Josquin des Prez, Fama Malum

Fama malum (IV, 174-177)

A. Text and Translation

[Extemplo Libyae magnas it Fama per urbes,]

Fama, malum qua non aliud velocius ullum: 

mobilitate viget virisque adquirit eundo,                       175  

parva metu primo, mox sese attollit in auras

ingrediturque solo et caput inter nubila condit.



Rumor, whose life is speed, whose going gives her force;

Timid and small at first, she soon lifts up her body in         

in the air. She stalks the ground; her head is hidden in the


B. Musical Settings and Sources:

*1. Josquin des Prez (c1450/55-1521), a4                        

            sources: London, British Museum, Ms. mus. Royal 8 G.VII; St. Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, MS 463 (S & Ct only)

            modern edition: New Josquin Edition (Amsterdam, 1989-), vol. 28, 15; Thomas 2003, 2-4 (with                                                    performing parts); Osthoff 1955, 1-4.


2.  Anon., a4 (also attr. to Mouton)                                 

            sources: Brussels, Bibliothèque Royale de Belgique, MS 228; Munich, Bayerische Stiftsbibliothek, MS 1516                                   (1540), 83v; Aus sonderer kunstilicher Art (Augsburg: Erhart Oeglin, 1512).

            modern edition: Picker 1965, 296-99; Thomas 2003, 5-6; Erhart Oeglin's Liederbuch zu vier Stimmen, ed.                                 R. Eitner and J.J. Maier (Berlin, 1880; repr. NY: Broude, 1966), no. 48, pp. 81-3.

C. Josquin's setting




The ominous few lines from Book IV that first hint at the tragedy awaiting Dido survive in two settings, one anonymous and preserved in Marguerite of Austria's personal songbook (Picker 1965), the other by Josquin and transmitted in the London manuscript as a gift from the Hapsburg rulers to Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. The two works are musically interrelated, for they employ the same tonality and share melodic material--the opening four-note motive consisting of a descending third followed by a descending fifth--which in both works is rolled out imitatively among all four voices. The musical relationship between the two works, along with the Hapsburg provenance of their primary sources, suggests they arose in proximity to one another in the heartland of northern polyphony. These two Vergil settings (along with the Dulces exuvie settings discussed below) predate those of Willaert and Rore by a generation, and are among the earliest efforts to apply what might be called the elevated diction of complex polyphony to Vergil's secular texts. In the early sixteenth century this was a style still normally reserved for sacred Latin texts, and in bestowing their most refined musical style on Vergil, Josquin and his anonymous colleague were according an ancient, secular author a kind of respect that was unprecedented among composers.

 Josquin's Fama malum is full of stark textures and fleet, percussive rhythms reflecting the escaping rumors of the affair between Aeneas and Dido. In contrast to Willaert's seamless flow of full-textured counterpoint, Josquin's work is full of contrasts as textures, rhythms and melodies are forged anew for each new poetic phrase. Duets and trios alternate with full-voiced sections, and the relationship between the voices by turn is contrapuntal or homophonic, imitative or free. Josquin avails himself of this considerable arsenal to construct some vivid moments: the relentless unfolding of the stark opening subject suggests the inexorable march of that "horrible monster" (monstrum horrendum), rumor, and its gathering swiftness is vividly portrayed as repetitions of the word velocius pile on top of one another, using the opening subject but now stated twice as fast (i.e., in halved note values). And Josquin's carefully modulated cadences form the musical equivalent of commas, semi-colons, and periods. Perhaps no composer of his time so pushed the expressive boundaries of polyphonic music and its relationship to verbal utterance, and so it is no surprise to find him engaging Vergil's powerful verse.