AY IS MARY’S MONTH, and before it gets away from us, I would like to promote one of the most beautiful and truly great motets of the Renaissance, Josquin Desprez’ AVE MARIA…VIRGO SERENA.
In the monumental New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (Stanley Sadie, ed., 1980), Gustave Reese and Jeremy Noble begin their entry on Josquin thusly:
“Josquin Desprez, one of the greatest composers of the entire Renaissance and certainly the most important before the second half of the 16th century, was born about 1440.”
This statement is not hyperbole, yet the name of Josquin today pales in comparison with those of Palestrina, Byrd, and even lesser composers of the era. His genius during his lifetime was, however, met with widespread recognition. His numerous masses and motets were regarded as models for composers of the day. The first important music publisher, Petrucci, dedicated three full books to Josquin’s Masses alone; no other composer was given more than one book. So admired was the motet Ave Maria…virgo serena, that it was placed at the head of Petrucci’s first motet collection, printed in 1502 (although it may have been composed as early as 1476).
The poem was well known in its day. Beginning with the ubiquitous Hail Mary, full of grace the Lord is with thee, the poem then commemorates the major events in the life of the Virgin: conception, birth, annunciation, purification, and assumption, all vividly depicted amongst the percolating polyphony. These events are then followed by a personal plea to the Blessed Mother, O Mother of God, remember me. Amen, sung to Josquin’s signature solemn homophony.
Listen to this motet, read the poem, and see if you don’t agree that this is a real masterpiece, and that Josquin Desprez belongs in the pantheon of the most important composers in history:
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee, joyous Virgin. Hail thee whose conceiving, full of solemn gladness, fills heaven and earth with a new joy. Hail thee whose birth was to us a holy day, of thou who surpasses the shining light in the east, the very sun. Hail thy humanity, thy conception without a man, thou whose annunciation was our salvation. Hail thy true virginity, thy spotless chastity, thou whose purification was our expiation. Hail thee, most excellent in all angelic goodness, thou whose assumption was our glorification. O Mother of God, remember me. Amen.
(Translation by William Earle Nettles)