Friday, September 17, 2010

A Thousand Regrets; Josquin and the Invention of the Power Ballad

Josquin's endgame involved leaving a song, written at age 80, that remained on the charts for decades after his death a year later. It is a song of regret sung in modal harmony on the very edge of being in A minor:

(Performed by The Scholars of London)

The text seems modern. This is not courtly love; not disguised within subtle allusions or mythological masks. This was a common emotion directly expressed. Almost five hundred years ago Josquin invented the power ballad:

Mille regretz de vous abandonner (A thousand regrets at abandoning you)
Et d'eslonger vostre fache amoureuse, (and now longing for your loving face,)
Jay si grand dueil et paine douloureuse, (I feel grand distress and painful melancholy,)
Quon me verra brief mes jours definer. (It seems to me my short days are numbered.

This is a setting that expresses its complexities in musical details. Though it is set in four voices it is a study in trios; a study in incompletenesses. The text is also frequently set out of phase, with more than one set of words or vowel colors sounding at any given time. This creates blur; uncertainty, subtle confusion.

Listen for how the text comes into focus during the setting of "Face amoureuse" (your face) [0:33], an expression that it echoed immediately after it is first sounded; but scored for two different trios.

"Si grand dueil" (Grand distress) is the first expression set in four voices in homophonic rhythm and it cadences in the ancient sound of an open fifth (E--B) doubled at the octave. This sweet moment divides the piece into halves at a most unexpected time within the four-line stanza.

The "painful melancholy" that fills the remainder of the third line is set in duets of parallel sixths in the treble answered by sixths in the bass.

The final line becomes a complex blur of echos, bent motives, repetitions, and finally a four-part cadence repeated three times before ending on a minor chord with a doubled third.

In a generation caught between intervallic thinking and chord progression in the modern sense, Josquin created a song that rang in adaptations and quotations for several generations. He created classic rock in the 1520s.

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