulate is the most difficult, though once again it is only provisionally necessary.  It is that there is at least some truth to the notion of a zeitgeist, to Goethe’s axiom that genius captures the spirit of its age.

With these taken on faith—or at least held in abeyance—a startling picture emerges.  Ever since E.T.A. Hoffmann, Beethoven’s music has been described, to the point of cliché, as the music of personal struggle.  The clash of light and dark, of man and fate, although purely metaphorical treatments of the music, nonetheless speak of something real and present in its very sound.  On an architectural level, this something is in fact embedded in the structure of things; the architectonic conflict, the rub of necessary dissonance as it travels through its myriad structural ramifications until it is at last assuaged.  If we consider that Beethoven was a rough contemporary of Hegel, we can see this—though it would be facile to draw too direct a parallel—as relating intimately to Hegelian dialectic.  The suffering in Beethoven is party to an ultimately optimistic teleology; it is struggle, but generally struggle with ultimate meaning and triumph at its end.  On the other hand, the era of Beethoven is also the era of Goethe’s Werther, whose despair and suicide so captured the imagination of the romantics.  This complex mixture, of necessary pain, teleological optimism, and a covert but growing death-wish, defines not only the world of Beethoven but the spiritual and even technical nature of his music.  Two German words are of crucial importance to the understanding of the path culture generally, and music in particular, took after Beethoven. These words are Leiden and Verklärung—suffering and transfiguration.  After all, what is the Beethovenian drama but the transfiguration of necessary suffering, an idealized metaphor in art for the battle Beethoven was never entirely able to win in life.  With Wagner—in Tristan, a work quintessentially influenced by the vast pessimism of Schopenhauer—they reach a kind of mingled apotheosis at the final resolution of the Tristan chord to an unsullied B major.  This apotheosis, of course, is only achieved in death; but it is significant that before being labeled the Liebestod, the close of the opera was called Isolde’s Verklärung. Finally, in the devil’s central monologue in Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, the two terms are permanently uncoupled:

How should I not take some pleasure in the indisposition under which the idea of the musical work languishes[?]  Do not cast the blame on social conditions!  I know that it is your inclination and habit to say that such conditions present nothing that would carry sufficient obligation or sanction to assure the harmony of the self-sufficient work.  True, but impertinent. The prohibitive difficulties of the work lie deep within the work itself.  The historical movement of musical material has turned against the self-contained work.  The material shrinks in time, it scorns extension in time, which is the space of the musical work, and leaves time standing vacant.  Not out of impotence, not out of an inability to shape form.  But rather, an implacable imperative of density– disallowing all superfluity, negating the phrase, shattering all ornament– stands averse to temporal expansion, the very life-form of the work.  Work, time, and illusion are one, together falling victim to criticism.  It no longer tolerates illusion and games, or the fiction, the self-glorious form, that censures passions and human suffering, assigning them their roles, transposing them into images.  Only what is not fictitious, not a game, is still permissible– the unfeigned and untransfigured expression of suffering in its real moment.  For suffering’s impotence and affliction have swelled till illusion’s games can no longer be endured. [2]

The crucial notion here almost goes by unnoticed in English; the “untransfigured expression of suffering in its real moment.”  Leiden without Verklärung. This is, historically and esthetically, the ultimate resting place of Beethoven’s musical dialectic—a resolution in favor not of transfiguration but of naked, unmitigated suffering.  It strikes one as almost inevitable, then, that Faustus was informed deeply by the philosophy of Theodor Adorno, whose life’s work consisted primarily of applying the tools of Marxian dialectical materialism toward an understanding of music—that is to say, a thorough left-Hegelian.

Mann’s Schoenbergian composer-hero escapes the problem of the modern work by an abandonment of transfiguration; it is plain that Mann saw, in Schoenberg’s emancipation of the dissonance, in the freedom from necessary cadence, the end of any hope of a transfiguration such as Isolde’s. Instead, an intensification and elongation of Wagnerian sennsucht to the point of infinity, a state that Faustus indicates Mann saw as intimately wed to the cultural collapse of modern Germany—and, implicitly, to the loss of the composer’s soul.  In terms of technique, a logical extrapolation from this would be the notion that, where the essence of tonality is that dialectic of suffering presented in organized form,  Schoenberg’s replacement of tonal order—motivic saturation and ultimately the tone row—is the organizing matter of pure, untransfigured suffering.  Dodecaphony is, in a certain sense, the language of Hell.

This is the elaborate eschatology of music to which I believe Josquin’s music provides the necessary completion.  It is, at least, internally coherent given the postulates.  The key to the riddle of Josquin, within this context, is this: his is the art of a time before teleology, and perhaps even more important, before the entrance into music of subjective suffering.  It may share a common technique with atonality in Rifkin’s notion of “motivicity,” but it is not altogether surprising that Heaven and Hell should share a common tongue, alien to that of men.  In the twentieth century, it is only in the sovereign strangeness of Webern and late Stravinsky that suffering is somehow transcended, that dissonance looses its astringency and we are suddenly transported, through a radical alteration of perspective, into something like Josquin’s world.

So, if this period of time marks, as mentioned earlier, the end of the dialectic, its unanticipated resolution to the negative, why does Josquin represent a world before its inception?  Surely the Renaissance is the root of the very teleological, optimistic view of the world in discussion; surely it is the quintessential “age of reason”; surely Josquin’s polyphony is at the very root of the common practice.  His famed comparison to Michelangelo would seem to imply that the arsenal of imitative techniques and the style of dissonance treatment he pioneered stand in direct relation to the Italian painters’ concurrent developments in perspective, and place him neatly in line with the emerging humanism and rationality of the Florentine Renaissance.  But although the technical relationship rings true, this comparison, made by an Italian many years after Josquin’s death, is misleading.  Michelangelo in fact died forty years after Josquin; in a period when the intellectual world was transforming at a faster rate than in any time since Periclean Athens, this is already enough to separate them significantly.  Among artists, Josquin’s exact historical contemporaries were da Vinci and Botticelli. Concordantly,  even in suffering Josquin’s music confronts us, not with the overt, anguished expressivity of the David, but with the mute, unfathomable gaze of Botticelli’s St. Sebastian.

These are also the eyes of Botticelli’s late Crucifixion, and of the Crucifixus of Josquin’s mass.  In Bach’s mass in B minor, the Crucifixus is music of intense anguish, a mourning ground bass underpinning tormented suspensions in the solo voices.  In Josquin’s it passes by with what seems to us an odd blankness, a moment in the Mass like any other—as indeed it is, a brief phrase, barely lingered over, in the vast Nicene Creed.  Similarly, those who call Bach’s faith simple and unquestioning would do well also to consider the St. Matthew’s Passion and the words “Father, father, why have you abandoned me?”  Whereas the Mass is a work of ritual, the Passion is a work of drama, and the central drama of the crucifixion is that of uncertainty.  That why? hangs urgently in the air.  Centuries later, Bruno Walter would describe each of Mahler’s symphonies as an attempt to answer the great why? One might say, at the risk of oversimplifying, that much of the intervening period was also a series of attempts, increasingly  strenuous, to answer it.

Philosophically, it is much the same.  Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, and the dialectical materialists are the children of Cartesian rationalism.  So are we all.  But Descartes was not born until 1596, three-quarters of a century after Josquin’s death.  Two minds may be in rapport without being contemporaries; but 75 years is very long time.  The true rationalistic, Christian optimism of the Cartesian era is more properly the musical provenance of Bach—as is its uncertainty—and  this is not coincidental to his popular representation as the “first” musician of the modern era.  The 75-year interim period, which was also roughly the period of Michelangelo, is marked, quite neatly, by the careers of Palestrina, Lassus, and Thomas Tallis.  Almost too neatly, the first work I know which displays traces of an architectonic structuring, of the kind systematized in Beethoven, is the first set of Tallis’ Lamentations of Jeremiah, in which the relationship of B-natural and B-flat binds together the peripheries of the work, occurring here as an interpretation of what seems to be irreconcilable musica ficta, there as a minor to major reinterpretation of the final chord.

Interestingly enough, the popularity of the Lamentation set as liturgical genre dates predominantly from this time, and it is during the struggles of the reformation and the counter-reformation that many of the finest Lamentation cycles were conceived.  Further, Stravinsky’s own set of lamentations comes to mind, as does the word used to describe him earlier, “hieratic.”  The two dovetail all too neatly; the Hebrew name of Jeremiah derives largely from the Greek, Hieremiae or Hieremias, a name partaking of the same root as “hieratic,” and similarly implying the priestly caste and the attendant liturgical and ritual duties.  There is a certain inevitable logic of metaphor in the way that the era of subjective musical suffering should be flanked by two Jeremiads, to extrapolate yet a further meaning of the word; the “objective,” neo-Renaissance statement of Stravinsky and the recusant confession of Tallis are perfect bookends to this epoch, formulated as they were during the respective turmoils of the twentieth century and the English Reformation.  One could say that in these works the Prophet, and through him the composer, gives voice to a “lamentation” that is at once personal and communal, the sorrow of an entire people, the perfect gateway between our own subjective understanding of the world and the alien, impassive theological edifice of Josquin’s art.

Whereas Tallis and Lassus seem to look forward toward Descartes and the modern era, Josquin remains part of an older philosophical world, one given its defining shape by the medieval scholastics.  Because of this, a final valuable tool for the technical understanding of his music is the theoretical writings of Josquin’s time and earlier; and this is the case, not despite but because of the fact that they tend to be maddeningly abstruse, eschewing technical analysis and tending toward a generalization based on dogma.  As high-minded and irrelevant as Pythagorean speculations about the “music of the spheres” may seem, they are in reality perhaps more applicable to Josquin’s music than, say, Schenkerian analysis.  This is because they may point subtly to the underlying schema of the music; for if ever there was a Pythagorean art, it was Josquin’s.  Even while his musical technique lays the foundations of the common practice, he expresses in it, alongside the very modern passion that is so often noted, something hieratic, like Stravinsky, and something geometrical, like Webern.  These traits, which strike us with such a force of modernity in those composers, are modern precisely because they are so ancient.

In short, like the Renaissance itself, Josquin is Janus-headed.  An analytical system that can properly grasp him must be likewise Janus-headed, employing scattered tools, many of them incongruously derived from modern analysis, but re-engineered so as to cohere with an underlying form that is fundamentally nonteleological. To understand him is to understand to what degree the early Renaissance, striding assuredly forward, continues to partake of the medieval mind.


The Missa L’Homme Armé Sexti Toni is in many ways the ideal instance of Josquin’s medieval inheritance.  The tradition from which it derives is one of the most illustrious of the Renaissance, beginning perhaps with Dufay or Busnoys [3], and continuing unbroken to the works of the Palestrina generation, with a smattering of later additions extending into the Baroque. [4]  In particular the work of Busnoys, with which Josquin may have been acquainted [5], provides an valuable window into the medieval aspects of the tradition, with its strong association with the techniques of the older isorhythmic motet, evidenced among other things in its elaborately planned Pythagorean number symbolism. [6]  Moreover, the cantus firmus technique itself extends back into the primitive beginnings of polyphony, deriving intimately from the spare ornamentation of plainsong that constitutes the earliest organum—a fact of far-reaching historical significance in itself, implying as it does the liturgical origins of variation form.

Fundamental to both the isorhythmic motet and the cantus firmus mass is the notion of invariance, a technical feature which also provides one of the essential links with serialist practice.  Like serialism, and in contradistinction to Thematische Arbeit, or thematic working, the essential technique of the Classical and Romantic period, isorhythmic and cantus firmus technique are at the bottom essentially fixed—and again this reminds us of Rifkin’s concept of “motivicity.” Where the Beethovenian motive is played with, infinitely transformed, “developed” in the truest sense of the word, the cantus, like the series or Rifkin’s modules, can only run in place.

Inevitably, given this kinship, Webern was deeply indebted to the Choralis Constantinus of Isaac, and Schoenberg himself is reported to have been intimately involved in the music of the Netherlanders during the time of his formulation of the twelve-tone system. [7]  Indeed, though serialism is often argued to be derived primarily from Bachian counterpoint, Beethovenian motivic working, and Brahmsian developing variation, the art of the Netherlanders also forms a crucial part of it.  Though inversion, like augmentation and diminution, is ubiquitous in Bach and in the more learned composers of the common practice period, the more recondite mirror forms are scarce; retrograde occurs in the Musical Offering and the fugue of the Hammerklavierboth times as a deliberately esoteric, almost perverse gesture—and possibly nowhere else in the canon of tonal music.  Even in Brahms the historicist, it is confined largely to the sketchbooks.  Retrograde inversion is unheard of.  Prior to Schoenberg, it is only in the Renaissance masters that these techniques existed as a living, breathing aspect of musical syntax; in Isaac, Obrecht, and Busnoys, all of the mirror forms, even retrograde inversion—the eternal black sheep of the family—proliferate dizzyingly. [8]  Josquin himself was somewhat less encyclopedic in his contrapuntal technique.  His most flamboyant displays of virtuosity took such forms as the triple mensuration canon of the Missa L’Homme Armé Super Voces Musicales, or the equally impressive superimposition of rectus and retrograde forms of the cantus under an elaborate double canon—yet again, from a mass based on the cantus of L’Homme Armé.

But there is a vital difference between the historicity of the mirror forms in the twelve-tone system, which is predominantly the creation of one man, an act of conscious fiat, and the deployment of similar techniques by Josquin’s generation, to whom they must have seemed the result of a natural processes, an evolution occurring in the works of many disparate composers, from early polyphony through isorhythm to the present.  The willed rationality of Schoenberg’s Herculean efforts do not hold the force of historical naturalness.  This is in marked contrast to his harmonic language, the logical and almost inevitable continuation of Wagner’s.  It is a commonplace that the works of Schoenberg’s freely atonal period, and those written after the strictness of dodecaphony had relaxed somewhat, are by and large his greatest.  Strictness in itself is no crime—for all that Schoenberg has been pilloried for it—and functional harmony has its own inescapable rigour: Mozart is in his way no less strict than is Webern.  Does not the difficulty really lie in the fact that, while the almost psychotic, dialectical chaos of the first of the 5 orchestral pieces mentioned earlier—tellingly entitled Vorgefühle, “premonitions”—expresses and to some extent anticipates the zeitgeist, the chaos and brutality of two World Wars, the works of Schoenberg’s “classical” serial period are, like much of Stravinsky’s neoclassicism, a reaction against that chaos, a desperate and hopeless attempt to impose  an external order upon the world through the internal order of art?  As the old trope goes, art imitates life and life imitates art.  Perhaps classical serialism, like the modernists’ general retreat into various forms of classicism after the first World War, speaks of some unmentionable guilt, a suspicion, somewhere below the level of overt consciousness, that they had in some way brought this about.  Perhaps, by imposing order again on the mirror of the world, they thought to correct their error.

And this brings us again to Mann’s Faustus. Perhaps the internal, subjective suffering of modernism had exploded into an external, brutally objective torment; perhaps the Schoenbergian devil had risen out of the harmonic details to be made flesh in the world.  Scarce decades later, the third Reich’s infamous infatuation with Wagner would make this question horribly manifest.  Indeed, I am often haunted by the intuition that in Wagner the whole history of the Cartesian era has its culmination and greatest riddle.  In him there was a glorious drawing together of forces the like of which the artistic world had never seen, and may never see again: the great tradition of functional harmony and motivic development passed down by Beethoven; as Nietzsche remarked, the epic and dramatic traditions of Homer and Aeschylus; and the philosophical legacy of Kant and Schopenhauer.  And the riddle is this: that all of this came together in a moment of unsurpassed brilliance and transfiguration—and in that moment, radical evil was born.  And what rough beast, its hour come round at last…?

The riddle of Wagner poses also, in a way, the riddle of dodecaphony, which is also the riddle of the modernists’ yearning glance toward the Renaissance.  For simply to say that serialism was a failed attempt to impose order on the unorderable is to do it great injustice.  Its Renaissance techniques and attendant esthetic order were, unquestion­ably, incompatible with the expressionism of Schoenberg’s early master­pieces, and such a work as the Fourth String Quartet, with its neatly parsed classical forms and rhythms and its Mozartean mannerisms, contains within itself an almost unbearable contradiction between the two.  Schoenbergian developing variation is, in its truest form, the exact opposite of the invariance of the row or the cantus firmus: a state of eternal flux and development, the musical equivalent of stream of consciousness; the perfect mirror, for example, of the madness expressed in the libretto of Erwartung.

It is almost inevitable, then, that Webern, who Boulez praised as the composer to most fully realize the implications of the twelve-tone system, as the way to the future, was also the composer of the third Viennese school—and perhaps of the modern era—most effectively able to “think his way back” into the Renaissance.  Likewise we are struck by the hermetic strangeness, yet utter rightness, of Stravinsky’s Threni and Requiem Canticles, in which the invariant row not only assumes characteristics much like those of the cantus firmus, but adopts its very meaning, becoming an incantation, an endless, changeless meditation on the divine—to which, at the end of the Requiem, we see Stravinsky approaching, like an asymptote or an endlessly vanishing horizon, at the moment of death.  Observing all of these works, a pattern gradually makes itself clear: that a fundamental aspect of their sense of rightness is a kind of internal consistency, the consistency of technique and meaning.  They participate, at every level of their being, in the element of meditative religious ceremony inherent in the catechism-like nature of the unvarying row.

Perhaps the greatest of all twelve-tone works, Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron, would seem to defy these categorizations.  Its elements of high drama and expressionism run counter to the liturgical tendencies of the other works.  Yet, at the same time, it has a fundamentally theological subject, and beneath the surface drama we find that in it Schoenberg approaches, in his radically different way, a similar central meaning.  George Steiner says that Schoenberg introduced into music, “whose classical development and modes seemed to embody the very genius of the Christian and Germanic tradition, a dissonant and uncompromisingly rational ideal… a revolutionary—to its enemies an alien, Jewish—presence in the world of Bach and Wagner.” [9]  In this we see one of the fundamental distinguishing characteristics of Moses und Aron, and that which sets it apart so radically from the world of Threni. But at the same time, there is that in it of the “oneness” of Josquin; Schoenberg’s uncompromising theology reaches below the bedrock of the Jewish and Christian traditions to that which connects them, and in doing so he once, uniquely and unrepeatably, forges the Renaissance marriage of technique and ultimate meaning anew, by arguing that the row’s invariance, its transcendent fixity, exists like a hidden god, somewhere beneath the chaos and ruin.  It is the unique achievement of Moses und Aron that in it Schoenberg’s ordered expressionism finds its perfect cosmological metaphor, as the unity of the row becomes, once and once only, the living symbol of the indivisible and inviolate unity of God, the still core around which the nihilistic orgy of the golden calf, the uncertainty and fragmentation of developing variation, spin unceasing—just as, in a different time, the divinely ordered cosmography of the cantus firmus mass ran in inexorable orbit around the terra firma of the central tune—whose theological function is implicit in its very name.  Nor is the metaphor idle; like Michelangelo, Copernicus slightly postdates Josquin, and did not publish De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium until 1543, 22 years after Josquin’s death.  So doing, he cast man adrift, de profundis, an act whose ramifications would not entirely finish playing out until Marx and Freud, at the other end of the Cartesian era.

Perhaps this—as much as such a thing is possible—is the answer to the original riddle posed, the riddle of Josquin: that he was the last great composer to be living and writing before the world came unmoored from its foundations.  Josquin lived in, and his music reflects, a Ptolemaic universe.  We, in our profoundly troubled times— for all that we try to pretend that the universe is still intact, that the sun still orbits the earth—can only look back in longing, and envy the beauty of his music.  It is the peculiar beauty of St. Sebastian’s eyes, which see past suffering in its real moment, and find in it not the promise of transfiguration but present meaning and redemptive value, find that the suffering is not suffering at all.

This is no longer possible; it is no longer possible to write the music of the spheres, because the spheres have forsaken their proper places, and become, like the rest, creatures of uncertainty.


[1] Cited in The Josquin Companion, p. 6.

[2] Doctor Faustus, p. 256

[3] See Taruskin, “Antoine Busnoys and the L’Homme armé Tradition,” Journal of the American Musicological Society 39/2, 1986.

[4] See New Grove Online, L’homme armé.

[5] See Brothers, “Vestiges of the Isorhythmic Tradition in Mass and Motet, ca. 1450-1475,” JAMS 44/1, 1991, p. 32.

[6] Taruskin, pp. 269-270.

[7] See Todd, “Retrograde, Inversion, Retrograde-Inversion, and Related Techniques in the Masses of Jacobus Obrecht,” The Musical Quarterly, 64/1, 1978, pp. 50-51.

[8] Todd, p. 54.

[9] See Steiner, “Schoenberg’s Moses and Aaron,” in Language and Silence, New York: Atheneum, 1977, p. 133.

  One Response to “Josquin and Our Time”

  1. […] feel to be a misunderstanding of the intellectual underpinnings of that tradition. As I have argued elsewhere, the most properly “Christian” music would be that of Josquin and his contemporaries; by […]

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