AST WEEK some of the Watershed contributors took part in a Zoom meeting to talk about a favorite piece of music or one that they find especially meaningful. My choice was Josquin Des Prez’ Ave Maria…Virgo serena. Since May is the month dedicated to The Blessed Virgin, and we don’t talk about Josquin as much as we do some other composers, I thought I would write a little more about this important motet.
Was this really the most famous piece of music in 1502? Well, maybe, because when the important music publisher Petrucci assembled his first book of motets (Motetti A), he chose this piece to stand at the head. 1 It stands to reason that if someone wants to sell a lot of books, he should put something in there that people want to buy. And so, for the very first motet in the collection, Petrucci chose Josquin’s Ave Maria…Virgo serena. It remains to this day one of the benchmark works of the Renaissance, most notably for the use of imitation, transparency of texture, and deep personal expression. It is also an incredibly beautiful sounding piece.
Josquin composed this motet sometime in the later part of the 15th century, with the actual date still up for debate. The text is a rhymed hymn of five strophes, introduced by a salutation to the Blessed Virgin, and ending with a personal petition to her. Each of the verses corresponds to a Marian Feast: Conception, Nativity, Annunciation, Purification, and Assumption.
Ave Maria, Gratia plena, Dominus tecum, Virgo serena.
1.Ave cujus conceptio,
Solemni plena gaudio
Nova replet laetitia.
2.Ave cujus nativitas
Nostra fuit solemnitas,
Ut lucifer lux oriens,
Verum solem praeveniens.
3.Ave pia humilitas,
Sine viro foecunditas,
Nostra fui salvatio.
4.Ave vera virginitas,
Nostra fuit purgatio.
5.Ave praeclara omnibus
Cujus fuit assumptio
O Mater Dei, Memento mei. Amen.
Ave Maria…Virgo serena sounds as just as colorful, vital, and fresh today as it must have when it was composed. It is an amazing amalgam of the compositional techniques that, by this point, Josquin had refined and distilled to a level rarely achieved. The text is the basis for Josquin’s gifts of expression, and with each strophe he paints a distinct and specific texture that feels as though no other notes could possibly express the sentiments any better. But what makes the motet a true masterpiece is that Josquin seems to have infused his very self into every moment. The text painting so remarkable that it clearly springs from Josquin’s own personal feelings about the text.
What To Listen For:
Salutation – The well-known Ave Maria Gregorian melody is the basis for the opening. Strict four-part imitation at the unison and octave form the first phrase, becoming freely composed after that. Cadences overlap, a typical Josquin device. Virgo serena pierces through the texture with a notable tenor leap of an octave.
Conception– The first appearance in this piece of the famous “paired voices” perfected by Josquin. S/A are paired, overlapping the bass cadence of the previous section. Paired T/B echo the S/A, with added alto to create a fauxbourdon. The solemn joy (solemni plena gaudio) begins homophonically with tenor in the upper part of its range. Quickly the texture fills with ascending melodies and a polyphony of text highlighted by joyous, dotted rhythms.
Nativity – Paired voices with ranges somewhat lowered, moving to four-part imitation as the daystar light from the East (ut lucifer lux oriens) explodes in a fullness like the sunrise.
Annunciation – This verse begins without an overlap from the previous, with a simple two-voice duet. Ranges are lowered, perhaps to emphasize Mary’s humanity. 2
Purification – Triple meter sets this verse uniquely apart from the others. The homophonic texture is reserved for moments of great solemnity, in this case the virginity of the Blessed Mother. The tenor, set one count after the soprano in a perfect canon at the fifth, creates an extra fullness of sound. The purification (Purificatio) becomes more rhythmically active.
Assumption – Voices are raised again as our eyes gaze upward toward heaven. Rising lines (cujus fuit assumptio) paint the Assumption. Assumptio cadences with a breve that sounds as if it continues into eternity. A triple feeling is created with a hemiola in soprano and tenor which alludes, perhaps, to the Trinity.
Petition – O Mother of God, remember me. Amen. Homophony, which Josquin reserves for his moments of greatest solemnity, is used now for this most personal of petitions. The feeling is one of penitence, a genuflection in music, the lack of polyphony being both extremely serious and utterly humble. A perfect cadence on the final brings this most perfect of motets to a close.
Many editions of the motet exist on free websites; however, I am still partial to the excellent edition edited by Noah Greenberg that was originally published by Associated Music Publishers. This edition places the barlines between the staves instead of on them and uses predominantly white note notation, which I find makes mensural relations clear and reading easy on the eyes. And while some may prefer a quicker tempo, I admire this performance by the acclaimed Hilliard Ensemble for its reverence and beauty.
NOTES FROM THIS ARTICLE:
1 Jeremy Noble, “Josquin Desprez,” The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Stanley Sadie, ed. (1980), Rpt. in The New Grove: High Renaissance Masters, (1984): 27
2 Cristle Collins Judd, “Some Problems of Pre-Baroque Analysis: An Examination of Josquin’s Ave Maria . . . virgo serena,” Music Analysis 4 (1985): 204.