Middelburg is a district and a city in the south west of the Netherlands. With a population of fewer than 50,000, it's the capital of Zeeland and strikingly beautiful. The University College Roosevelt Academy is housed in Middelburg's town hall or Stadhuis. In the summer of 2009 a group of scholars attending the International Josquin Symposium met there with the chief aim of determining what it is about the music of Josquin des Prez (c.1455 – 1521) that is so sublime. How encouraging that affective qualities of music are treated to the rigor and light of truly capable academic scrutiny. How pleasing that Josquin in particular should receive such sympathetic and appropriate attention from such competent experts. How grateful music lovers should be to the enterprising Brepols publishing concern for gathering and presenting the proceedings of the four days in July 2009. Hats off to Brepols for doing it so very well!
The work of a dozen specialists from mainland Europe (mostly the Netherlands itself, Italy and Germany), the UK and US makes up Josquin and the Sublime. There are names you would expect, like Fabrice Fitch, John Milsom and Walter Testolin. And others whose work makes just as valuable a set of contributions and deserves to be more widely known. The two editors are interesting: Albert Clement is both a Professor of Musicology at Utrecht University and Chair of Arts and Humanities at Roosevelt as well as being an organist, organ scholar but perhaps more widely known as a specialist on Bach. Eric Jas is a member of the board responsible for the New Josquin Edition (NJE), also a musicologist at Utrecht and has as his main field of research 15th and 16th century Franco-Flemish music.
On appreciating this rounded (Richard Freedman makes a convincing case for the sublimity of the chansons, for example) and multi-faceted approach in the book, it comes as little surprise that the events of those July days and nights in 2009 were also filled with live music-making. The book's introduction refers to the other symposia that have taken place since, effectively, the revival of interest in "early" music in the 1970s. There have been more than one might think. Scholarship is mature enough, this enterprise (and this book) assumes, to take for granted that Josquin has the reputation that he has, and that it is both possible and desirable to identify and examine (but never really to try and artificially summarize – a blessing) just what it is that has allowed the composer to enjoy the supreme reputation which he now has. Exactly which elements in his style contribute to a music (and indeed inspirations to the other arts of his contemporaries) which is of "high aesthetic, intellectual or spiritual value, uplifting emotion because of their beauty or grandeur, unparalleled and supreme"? These are working criteria, a suitable definition, proposed by the symposium's prime mover, William Elders. His essay [pp3-22] opens the volume with an examination of the Marian motets but its deftly presented narrative, clear arguments and utterly approachable supporting data are typical of a standard which is maintained throughout Josquin and the Sublime. It's also soon evident that what Elders writes about the "limited number of motets published in vols. 23-25 of the New Josquin Edition" [p3] is as applicable to understanding the topic of Josquin's greatness more generally as it is to those particular works.
It seems likely that the other, equally diverse, musical and non-musical competencies and enthusiasms of the contributors (Clement is a distinguished theologian; Fitch is himself a composer, of course; Nicole Schwindt specializes in poetry; and Martin Just's interests extend to the Viennese classics as well as music of the 19th and 20th centuries) would make for a broader, rounder set of assessments about the beauty and depth of Josquin's music. This can be shown to be the case… Andrea Lindmayr-Brandl's illuminating work, "Strange Polyphonic Borrowings" [pp 107-119], exhibits three other qualities common to the substance of this exciting volume.
First, an awareness of the work of others in (related) fields, some of it (then, and now) unpublished – or not so widely known and promulgated as would be hoped for. Secondly, a distillation (in this case – quite typically – into barely a dozen pages) of the material in such a way that the essence of the contributor's arguments predominates; footnotes throughout Josquin and the Sublime support the main narrative, but to read each contribution is to get quickly and consistently to the heart of the matter. Lastly, there is a corresponding breadth and reach not only in the way in which arguments are assembled and presented (with plenty of supporting data, as has been said), but also in their essence. Wolfgang Fuhrmann's piece, "The Simplicity of Sublimity in Josquin's Paslam-Motets" [pp 49 – 71] is a good example. Although dealing with a precise (and often sadly neglected) corner of the composer's output, the motets, Fuhrmann writes so lucidly about the relationship between the works' origins, their relation to and use of (Biblical) texts, and the (consequent) need – almost – for penetrating musical settings that the reader is able to extrapolate and (continue to) build a conception of sublimity in Josquin.
Although Josquin and the Sublime is an aggregation of the symposium, it's also a very readable book in its own right. Musical examples, tables, texts and color illustrations are fully integrated in the book. This volume will stand as an invaluable document on the subject of the broad (emotional) appeal of Josquin quite independently of the fact that the papers presented in Middelburg had the context, origins and outcomes which they did. At the same time, the academic dialog and uptake that follow and grow from such an event are fully promoted by editing, referencing and the expert handling of sources. What's more, despite its high price (over US$100) a third community is amply served by this book: those who collect recorded music; lovers of Renaissance choral music in particular. The essay (paper) by Jaap van Benthem (formerly lecturer at Utrecht University and the author of numerous articles on Josquin and his contemporaries – also editor of the three voice secular works for the NJE), for instance, covers number theory, textual history and issues of authenticity in an exemplary dissection of the composer's motet, Domine, quis habitabit in tabernaculo tuo. Like every other contribution to this volume, for all its specificity, it sheds such a clear and broad-spectrum light on how Josquin achieved the wonders that he did as to be of real interest to anyone with anything more than a mildly passing interest in Josquin and his world.
Of the contributions, fittingly, six look at Josquin's sacred works, three his secular music, and the final section in the book has three fascinating studies of his music's reception. Writer's in the latter set themselves the implicit task of establishing how and when Josquin's veneration began, and why. And then how viable and reliable, justified and – to us listeners half a millennium later – how sustainable such an assessment is. Again, there is little of "worship"; much of scholarship for a rigorous examination of such meta-issues requires dispassionate assessment of the sources. Of course this book provides them. Alongside, the substantial examination of the music, Testolin's intriguing proposals about Josquin's physical appearance make stimulating reading.
This is a book, then, that can yield multiple rewards. It is scholarly, sound and thorough. It's also inspiring, lively and full of untold stories, new evidence, bright hypotheses and many unchallengeable assertions. It gives a wonderfully rounded, though necessarily – and rightly – laudatory, summary of the worth of Josquin. It makes for easy though hardly casual reading. Production standards are high; at the same time, the language in some places reflects the spontaneity and cosmopolitan nature of the event of which Josquin and the Sublime is so very much more than a mere record. It's a delightful, inspiring, academically impeccable, relavant generous and highly relevant contribution to musicology. Warmly recommended.
Copyright © 2012 by Mark Sealey.