Josquin who? The greatest what?

Josquin des Prez was born in Burgundy around 1440 and worked mostly in Italy until his death in 1521. Some fans have called him the greatest composer born before Johann Sebastian Bach and he was the subject of last weekend's program (repeated tonight) by the Folger Consort. Superlatives are debatable and music before Bach is still, perhaps, a specialized taste. But for whatever it may be worth, the music performed yesterday in the Great Hall of the Folger Shakespeare Library includes some of the most beautiful I have heard in a long time.

Imagine a time when counterpoint, only a century or two old, was still considered a shiny, new toy (something like the synthesizer in the early 1970s), not a dusty, academic thing to be learned out of books. Imagine a musical culture that did not raise impenetrable barriers between popular and classical forms, or even between the sacred and the profane--so that the same composer might be writing a mass one day and a mildly obscene song the next. Or taking a popular tune and weaving its melody (sung straight, or with the notes lengthened, turned upside down or backward) into the five-part texture of a "Kyrie," "Gloria" or "Sanctus."

To get a modern equivalent, imagine a mass whose basic melodies might be "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" or "Send in the Clowns." That was the sort of thing Josquin used to do. He was a genius both serious and playful, who could bring an audience to the brink of tears with a hymn to the Virgin and then provoke nervous titters a moment later with anatomical references in a hymn to an obvious non-virgin. Occasionally, he tosses a scholarly Latin riddle into his music, but never at the expense of melodic grace or harmonic charm. Read what the scholars have to say about him--study Virginia W. Callahan's " 'Ut Phoebi radiis': The Riddle of the Text Resolved," for example--and you must admit that Josquin was doing some very arcane and complicated things, composing puzzles that took half a millennium to solve. But listen to the music and it all sounds perfectly simple; the complexities are resolved into a unified effect that is musical art at its highest level.

No doubt, it helps deepen your enjoyment of Josquin if you have done a lot of homework, if you recognize a retrograde canon when you hear one and if you have a nodding acquaintance with the three languages to which his music is set. But it is not necessary; Josquin's genius is like Shakespeare's in its ability to function at all levels, to give the simplest forms of enjoyment along with the most complex. Some of those who are delighted by his "Stabat Mater" and "Ave verum" may be appalled by his bawdy music or his delightful little song about the cricket's musical abilities. I will not say that their attitude is all wrong, but it is only partly right.

The Folger Consort's performance makes it easy to enjoy the full spectrum of Josquin's art, not only by presenting a splendidly broad range of it but also by the sheer quality of performance. In this program, the Consort, which is essentially an instrumental trio that brings in a lot of guest artists, was unusually self-effacing. Because Josquin was essentially a vocal composer, the spotlight throughout the program fell primarily on the guest vocalists: soprano Ann Monoyios and countertenor Peter Becker, who perform with them frequently, and tenor Darrell Parsons, baritone Andrew Schultz and bass Wilbur Pauley, whose voices and technique match superbly the high level established by the regular performers.

At the end of its fifth season, the Folger Consort seems firmly established among the world's leading specialists in early music--an ensemble fully worthy of the name of the great institution that is its sponsor.