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Journal of Musicology 1 January ; 21 3 : — The 16th-century motet Absalon, fili mi has long been scrutinized by modern scholars. The current effort to reassign its authorship to Pierre de la Rue, fueled largely by an interest in removing it from Josquin's canon, relies paradoxically upon aspects of the work that were celebrated as evidence of Josquin's genius by earlier scholars.

These aspects, however, depend solely on our acceptance of a peculiar reading in an early manuscript version of the piece, a version that is indeed radical and unprecedented in its notation but is also internally inconsistent and marked by signs of scribal intervention. The author speculates on a mechanism by which such a flawed version of the motet could have arisen.

If correct, this mechanism points to an original notated version of the motet that was clefless, while the much celebrated "incomparable modulation" of the end turns out to be neither a modulation nor incomparable. In themselves, these observations do not support either side of the authorship debate; however, they do suggest that some of the arguments levied against Josquin's authorship have little meaning if the pitch level and signatures present in the early manuscript source resulted from scribal decisions and not the composer's thought.

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Absalon, fili mi (Josquin des Prez)

Distance lends enchantment, as the saying goes, and distance can mean things far removed in time as well as space. But it also flattens things out. Just as the mountains on a horizon blend together, so fine shades of feeling can get lost when we look back to the art of a distant period. Nothing suffers more from this flattening effect than Renaissance church music. Its all-vocal sound is beautiful in an otherworldly kind of way, always moves at a sedate pace, and usually comes shrouded in the vast echo of a cathedral.


Absalon fili mi (La Rue, Pierre de)

The images of David weeping for his son Absalom, Jacob desiring his grave when confronted with the blood-stained clothes of his son Joseph, and possibly Job in his misery, are all conflated in the text of an extraordinarily emotional motet, Absalon, fili mi. A late and possibly untrustworthy printed source calls the great Josquin Desprez its composer, and music historians for years have lauded it and sought possible occasions for its writing, such as the memorial service for Philip the Fair, son of the Emperor Maximilian, in A strong case has also been made on stylistic grounds, however, for attribution to Josquin 's contemporary, Pierre de la Rue. Whichever man may be credited with Absalon, the powerful character of the music remains. The motet is scored for four voices, but in an extremely low register: the final chord contains a B flat below the contemporary bass clef! The mensuration time signature in the earliest reliable source is also slow and somewhat unusual.

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