Timeline 011: Josquin Desprez, Johannes Ockeghem And The Development Of Canon

Jul 6, 2015

In this episode we will explore the development of imitation or canon as a tool of harmony and musical form, especially in the works of Josquin Deprez and Johannes Ockeghem.

Have you ever sung a round such as Row, Row, Row Your Boat? The rules are simple, everyone sings exactly the same melody but they stagger their entrances. The result is harmony, or more precisely polyphony. There is texture and structure that comes from very simple material.

Another example of this is an English round entitled Sumer is Icumin In, dating back to the 13th century.

The round is a simple example of canon, a term we use to refer to this type of technique. But we can also use the term “imitation” to describe when one voice doesn’t exactly repeat what another has just played or sung, but instead imitates the gestures and intervals of the melody that came before. There’s an economy of material in this method, which has been very attractive to composers of all eras.

One of the early masters of this technique was Josquin Desprez, considered to be one of the greatest composers of the Renaissance.  He was known for being able to see the possibilities for canon and imitation in the simplest of folk melodies. Take for instance his four-part double canon “Basies Moy,” that dates back to 1502. Here is a marriage between the popular music of the day and the techniques developed in the high academic halls.

One of the early masters of canon was Josquin Desprez, considered to be one of the greatest composers of the Renaissance.
Credit US-PD

This canon is not “real” – meaning that the lines do not perfectly imitate one another. The problem with a true round or a real canon, like Row, Row, Row Your Boat is that it has no end.  It could go on forever. So composers developed ways to structure canon and imitation to provide closure; a beginning, middle and end.

Let’s go back to the round we started with. Let’s imagine if one player starts the song at half speed, another plays at our normal tempo and a third twice as fast. This type of musical puzzle is a technique called prolongation.

An example of this can be found in the Prolongation Mass of Franco-Flemish composer Johannes Ockeghem. This work is considered to be one of the most extraordinary achievements in polyphony in the 15th century. All the voices are singing the same line at different speeds.

Composers continued to develop the rules and techniques of canon and imitation throughout the renaissance, into the baroque and beyond.