Music, Authorship, and the Book in the First Century of Print

Music, Authorship, and the Book in the First Century of Print

Music, Authorship, and the Book in the First Century of Print

Music, Authorship, and the Book in the First Century of Print


What does it mean to author a piece of music? What transforms the performance scripts written down by musicians into authored books? In this fascinating cultural history of Western music's adaptation to print, Kate van Orden looks at how musical authorship first developed through the medium of printing. When music printing began in the sixteenth century, publication did not always involve the composer: printers used the names of famous composers to market books that might include little or none of their music. Publishing sacred music could be career-building for a composer, while some types of popular song proved too light to support a reputation in print, no matter how quickly they sold. Van Orden addresses the complexities that arose for music and musicians in the burgeoning cultures of print, concluding that authoring books of polyphony gained only uneven cultural traction across a century in which composers were still first and foremost performers.


I recall a certain great man saying that now Josquin is dead he is
writing more compositions than when he was still alive.

Georg forster, preface to the Selectissimarum
mutetarumtomus primus (Nuremberg, 1540)

We can laugh with Georg Forster at his joke about Josquin des Prez, who by 1540 had been dead for almost twenty years. Josquin was enjoying a personal Renaissance in those years, with German printers such as Hans Ott, Johann Petreius, Georg Rhau, and Melchior Kriesstein issuing his music as quickly as possible. Forster, who put out the Selectissimarum mutetarum motet anthology in Nuremberg right in the midst of this Josquin craze, pointedly refused to play along and deliberately excluded Josquin from his collection, explaining in his preface that he was not going to print works of doubtful authenticity just to keep up with the Joneses. We can nod knowingly, modern editors of Josquin can appreciate Forster’s integrity, and any of us who love Josquin’s music (or the music attributed to him) will catch a little zing of the frisson that comes from knowing that— like us—early moderns recognized Josquin as a composer of greatness.

But how, exactly, did Josquin come to loom so large that he had to be cited even in books that did not include his music? How did he become such an authoritative figure? and can we assume that the motivations of early moderns so closely mirrored our own? On the face of it, it may seem self-evident that Josquin’s music—excellent as it is—was prized by musicians and that, with the establishment of commercial music printing in the North around 1535, it was considered prime repertoire for publication. Judging from Forster’s remark, Josquin’s name sold music, and just as I am hoping to hook you into reading on and purchasing this book by beginning with Josquin (JOSQUIN!), the easy argument would run that moneyhungry printers, eager for a quick sale, printed as much of Josquin’s music as they could find and occasionally also falsified their attributions, “discovering” new pieces by the master that they anticipated being received with great joy by an avid (paying) public. “Josquin” guaranteed printers . . .

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