30 October 2009

Perfect Halloween Music: The Aesthetic Realism of Josquin Desprez’s ‘Mille regretz’

Brueghel – Hunters in Snow – 1565
S ingers in brown or black, in an austere chamber, cold beyond the capacity of their clothing to keep them warm.

F aded Renaissance landscape with fields now harvested and frost well on the pumpkin...


    [50-sec clip, Paul Hillier & Hilliard Ensemble, Josquin Desprez, ‘Mille regretz’, 1.6MB MP3]

T he singers’ gestures are Brueghel-like—some threading their way in the foreground and others in the distance. Denuded woods; hunting; dogs; countertenor; pensive magpies.

V alley of ponds, river meandering through it abjectly. Steeply-roofed houses and steepled churches—unremitting sharpness, pointiness.

H ills upon hills, ruthlessly sharp mountain crags, desolate gray sky. Down below, there’s the mill with its wheel iced-in...

M any people skating, so many as to render us inconsequential, anonymous. We could die! We could vanish and they surely would not notice or miss us. They would forget us.

T he aesthetic ‘continuity’ of Brueghel (and of Josquin?) is, I think, not “reassuring” in the way that poet-aestheticist Eli Siegel once claimed. The continuity is instead terrifyingly indifferent to our existence and passing. Ghosts cannot bear dwindling...

Mille regretz de vous abandonnerA thousand regrets at deserting you    
Et d'eslonger votre fache amoureuse. and leaving behind your loving face.
J'ai si grand dueil et peine douloureuse I feel so much sadness and such painful distress
Qu'on me verra bref mes jours définer.that it seems to me my days must soon dwindle away.


T he singers continue, plying their musical craft... classical singers evoke a monkish existence, lives governed by the demands of Art.

O r is it instead a ghostly one, this singing existence? Mille regretz, singing their own future epitaphs?

T o me, ‘aesthetic realism’ and ‘documentary genre’ are inherently scary. In painting or in music or in film, they are able to conjure a special kind of existential horror, perfect for Halloween. Horror of being skeletonized, forgotten.

D on’t miss the wonderful new book on Josquin, by David Fallows, just released this month...

 David Fallows – Josquin book




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