In the Western European Renaissance, the retrieval of antiquity and fulfillment in life became desirable goals, and it is in the music of Josquin des Prez in which these ideals can be heard. The free expression of human emotion and the fulfillment derived from use of the human senses were no longer discouraged. Secular subjects were mixed freely with religious subjects and were crafted in order to be appealing to human senses as well as acceptable to religious institutions. The European Renaissance is associated with figures such as Leonardo da Vinci, Copernicus, and Josquin des Prez (1440–1521) and ideas such as, “the discovery of world and man” (as Michelet would say). The Renaissance laid the groundwork for a European continent in which human beings, along with religious institutions, became another measure in philosophy, science, and art. Musicians began composing to meet the need and desires of people, and not necessarily the dictates of religious institutions and their mandates.
The musical culture of Italian Renaissance music had its roots in humanism, the retrieval and revival of the culture of antiquity, and worldly pursuits. Though the actual sound of Ancient Greek music and Roman music did not survive through the Middle Ages for Renaissance scholars to study, there was an attempt to retrieve something of the music of Ancient Greece. At the very least, Ancient Greek philosophy on music such as the Doctrine of Ethos and Ancient Greek music theory could be recovered and studied.
As far back as 1424, scholars during the Renaissance were already studying The Fundamentals of Music (De Intstitutione Musica) by Boethius (ca.480-524) as a document of Greek Antiquity. De Institutione Musica was written in the early 6th century within the context of the quadrivium and was intended by Boethius as a purely speculative, philosophical text. Boethius based De Institutione Musica on Greek sources such as Harmonics by Ptolemy. Emigrating Greeks and Italian manuscript hunters also brought the principal Greek treatises on music to the West. Among them were the works of Aristides, Quintilanus, Ptolemy, Cleonides, and Euclid. All were translated into Latin. Franchino Gaffurio (1451-1522) was a musician-scholar who possessed some of the translated Greek thought. His writings, such as Theorica musice (1492), stimulated new examination of music based on Ancient Greek thought. Modes, music and its relationship with the mind, body, and cosmos, consonance and dissonance, and tuning systems were studied with an expanded perspective provided by Ancient Greek musical thought.
Worldly pursuits also fostered the distinct musical culture of the Italian Renaissance. First of all, the Italian attempt to rediscover their ancient Greco-Roman past was more an attempt to bring back the glory of the past than a scholarly endeavor. Secondly, secular rulers of Italian city-states spurred growth of worldly music as opposed to ecclesiastical music fostered by the holy orders of the North. These rulers glorified themselves with music by retaining choirs of talented singers and ensembles of highly skilled instrumentalists. Attractive compensation drew these talented musicians, to serve wealthy Italian families such as the Medici and the Sforza. At the same time, the average citizen, no longer in feudal service, accumulated wealth through commerce and craft. They went to church, but they gave priority to earthly matters. To them, music was not just for worship; it was also for personal fulfillment.
Josquin des Prez was a product of Renaissance musical culture. In his music, the musical ideals of the Renaissance were exemplified in sound. Gone were the obligatory structural plainchant references of authoritative cantus firmi. Gone were the awkward passages of polyphony composed with token regard to the vertical sonorities created. Gone were the rhythmical experiments of the French Ars Nova. Gone was the use of the traditional 4ths, 5ths, and octaves as primary intervals. Gone were the obsessions with isorhythmic structures. Gone was the dreary sound of a musical culture that relegated beauty of the sound of music below the appropriate use of said music. With music of the Italian Trecento and early 15th century fauxbourdon as antecedents laying the groundwork for a new epoch in music, Josquin’s music defined the characteristics of Renaissance music. Josquin and the musicians of the Renaissance were concerned with sensual sonorities and the beauty of sound, especially the sound of the human voice. Love songs called chansons, such as the chanson Mille regretz, proliferated and were much simpler, gentler, and more delicate than the music of earlier centuries.
The Renaissance ideals of moderation and balance, calmness and dignified repose were achieved through a careful blend of imitative counterpoint and homophony regulated by the beauty of vertical sonorities. The imitative texture of Mille regretz created a calmness and a smooth balance and equality among multiple vocal parts. In short, the sheer beauty of Josquin’s music struck a chord with people living during the Renaissance and with the help of the invention of printed music, Josquin became, according to his contemporaries, “the best of the composers of our time,” and according to Martin Luther, “the master of notes.”
Jeremy Castro Baguyos is a musician-researcher specializing in the realization of live interactive computer music. Based at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, he is a Professor of Music. His most notable contributions to the field are in the area of live performance combined with interactive computer technology.