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Book Review

Josquin's Rome

Josquin's Rome by Rodin

Hearing and Composing in the Sistine Chapel

Jesse Rodin
Oxford University Press, 2012 pp xxvi + 395
ISBN-10: 0199844305
ISBN-13: 978-0199844302
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Named in honor of Pope Sixtus IV, the Sistine Chapel was designed for him by Baccio Pontelli. Building began – on the site of the Cappella Maggiore – in 1473, when Josquin des Prez was either 23 or 28 years old (probably the former); it was finished eight years later. So accomplished and so well-suited to its purpose was the design – spacious and musically resonant – that the building quickly became the focus of a new and spectacular form of choral "choreography", one fitting for the High Renaissance concept of a sonic glorification of God. In a compelling new book from OUP, Jesse Rodin, Professor of Music at Stanford University and director of the Josquin Research Project, examines the nature, implications and consequences of Josquin's participation in this world. It's a timely book, and one that does the job which the author sets himself to complete very well.

A volume in the "AMS Studies in Music" series, Josquin's Rome rightly takes an interdisciplinary approach to Josquin's work and that of his (often neglected) contemporary musicians and composers against the background – literally – of the frescoes by Botticelli, Perugino and members of their ateliers. Indeed, Rodin invites us to turn repeatedly to two CDs which he has recorded with the vocal ensemble, Cut Circle.

The book is firstly a comprehensive narrative, commentary and disquisition. Its three distinct but related sections cover Josquin's style (including a useful discussion of the methodological issues surrounding the context, nature and sequence of his compositional corpus); the genesis and early development of the repertory in the Sistine Chapel; and the broader context of Josquin's music written for the Chapel… chiefly music written by other composers.

In examining Josquin's work in the context of the music of his contemporaries Rodin addresses a perceived need to re-assess the composer's standing in the light of recent moves effectively to "downgrade" the composer's status – as if to some sort of historical "accident"; and consequently to imply a lesser value for Josquin's music. So by the end of this book you will have a measured and wholly credible understanding of the greatness of Josquin.

Josquin's Rome has another purpose – and it's an ambitious one: not for nothing is the book's subtitle "Hearing and Composing…" for Rodin's plan is to enable his readers to become analogously as familiar with the minutiae, particularities and phrase by phrase nature of the music of the late fifteenth century in Italy as we are familiar, say, with the music of Beethoven and Mozart. What Rodin calls Josquin's "conspicuous repetition", for example, is examined: why, how, when and with what result did the composer use ostinato and "closed" thematic concentration and focus to achieve effects? With what success?

If he's successful, which in very large part he is, then we ought to be able to approach the music of Josquin and his contemporaries in ways that are not all that different, proportionately, from the ways of those very contemporaries of Josquin's; the music's idioms will be immediately familiar to us. And we'll better appreciate, enjoy and value Josquin's work; and have a sounder understanding of his life.

That's the main reason for looking at Josquin in context. For situating him in the composing and performing milieu in which he worked with such conviction and success. Rodin deftly answers the question, for instance, How was Josquin's music that was composed for the Sistine Chapel different from his earlier output? Why? (How) does it bend to the needs, conventions, tastes and aspirations of other composers working in that community? To what extent do resources materially affect the style of composition? There's data detailing the numbers of singers working in the Chapel over some of the period in question, for instance. What's the role of patronage? Which political and economic factors in Rome bore on Josquin's work? If we can discern a chronology for the composer's work, which stylistic inferences can be drawn legitimately therefrom? Rodin has chosen to consider (these aspects of) Josquin's music parameter by parameter, rather than work by work. This is both practically useful and revealing.

Indeed, the approach that Rodin takes here from first to last works well. We do in fact come away from the study with a much greater appreciation of Josquin's work, and worth – as a direct result of the detail and focus which Rodin's skill as a communicator employ so carefully and convincingly. Josquin's Rome is not a biography. Nor linear musical analysis. It's a book that operates as though peeling back a dusty curtain and transforming a two-dimensional monochrome still photograph into a three-dimensional moving canvas. Everything somehow comes to life. You may feel a little lost by the absence of a single narrative. But those exist elsewhere. Nor is this by any means a series of musicological impressions. But a concerted, well-conceived and expertly-conducted study.

Additionally the book is a superb resource with four appendices, an unannotated bibliography and indices. The multiple musical examples, data presented in clearly set tabular form, running footnotes and necessary cross-referencing suggest that Josquin's Rome must be considered the definitive study of the area which is addresses. Commendably well priced, it's a book that lovers of Josquin should not miss. Given the momentousness of Josquin's work and ways in which it changed the direction of Western music, it'll be useful and welcome for music lovers more generally. For a comparative approach which successfully encapsulates one crucial essence of the Renaissance, it has wider appeal still.

Copyright © 2013 by Mark Sealey.