“Ave Maria virgo serena”

Listening to this motet by Josquin, “Ave Maria virgo serena,” it’s easy to see how contemporaries thought that this stunning, sumptuous style was the ars perfecta (“perfected art”). This YouTube clip does the experience little justice, but close your eyes and picture yourself in the resonant, womb-like chamber of a cathedral with multi-colored rays of light streaming in through the stained glass. Then, rising forth from the silence, a single voice, followed by another in perfect imitation, then another, then another. The experience, both then and now, is numinous.

“Ave Maria” (and the parody Masses it inspired) has so far received more attention than any other single piece of music in the OHWM (see 565-584), and this is understandable, as the piece is an exemplary case-study of the new expressive sensibilities for which Josquin is now (as then) famous. The piece works simply, elegantly on so many different levels, from the declamatory (the way syllables and notes fit together) to the syntactical (interrelationships of the parts to the whole) to the semantic (how musical gestures express the meaning of the text). It is thoroughly saturated with imitation, a primary structural device in ars perfecta polyphony. But furthermore – and perhaps most significantly – all the parts in “Ave Maria” are functionally equal. There are no more “structural pairs” setting a hierarchy: each voice is an essential player in the unfolding texture. As Taruskin points out, this level of independence of each part represents a shift in compositional practice away from writing each part separately to conceiving of a piece as a whole and representing it in the form of a score, where all parts are illuminated at once.

For me, the eureka moment comes at 1:12-1:38. There is something so painfully human about this striving gesture, so starkly, emotionally real. Just as you begin to miraculously discern the Virgin’s face in the clouds, you realize that the face is really your own.

2 Comments

  1. I’m interested in your interpretation at the end. Can you explain the terms on which you are making the claim of humanity in that passage?

  2. This is purely a phenomenological comment, and I couldn’t claim that this passage exemplifies the Renaissance quality of humanism in any objective way. The text is “[Hail, thou whose conception, full of solemn joy fills all things in heaven and earth with renewed gladness.” Not sure how that would justify my comment. I guess I’m focusing on two musical elements (see score p.568). To me, the short-lived harmonic swerves into Bb in this passage (the first time a flatted pitch occurs in the modal texture) are significant – they throw us off the scent of the cadence momentarily by utilizing the element of surprise in a bold move into the upper half of the Mixolydian mode (dare I call “surprise” a humanistic quality?). The ascending sequence also suggests to me something very human – it strives upwards, then collapses back on itself, then tries again.

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