In a well-ordered universe, the name of Josquin des Pre's would be at least as famous as those of Tchaikovsky and Puccini, possibly as famous as Bach and Beethoven, if not quite up to the towering stature of Michael Jackson. In the universe we inhabit, Josquin is an also-ran in the musical celebrity sweepstakes; it was his misfortune to live from about 1440 to 1521, long before the invention of the amplified guitar, rock video and the Top-40 format -- an age that fans of Prince and Puccini alike are apt to consider "premusic."
Even with these handicaps, however, he managed to compose some of the most beautiful music that has ever blessed human ears. Recognition of this fact is reaching a constantly growing audience, and fortunately there are specialized groups like the Folger Consort to keep his music vividly alive. Josquin's music was the high point of the consort's season-opening program over the weekend at the Folger Shakespeare Library, but it shared the spotlight with two other giants of the pre-Baroque era -- Guillaume Dufay and Cipriano de Rore -- as well as a host of lesser but interesting and engaging composers such as Tromboncino and Antoine de Brumel.
The program sampled more than a century of music associated with the glittering court of Ferrara, where the Este dynasty produced some of the most important music patrons of the Italian Renaissance. The music, vocal and instrumental, was graceful, elegant, sometimes earthy and always well made; the dukes of Ferrara not only loved music, they used it as a tool of statecraft to enhance their prestige, and they brought from all parts of Europe the best musicians money could lure. To give an idea of the lavishness of the music, the Folger Consort brought in seven guest artists -- four singers and three wind players -- who produced a rich, full-bodied sound that filled splendidly the library's Great Hall -- exactly the right environment for the music.
For Josquin's hauntingly beautiful "Miserere Mei Deus" ("Have mercy on me, O Lord"), the instrumentalists of the consort joined their voices with those of the guest singers to do justice to the music's rich texture. The result was one of the year's finest musical experiences in this city, but it was only one moment of dazzling beauty among many.