It's often a cause for dismay that, while there are hundreds of books on composers who lived after 1750, there are rarely more than a handful for the equally great composers from the mediaeval and Renaissance periods. About Josquin Desprez (as the spelling is styled in this book), the number of serious general studies can be counted on the fingers of one hand. David Fallows' outstanding study, however, published by the enterprising Brepols in Belgium more than fills a lamentable gap. It provides specialists of Josquin in particular, and early music lovers in general, with a comprehensive, well-written, beautifully-produced and highly readable exposition of the life and work of one of the period's (arguably all music's) greatest composers.
What has made things worse in Josquin's case is that much of what has been published previously (as interest in "early" music grew in the middle and later years of the twentieth century, for instance) was inaccurate – and indeed erroneously linked to one (or more!) of the nearly three dozen musicians who have names similar to that of the "real" Josquin. His date of birth is now thought to have been ten years after that assumed in those studies - more likely closer to 1455; he died in August 1521. This excellent and readable study draws on the research that has taken place in the last 40 years and sets right some of the earlier misperceptions and inaccuracies about the composer and his amazing output.
The structure of Fallows' study is broadly chronological. Josquin led a long life, often moving location – country even. He was born in Burgundy but worked in Milan, Rome, elsewhere in France, Ferrara and finally in Condé-sur-l'Escaut. Fallows considers each of some nine periods lasting on average half a dozen years (the final ones in Condé, where he lived from 1504 until his death) excepted; and the works written in each period. Where context is needed (the courts at Milan and Ferrara, the papal chapel etc), these are sketched deftly and concisely by Fallows.
Josquin's works (a total of 200 or so) are considered and evaluated as music in its own right, though. Where there is no reliable link to an event or even a period in Josquin's life, Fallows makes no attempt to suggest one. His musical analyses of the masses, motets and chansons are superb. Full of detail and context, Fallows manages a heady blend of description and evaluation. Each of Fallows' examinations is ultimately concerned as much with the music's structure and internal logic, worth and momentum as with its historical origins. Fallows draws on internal cross-references (works which Josquin had used or planned throughout his life) in assessing the place of each in the wider story. Similarly, (textual) sources of inspiration are dealt with wherever these truly illuminate our understanding of Josquin's works. And it is indeed towards a greater understanding, appreciation and eventually veneration and love for the composer's works that Fallows seems implicitly to be leading us. He never seems to feel the need to "advocate" Josquin. But the immensity of the latter's achievements necessarily lies lightly and unobtrusively – yet unequivocally – behind most of the discussion. A clever and convincing blend.
Since Josquin was living and working at a time when influences from other ages were almost as important as native invention: the sinuous melodies of Ockeghem and his contemporaries, Flemish and Netherlands counterpoint, and the ebullient extroversion of Italian secular as well as sacred music. It was Josquin, more than anyone, who wove the various threads of these traditions into a style which lasted for generations; and the importance of which for centuries. Fallows is right to quote the comment of Georg Forster in 1540 that Josquin composed more after his death than he had done during his life! He can indeed be considered the "Parent of Music" as convincingly as can Palestrina, Monteverdi, Bach, Beethoven, Wagner, Stravinsky or Schoenberg. Though Fallows' explicit assessment of Josquin's legacy is limited to three pages at the end of his narrative. This must be because the case which he has made implicitly throughout the rest of the book for Josquin's greatness and influence does not need repeating.
This is actually a book – for all its emphasis on sources, references, accuracy of footnoting and substantiating every assertion – which is so well-written and as simply persuasive as it is thorough that can be read from start to finish, as a narrative. After all, that was how Josquin experienced his own life. Above all, Fallows seems very conscious of the need to set new ground rules. Not only to set right the misunderstandings and correct the errors made by previous scholars and commentators; but also to go back to the primary sources (mostly contemporary documents, of course) and establish more plausible timelines, sequences, attributions and chronologies, geographies and sub-biographies. As well as provide for subsequent studies raw material which is as irrefutable as possible. Fallows' study on the origins of the Hercules Mass [pp 261-2] is an example of a typically exhaustive treatment.
The appendices in the book are of staggering detail: first 30 meticulously-annotated pages are devoted to contemporary documents concerning Josquin; then 25 to a partial survey of references to him dating from the late fifteenth to the late eighteenth centuries; Appendix C is as amazing in its scope as it is useful: over 30 pages of personalia, details and brief biographical references to those important in Josquin's life, times and works; Appendices D and E occupy no fewer than 15 pages clarifying the many dozens of musicians and "other people" with names similar to Josquin's; Josquin editions are next detailed and the appendices and book (apart from a detailed general index) close with nearly 30 more pages of chronologically-arranged bibliography. These factual appendices alone make the book one to treasure. Elsewhere family trees, tables, lists, texts, musical examples, maps and so on distributed throughout the body of the amazingly long at more than 350 pages of narrative make the book encyclopedic in scope.
As said, Josquin is produced to a very lavish, but far from ostentatious, standard. It's expensive; but well worth the cost given the thoroughness of the study. The hardback – at well over 500 pages and nearly 12" x 8" in size, printed on high quality paper is a very heavy book. But this seems to have allowed for crisper, slightly larger score examples than is often the case in such publications, just the right amount of white space and an unrushed, authoritative feeling as you use it. Some may find the typography of the lower case 'ct', 'sp' and 'st' ligatures (ﬆ, for example) as a little off-putting or unnecessary but this is more than made up for by the subject matter and quality and standard of the illustrations.
David Fallows' Josquin, then, is a great resource. Substantial, comprehensive, authoritative and highly accessible, it deserves to be the default guide, study and commentary on the composer for a long time. There can be few if any aspects of Josquin's life and work, immediate background and musical worth that are not expertly presented in this book. Although no attempt has been made to address discographical matters, Fallows' understanding of Josquin and skills at communicating it are sufficiently strong as to equip us all the better to assess recordings (and performances) as we encounter and consider them. If you're looking for a single source on Josquin for the twenty-first century, this is it. Thoroughly recommended.
Copyright © 2012 by Mark Sealey.