Ave Maria: Program Notes

Ave Maria
Feb 22-24, 2019

Josquin des Prez and Heinrich Isaac were two Renaissance composers with two quite different characters, in music and in life. We know what Isaac’s signature looked like because he dutifully signed the account books as a musical servant of the Emperor Maximilian. We know what Josquin’s signature looked like because he carved it (not at all subtly) into the wall of the choir loft in the Sistine Chapel during a youthful stint in Rome. The two men are named together in a note written to the Duke of Ferrara in 1502 during his search for a new music director for his court. One of the Duke’s singers reports that Isaac has just visited Ferrara, where he wrote an excellent motet in only two days and showed himself to be “very rapid in the art of composition” as well as being “good-natured and easy to get along with”; the singer goes on to say that “it is true that Josquin composes better, but he composes when he wants to, and not when one wants him to, and he is asking 200 ducats in salary while Isaac will come for 120 — but Your Lordship will decide.” (His Lordship decided for Josquin, who left after a year for greener pastures in France.) Great artists of this kind often seem to arrive on the scene in pairs, and it is easy to compare these two to Haydn and Mozart, the joyful craftsman and the brilliant but difficult free spirit.

Our concert today takes the form of a Mass in honor of the Virgin Mary. We have chosen to use Isaac’s music for the feast of the Annunciation, March 25th, nine months before Christmas, one of the greatest celebrations of Mary in the church calendar. These pieces are only a tiny fragment of a vast achievement by Isaac: he composed music for every single Sunday and holiday of the year, a three-volume collection known as the Choralis Constantinus. As our informant in Ferrara tells us, Isaac seems never to have run out of inspiration — unlike Josquin, who apparently had to wait for the muse to alight on his shoulder before he was willing or able to compose a new work. Music that can only be sung in church on one particular day each year is a luxury item, a piece of conspicuous consumption, and it is no surprise that Isaac’s contract to write the Choralis Constantinus included a rule that nobody could make copies of it or sing it outside the imperial cathedral. We have interspersed his music for the Annunciation with movements of Josquin’s Mass of the Blessed Virgin. This was one of Josquin’s most popular works in his own day, surviving in more than 60 different sources. Like Isaac, he uses the traditional chant melodies of the Lady Mass as a framework. He reinterprets these old tunes with stunning feats of musical imagination, and sometimes of musical mischief. (It is a very bad idea for a singer to doze off or lose concentration while singing a Mass by Josquin.) There are also delightful little additions to the Gloria in excelsis Deo in tribute to Mary — a practice that the sterner clerics at the Council of Trent, a generation later, called ineptus (the Latin word falls somewhere between “impertinent” and “tasteless”) and banned from church choirs.

The program is framed by two large motets, one by Josquin at the beginning (Praeter rerum seriem) and one by Isaac at the end (Virgo prudentissima.) Unlike the music for the Mass, these works inhabit a separate world of their own outside the strict boundaries and duties of the liturgy. This is music by and for musicians: in fact the imperial choirmaster sneaks his own name into the text of Virgo prudentissima as a personal prayer. Both Josquin and Isaac take the opportunity to let things unfold on a grand scale, weaving an intricate tapestry of musical detail. The sixteenth-century music theorist Heinrich Glarean described Isaac’s style as “tones that remain unchanged in one voice, but with the other voices in constant motion and clamoring around everywhere, just as waves moved by the wind are accustomed to play around a rock in the sea.” The reformer Martin Luther, who was an enthusiastic musician and a lifelong admirer of Josquin in particular, used a different metaphor to describe the same effect: “While one voice pursues its own course, several other voices play around it in the most marvelous manner, exulting and adorning it with the most pleasing gestures, and seeming almost to present some kind of divine dance.”

—Dr. Kerry McCarthy

Lost Treasures of Armenia Tickets

22 FEB, 8:00 PM

St. James Cathedral, Seattle


23 FEB, 8:00 PM

St. Mary’s Cathedral, Portland


24 FEB, 2:00 PM

St. Stepehen’s, Portland



  • Josquin DES PREZ Missa de Beata Virgine
  • Heinrich ISAAC Virgo Prudentissima, selected motets
  • Program length: 60 minutes, no intermission