Back to Josquin
Texas Early Music Project's Danny Johnson on the 15th-century composer he keeps returning to
"There is a human behind that quill," says Texas Early Music Project Director Danny Johnson of 15th-century composer Josquin des Prez. Johnson had scheduled a program of works by Josquin and his contemporary and fellow Flemish composer Heinrich Isaac to open TEMP's 16th season when he lost his job as director of the UT Early Music Ensemble -- a position he's held for 18 years -- a casualty of state budget cuts.
As Johnson was selecting music for the Oct. 25 concert, he found himself pulling out songs such as Josquin's "Mille regrets ..." ("A thousand grieves for leaving you ..."). "The love songs we are doing are full of regret and departure," he admits. "I chose them as a reaction to the situation. I am aware of how important the Early Music Ensemble had been to me and to the other people. A huge chunk of life is closed off."
By coincidence, Johnson's first concert since that dramatic change in his life will have an unusual resonance for him. "I just realized that my first concert directing the Early Music Ensemble was in October 1986, and it was the music of Josquin," Johnson says. Some of the same pieces from that early program will be performed at the TEMP concert, where Johnson will direct and sing with a choir that ranges from six to 20 voices and includes three Austin Critics Table award winners: Jenifer Thyssen, Stephanie Prewitt, and Christopher LeCluyse.
Johnson's admiration for Josquin runs deep. He compares him to Bach, Beethoven, 20th-century serial composer Anton Webern, and the Beatles. "He was someone who can sum up great depths of emotion in a very small amount of musical space. His chansons are really miniatures -- 30, 40, or 50 measures. They are so small, yet so much happens. There is an intense attention to detail mixed with the strong emotions. You hear the same combination in Bach and Beethoven. Yet despite all of that attention to detail it is still very touching, very human."
Johnson also is struck by Josquin's raucousness. "Josquin would use four-note melodies -- similar to Beethoven's da da da dum -- but it never loses the sense of a popular song," Johnson says. "There's always a sense of proportion and detail -- like what George Martin did with the Beatles."
Despite the loss of his position with the Early Music Ensemble, Johnson, who still holds a part-time position with the UT Fine Arts Library, will stay in Austin. "This is definitely home," he says. He plans to continue performing and hopes to devote more time to TEMP, which has a full season ahead, including a fully staged performance of the 12th-century mystery play The Play of Daniel, a solo recital by TEMP concertmaster Laurie Young Stevens, and the opera L'Orontea by early Baroque composer Antonio Cesti. And Johnson says TEMP will continue "as long as we can keep the wolf from the door."
The Texas Early Music Project performs Return to the Renaissance: Motets & Chansons by Josquin & Isaac on Saturday, Oct. 25, 8pm, at First English Lutheran Church, 3001 Whitis. For more information, call 371-0099 or visit www.early-music.org.