Four Lines to Immortality: Dido's Renaissance Through Josquin des Prez

By Dana M. Plank
2009, Vol. 5 No. 2 | pg. 4/6 |

The final cadence is particularly striking. The piece ends on a Phrygian cadence while the other cadences of the piece are predominantly in Dorian. The 2-1 motion of the bass lacks the strength of a 5-1, and the soprano does not rest on the final note of G, but ascends in the second half of the bar to a B. This rise gives the final measure an open-ended sound, and the ascending note contrasts with the numerous descending figures that appear before it. The last note gives a sense of ambiguity to what should be the final resolution. Because it follows a piece characterized by calm pride, this last measure's uncertainty lends a subtle drama to Dido's plight. The open-ended nature implies questions without answers, life without understanding, death without resolution.

Despite Josquin's frequent use of imitation and repetition (particularly in the first two lines of the poem), the four voices are rarely more than a measure apart in their declamation of the text. Often, the ends of poetic lines are clearly marked with long note values, and other voices begin the imitation anew over the previously held note. A good example is in the middle of the first line of text. In m.8 of Bernard Thomas's edition of the piece11, the soprano line holds a G on the "ae" of "exuviae" for the length of a double whole note while the other three voices move on to "dum fata" in half and quarter notes.

A particularly striking entrance occurs in the second line of poetry, on "accipite hanc," where Dido implores death to receive her life. The rhythm seems to fit the word particularly well; "accipite" is declaimed on a half note, two quarter notes, and another half note in m. 15, and carried through all four voices. It is an interesting contrast from the long values of the first entrance on "dulces," which is written mostly in whole notes and double whole notes. The alto and bass lines declaim the text together on this striking rhythm. This effect is imitated in m. 30, where the soprano and tenor lines have the same eighth-note rhythm on "peregi." This echoes the previous settings of "accipite" in the other two voices, and shows Josquin's attention to vocal groupings. His setting of Dulces exuviae may not be chordal, but he is by no means ignorant of the vertical interaction of his vocal lines. His attention to rhythmic affect is a source of beauty in the music.

No voice sings the exact poem in its unadulterated form. Each voice has repetitions of words or entire phrases. Other settings of the text assign the entire poem in at least one voice.12 De Orto chooses to place the pure line in the soprano, and the anonymous setting from the Bernard Thomas edition places the unadorned version in the tenor. This lack of an untouched line in Josquin highlights certain words of the text.

One such word is "cursum" (mm. 25-28). All four voices have overlapping melismas13 on this word, which means "course" or "journey." This is a vivid example of text painting, as the winding lines imply the winding course of the life Dido has lived. A melisma is a musical journey, and a fitting device for demonstrating the difficult path Dido has had to travel. Josquin's voices each have unique patterns of repetition. Whether these repetitions were simply for vertical alignment or for word emphasis, they give weight to certain words of the short text. The soprano, for example, repeats the words "dulces exuviae" and "sinebat" twice each, emphasizing the belongings that represent the last vestige of her lover and an active memory of the past. "Sinebat" is in the imperfect tense, a tense for habitual past action. She is reflecting on the items Aeneas left behind, and the brevity of her affair "sweet to me while fate and god allowed" with the future founder of Rome (trans. Coulton).

The alto also focuses on the introductory material of the poem. The line repeats "dulces exuviae" (sweet relics) twice, "dum fata" (while Fate) three times, "deusque" (and God) twice, and "curis" (woes) twice. The "dulces exuviae," "dum fata," and "deusque" are all extracted from the first line of the poem. The second voice emphasizes the two forces that caused Dido's love of Aeneas: "fata" (Fate) and "deusque" (and God). The alto becomes slightly mournful in its repetition of "curis" (woes). The alto emphasizes the queen's wish for release from earthly anguish. The bass line repeats "exuviae" twice and "dum fata" twice. This pattern, coupled with the voices above it, shows a stronger sense of repetition in the beginning of the poem more traditional declamation at the end. The second, third, and first half of the fourth poetic lines rely more on melismatic material than on simple repetition.

One of the most arresting aspects of the piece is Josquin's treatment of the final words "sub terras ibit imago" (I will go beneath the Earth, line 654). The soprano repeats "sub terras ibit imago" three times, followed by two repetitions of the "ibit imago," which gives the sensation of fading into her accepted fate (mm. 34-43). The alto repeats "sub terras ibit imago" twice, followed by four repetitions of "ibit imago," which reinforces the feeling of the soprano (mm. 33-43). The tenor line is an even weaker echo; it does not repeat the whole phrase but begins with three repetitions of the "ibit imago" and fades to four repetitions of the "imago" (mm. 34-43).

The bass makes its most adamant word repetitions at the end of the motet. Copied exactly from the Bernard Thomas edition (mm. 32-43), it reads: "sub terras, sub terras, sub terras ibit, sub terras ibit imago, sub terras ibit imago, ibit imago." The bass has the most repetitions of the phrase, begins the line the earliest, and sings it in the lowest range. The effect of the bass' repetition pattern is to cause suspense. The full line is not revealed until its fourth iteration in mm. 37-39. There is a sense of reluctance in its unwillingness to provide the entire text at first. It undermines Dido's resolve. Perhaps there is a twinge of doubt. Perhaps she is slightly afraid of her death and is stuttering to get the words out. This phrase echoes again and again in the voices, the way it might sound in a cave if spoken aloud. The repetition and descending note patterns enforce the finality of Dido's words as she announces her death. Whether or not the queen is afraid to die, she has decided to do so, and this fitting close to the motet reflects her persistence. Perhaps the repetitions are a source of strength; a method of steeling herself for her encounter with Aeneas' sword.

Josquin's Dulces Exuviae does not clutter the text with over-wrought counterpoint14. The spare quality to the echoed interactions between lines is quite arresting. The voices move with such calculated intervals through the text that one hears Josquin's emotional interpretation of the classical text. Dido's words gain a quietly haunting quality through this motet that can only be fully realized through performance. There is a slow, stately feeling to the piece, even when note values diminish from double-whole notes to eighth notes. There is a sense of broadening calm and contemplation. Dido's words are expressed with the grace of one of the finest composers of the Renaissance.

Josquin may never have chosen to set Dido's speech had Virgil's poetry not been such a ubiquitous teaching tool for the Latin language. Classical poetry was the gateway to the Latin of the Church. The use of the great Roman epics in the classroom provided a venerable canon of works, along with the liturgy, that could serve as an acceptable source of artistic inspiration for Renaissance composers. The study of these epics alongside Biblical texts legitimized their allegorical connection to the liturgical works. However, Virgil's rebirth in the classroom was fueled not only by the strength of his poetry, but also by others viewing him as a prophet of Christ.

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