Josquin des Prez (c.1450-1521)
Josquin dominated the sacred music scene during his lifetime, perhaps the greatest of the composers before Palestrina. This portrait is believed to be a copy from a contemporary painting, now lost. Born in or near Hainault in Belgium in about 1450, he died in Condé-sur-l’Escaut, south-east of Lille, in 1521. Des Prez seems to have been a nickname; he was named by an aunt and uncle in their will with the surname Lebloitte. Josquin was probably French, and is usually listed among the Franco-Flemish school. He possibly studied with Ockeghem, whom he admired; he wrote a ‘déploration’ for him on his death; and he probably taught another distinguished composer, Gombert, who wrote a motet on his death.
Josquin’s early career is somewhat uncertain. The first clear record dates him in 1477 as a singer in the chapel of the Duke of Anjou, in Aix-en-Provence. There followed years mainly in Italy, in Milan and Ferrara. He next appears with some certainty in the papal choir in Rome, from 1489-95. There is a graffitoed ‘JosquinJ’ on a wall in the Sistine Chapel, which could well be his, as many musicians inscribed themselves there.
Letters put him in the service of the Sforza family in 1498-9. Around this time he wrote a secular song which became famous, El Grillo, one of several such songs in Italian, including the frequently performed Scaramella. He was later in Ferrara briefly, and then moved to Condé as provost of the collegiate church of Notre Dame, where he probably remained for most of the rest of his life. He left money in his will for his last work, Pater Noster, to be sung by processions which passed his house.
Josquin’s great contribution was the development of a more unified polyphonic style out of the varied techniques of his predecessors and contemporaries such as Du Fay and Ockeghem. He had a technical mastery which enabled him to use the most complex forms while maintaining beauty and clarity of expression. Martin Luther said of him, ‘He is the master of the notes. They must do as he wills; as for the other composers, they have to do as the notes will.’ His compositions reached a peak in his Masses in several forms, with each voice proceeding clearly and the text plainly audible. The development of printing made him possibly the most influential composer of sacred music of his time; the oldest surviving printed manuscript of work by a single composer was a book of his Masses, which appeared in Venice in 1502 – one of three published in Venice between then and 1514.
What to listen for: Of all the composers featured on this website, Josquin's music is perhaps the most difficult to sum up in a paragraph. This is because of his long career, vast output, and evolving compositional style. The video above is a movement from a mass setting which was one of his later works, chosen for the way it demonstrates Josquin's sophisticated polyphonic style. What is particularly evident here is the way in which the composer has absorbed the plainsong melody pange lingua, and created from it a piece of fluid polyphony. As Jeremy Noble puts it, 'the plainsong hymn melody... is not given the old-fashioned conspicuousness of a cantus-firmus, but rather digested into the counterpoint, which itself has a new austerity and vigour.'
Though overshadowed in later centuries by the great masters of the later 16th and early 17th centuries, today his reputation is secure; as Richard Sherr writes in the Josquin Companion, 'Josquin will survive because his best music really is as magnificent as everybody has always said it was.'
Noble, J., Reese, G. et al. (1984) New Grove High Renaissance Masters: Josquin, Palestrina, Lassus, Byrd, Victoria, London: Macmillan
Sherr, R. (2001) The Josquin Companion, Oxford: Oxford University Press