Miserere mei, Deus

Josquin des Prez

Miserere mei, Deus

nje 183

About this work

The deathbed meditation on Psalm 50 by the fiery preacher Hieronymus Savonarola (historical inventor of the "Bonfire of the Vanities") achieved wide dissemination; among those strongly influenced by his work are Botticelli, Michelangelo, and Martin Luther. The great Josquin Desprez betrayed knowledge of this meditation, writing for Duke Ercole I of Ferrarra (another friend of Savonarola) the first full-length polyphonic setting of this penitential Psalm. Savonarola highlights the prayer for mercy ("Miserere") by repeating the text in all capitals; Josquin's setting does so by a uniquely repeating tenor ostinato, which seems to have sparked a century of homage pieces: it is directly quoted by the likes of Adrian Willaert, Cipriano de Rore, Nicola Vicentino, and perhaps even Orlando di Lasso.

Josquin's completely unprecendented structure for the motet proves simple but very effective. The predominant mode Josquin selects for his motet is the Phrygian, with a plangent half-step (e to f) in the opening phrase, and in the tenor cantus firmus. And rather than maintaining the same pitch level for the cantus firmus, the litany-like ostinato begins on the pitch "e" and walks slowly down the scale. After each verse of the Psalm (see text below), the ostinato enters one pitch lower on the Phrygian scale. Over the course of the twenty-three verses, the ostinato descends, then ascends again, and commits a final descent. All five voices usually join on the interpolated text "Miserere mei" when the ostinato enters.

The intervening verses display a variety of textures, often the paired duets so characteristic of Josquin's mature writing. The intervening sections also show the composer's skill in manipulating the musical essence to reflect local nuances of the text. One may compare, for instance, the openings of the second and third parts of the motet: "Auditui meo" ("Hear thou me") set to a bare echoing duet, and "Labia mea aperies" ("Open thou my lips") with a spectacular growth of sustained consonance.