JOSQUIN. Missa De beata virgine · Missa Ave maris stella
The Tallis Scholars


Josquin des Prés (c.1440-1521)

Missa De beata virgine
1. Kyrie [4:25]
2. Gloria [9:53]
3. Credo [9:09]
4. Sanctus & Benedictus [7:47]
5. Agnus Dei I, II & III [6:49]

6. Credo quarti toni [9:23]
Cambrai Credo

7. Plainchant Ave maris stella [0:36]
verse 1
Missa Ave maris stella
8. Kyrie [2:49]
9. Gloria [5:06]
10. Credo [7:06]
11. Sanctus & Benedictus [7:54]
12. Agnus Dei I, II & III [5:01]

The Tallis Scholars
Peter Phillips

Missa De beata virgine
Soprano: Janet Coxwell, Amy Haworth
Alto: Caroline Trevor, Patrick Craig
Tenor: Mark Dobell, George Pooley, Christopher Watson
Bass: Donald Greig, Robert Macdonald
Kim Porter & David Gould in the Sanctus
and Simon Wall in the Credo and Agnus Dei

Credo quarti toni
Alto: Caroline Trevor, Patrick Craig
Tenor: Mark Dobell, George Pooley, Christopher Watson
Baritone: Stephen Charlesworth, Donald Grieg
Bass: Robert Macdonald, Tim Scott Whiteley

Christopher Watson

 Missa Ave maris stella
Soprano: Janet Coxwell, Amy Haworth
Alto: Caroline Trevor, Patrick Craig
Tenor: Mark Dobell, George Pooley, Christopher Watson
Bass: Donald Greig, Robert Macdonald

Produced by Steve C Smith and Peter Phillips for Gimell Records.
Recording Engineer: Philip Hobbs.

Recorded in the Chapel of Merton College in the University of Oxford.

The performing edition for each Mass was prepared by Willem Elders and the edition of the Credo quarti toni was prepared by Barton Hudson. They were recorded with the kind permission of Koninklijke Vereniging voor Nederlandse Muziekgeschiedenis (

Christ and Madonna by Robert Campin (c.1375/80-1444) from the John G Johnson Collection, Philadelphia Museum of Art, is reproduced with the permission of akg-images, London

The copyright in this sound recording, the notes, translations and visual designs, is owned by Gimell Records.

(P) 2011 Original sound recording made by Gimell Records.
© 2011 Gimell Records.


With this recording we come to two of Josquin’s most intense canonic Masses, both based on plainchant themes. They make an intriguing pair. In his own lifetime the Missa De beata virgine was probably the most performed piece that Josquin had ever written; yet ironically it now presents interpreters with some unusual challenges. The Missa Ave maris stella, by contrast, is compact and fluent, the use of the chant melody always beautifully clear – potentially a useful setting for modern choirs in a liturgical setting. Both Masses show Josquin experimenting with textures, motifs, mathematical constructs, anything that took his fancy, never predictable – and creating a nightmare for people today who want to try to date anything that Josquin wrote after his earliest works, since there seems to be little actual maturing of the style; just more experimentation within it. And to show how diverse he could be with the same material, we have included a Creed which may represent his first thoughts in setting a melody which later he set twice more (see John Milsom’s note below).

The Missa De beata virgine survives in no fewer than sixty-nine sources, at the last count, making it by far the most widely disseminated of his Masses. Admittedly some of these are very incomplete transcriptions, but in five important choirbooks it stands as the opening number. This popularity is fascinating, since to us the music lacks obvious unity. Nowadays we want a multi-movement polyphonic Mass-setting to be bound together in an audible way, like a symphony or a concerto; and in many settings from the sixteenth century this is managed by using a model, whose main features are quoted regularly throughout. But in De beata virgine the only unity is provided by the very old-fashioned technique of quoting chants associated with a common theme: in this case feasts of the virgin. Thematic and even tonal unity are therefore sacrificed to liturgical propriety: the fact that from the Credo onwards the four-part texture is expanded to five, by means of canon, suggests that the work was not even conceived as a complete musical unity, since the four-voice Kyrie and Gloria do not have this device.

Paraphrased plainsong is the main constructional principle, using chants in differing modes (in movement order: modes I, VII, IV, VIII, VI). Indeed these modes are so varied that it has been suggested Josquin was deliberately creating a virtuoso exercise in modal relationships – making this the (unusual) raison d’être for the whole enterprise. Maybe, though it certainly leads to unpopular things for modern choirs like uneven voice-ranges (and the Creed has to be transposed up a fourth to make it work at all). So what are the rewards? They are subtle, but can be as evident to us as they clearly were to the first listeners.

The main delight is in the canons, on which the five-voice movements (the Credo, Sanctus and Agnus) rely. All three movements have two chant-based voices in pure canon at the fifth; and to intensify the impact of this Josquin decided on occasion to write triple-time melodies over and around the canons. This led to the most famous passage of all: the section in the Creed which begins at ‘Qui cum Patre’. For theorists as far removed in time from Josquin as the middle of the eighteenth century this proved to be irresistible material, and it was quoted endlessly. The two tenor parts indulge in simple canonic declamation, while the altos and basses take up the music of both. Over this the sopranos sing a slow triplet melody of effortless beauty. One can only guess at why so many writers, from periods when polyphony had long since been a dead art, were so impressed by this, but elegance in complexity must surely have been one reason.

If the Missa De beata virgine is one of Josquin’s last works, Missa Ave maris stella must be earlier, having been published by Petrucci in 1505. If one believes in the characteristics often ascribed to the middle-period works of creative artists, this setting illustrates many of them. Here is a Mass based throughout on a famous chant melody, building to three canons in each Agnus Dei. The writing everywhere is smooth and assured, giving the impression that Josquin was relaxing with techniques he had tried out before, in a more youthful way. (This brasher style is attractively on display in the ‘Cambrai’ Creed, track 6, included here as an extra item.) His handling of the chant melody Ave maris stella (a Hymn, the first verse of which is sung here as track 7) is a model of how to use motifs derived from a cantus firmus structurally over a long span. This is sometimes done in imitation, but the cross-references are so protean (one could almost say symphonic) that one comes away realizing there is little fat on these bones. My favourite piece of motivic tautness is the Amen of the Gloria. It only lasts nine bars but a whole world of perfection is there: the motif presented firstly as a duet, then a trio, then a pell-mell working in all four voices.

So tight is the compositional argument that the Agnus Dei canons are upon the listener before he realizes it. In this sense the whole setting might well be called a Missa Brevis. Strangely, it is only in the Sanctus that Josquin allowed himself to expand the style, with an unusually long trio at ‘pleni’, duets in the Benedictus and a big Hosanna. The Agnus then immediately carries one off into a different space, the central motif, which is well established by now, turning over and over on itself like the music of the spheres. This is surely Josquin at his most inventive and his most inspired.

© 2011 Peter Phillips

Exactly what music did Josquin compose? The question is tricky for all manner of reasons. First, it now seems likely that in the decades around 1500 more than one musician called ‘Josquin’ was actively composing, and it is sometimes hard to know whether or not a specific piece is correctly by ‘our’ Josquin – which is to say, the man known from documentary sources as ‘Jossequin Lebloitte dit Desprez’. Second, the demand for new works by Josquin evidently outstripped supply, and counterfeits were almost certainly being created both during his lifetime and long after his death. Some of these forgeries are fine pieces in their own right, but excellence is no proof that they were written by ‘Jossequin Lebloitte dit Desprez’. Third, reputedly a whole host of younger composers studied with Josquin, and exercises could have been written during their apprenticeships that bear traces of the master’s guidance or intervention. Small wonder if such works should then bear attributions to ‘Josquin’. Fourth, according to Heinrich Glarean, Josquin released his new compositions to the public only after keeping them to himself for deliberation and refinement. By implication, some works may never have been finished to his own satisfaction, and would have been available to few people if indeed anyone at all.

Into which of those categories might the Credo quarti toni fall? This piece survives by the skin of its teeth, in a single manuscript in Cambrai copied around the time of Josquin’s death. Some authorities have questioned Josquin’s authorship on the grounds that the piece was so little circulated; but Josquin did have links with Cambrai stretching back to his childhood, and the manuscript firmly ascribes this work to ‘Jossequin des Prez’. Moreover it has been copied in the company of two Masses securely by Josquin, the Missa Gaudeamus, which features earlier in the manuscript, and the Missa De beata virgine, which is placed directly before the Credo, again attributed to ‘Jossequin des Prez’. On these grounds, Josquin’s claim to the Credo quarti toni really ought to be taken seriously. But what of its musical content?

Some experts reckon the piece to be stylistically uncharacteristic. Matters change, however, when it is viewed from the perspective of how it was made. Its composer has taken one of the most familiar of all medieval melodies, the plainchant formula commonly used to sing the words of the Creed, and has miraculously converted this tune into a tight canon for tenor and baritone. Both voices sing the outline contours of the chant, but they start on different notes – the tenor a fifth higher than the baritone – and at slightly different times. To accompany them, the composer has added two superb outer voices, an alto and a bass, both of which move athletically through exceptionally wide ranges, sometimes singing very low, elsewhere very high. Although the four voices perform together for much of the time, in places the canon falls silent, leaving the alto and bass to cavort on their own. And elsewhere it is the outer voices that take a rest, the texture reducing to its conceptual backbone of chant-based canon.

This work does possess a context of sorts. Two other Josquin Masses, the Missa Sine nomine and the Missa De beata virgine, also have canonic Creeds based on this plainchant melody; so it would seem that Josquin tackled the same challenge three times over, arriving at three different solutions. Moreover the Creeds of the Missa Sine nomine and the Missa De beata virgine sometimes sound remarkably similar to the Credo quarti toni, raising the possibility that the Cambrai setting was a prototype that the later Masses later cannibalized. In the Cambrai manuscript the Credo quarti toni is copied immediately after the Missa De beata virgine. Might Josquin therefore have drafted it to be part of that Mass, but quickly rejected it, composing instead the five-voice setting that then became standard? The theory has its appeal; but as so often with Josquin, we may never know the truth.

© 2011 John Milsom