Advent Calendar Day 15 – Ave Maria (Josquin Des Prez)

I’d never sung or heard this piece prior to typing ‘Josquin Desprez Advent’ into YouTube and surfing around to see what came up. Yes, sometimes my choices really are as random as me thinking “Hmm, this composer is good, and I bet he wrote something appropriate, let’s see if I can find it.”. Shameful, I know.

This is an interesting one to listen to, especially when you compare it with some of the other polyphony adorning this calendar by Byrd, Gibbons or Hassler. Desprez was born over a century before that lot, and it shows. His music is sparer, starker, more medieval in its harmonics (or at least, I associate all those open fifths with medieval music – the Elizabethans don’t go in for them anywhere near as much). It feels as though a bunch of Gregorian chants got together to sing rounds. Only that implies a level of verve and cheeriness that Desprez does not seem to go for (in my extremely limited experience of his music – I believe I have sung one piece written by him). This feels much more monastic and reflective, even in faster recordings.

In my quest to find the perfect recording of this song, I learned that it was apparently considered an almost perfect composition, and that it was so popular that someone (Ludwig Daser) decided it would be even better in six parts. And then Ludwig Senfl, who clearly shared my view that this was quite an amusing thing to do to an allegedly perfect piece of music, wrote a parody of the whole thing. It is with profound regret that I report that I could not find a recording of the parody. I mean, it might not have been all that funny to a modern ear (Mozart wrote all these musical jokes that stopped being funny once the romantics, I think, got their paws all over the art of composition and broke all the rules), but enquiring minds still want to know.

I’ve put the translated lyrics below. I have to say, they are the least interesting thing about this piece of music. But even if you don’t like the lyrics, you can still let the music wash over you and be happy.

Hail Mary, full of grace,
The Lord is with thee, gentle Virgin.
Hail, thou whose Conception,
Full of solemn joy,
Fills heaven and earth
With new gladness.
Hail, thou whose Nativity
Became our great celebration,
As the light-bringing rising light
Coming before the true sun.
Hail, blessed humility,
Fertility without man,
Whose Annunciation
Was our salvation.
Hail, true virginity,
Immaculate chastity,
Whose Purification
Was our cleansing.
Hail, glorious one
In all angelic virtures,
Whose Assumption
Was our glorification.
O Mother of God,
Remember me.

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