Josquin the Scenius

A little while ago I mentioned Austin Kleon’s book ‘Show Your Work.’ Very early in that book he brings up the notion that no genius creates in isolation. Mozart would not have been Mozart without Haydn, Brahms would not have been Brahms without Schumann, Bach would not have been Bach without the Bach family and all the composers he copied and learned from.

Kleon borrows the term “scenius” from Brian Eno to refer to the groups of creative individuals who together create a laboratory for interesting ideas and projects that they continually inspire each other with.  In fact, prior to Beethoven, copying ideas from other composers was extremely common and certainly not discouraged. Composers constantly cross-germinated ideas, wrote pieces in the styles of other composers, or even on behalf of other composers. In music history composers are sometimes grouped, such as The Five (a group of Russian composers) or Les Six (a group of French composers). In the 19th century you had the Schumann/Brahms camp versus the Liszt/Wagner camp.

The oft-used phrase ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ comes to mind, and historically it’s certainly true that it takes a village of creatives to raise a composer.

And perhaps it’s also true that sometimes the whole village is the composer.

Very little is known about Josquin, whose 500th birthday is coming up this month, but he is often praised as the best composer of the Renaissance. Some even suggest him as the fourth member of the supreme triumvirate of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven.

Yet a lot of recent Josquin scholarship has actually been focused on removing pieces from the “Josquin canon” to reattribute them to the other composers who actually wrote them. And that makes me wonder how they were misattributed in the first place. I don’t doubt that Josquin was genuinely a genius, so I doubt that he would have on purpose stolen other people’s music and put his name on them to sell them. I could see it being more possible for publishers or even composers themselves to put Josquin’s name on their work to make it sell better.

It’s also known that borrowing was extremely common, and Josquin did this with brilliance. Many of his works borrow from chansons  by other composers. His ‘Missa D’ung aultre amer’, for example, openly takes its tenor line from the tenor line of the song ‘D’ung aultre amer’ and creates a whole new setting that also quotes various other parts of the chanson. Clearly Josquin was inspired by the original chanson, and we wouldn’t have the mass without Ockeghem’s song. Likewise I’m sure Josquin learned much from his predecessors and contemporaries in composition, and we might just as well say that we wouldn’t have had Josquin (in his full brilliance) without Ockeghem.

So somehow I don’t mind so much that a lot of pieces were misattributed to Josquin. I don’t like the deification of supposed geniuses, but in the case of Josquin, because so little is actually known about him, his name almost stands for a standard of excellence of his day and a collection of beautiful music rather than one specific individual. Put another way, the name Josquin to me stands more for the scenius than the genius.

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