Josquin des Prez (c. 1450 to 1455 – August 27, 1521), often referred to simply as Josquin, was a Franco-Flemish composer of the Renaissance. He is also known as Josquin Desprez, a French rendering of Dutch "Josken Van De Velde", diminutive of "Joseph Van De Velde" ("of the fields"), and Latinized as Josquinus Pratensis, alternatively Jodocus Pratensis. He was the most famous European composer between Guillaume Dufay and Palestrina, and is usually considered to be the central figure of the Franco-Flemish School. Josquin is widely considered by music scholars to be the first master of the high Renaissance style of polyphonic vocal music that was emerging during his lifetime.
During the 16th century, Josquin gradually acquired the reputation as the greatest composer of the age, his mastery of technique and expression universally imitated and admired. Writers as diverse as Baldassare Castiglione and Martin Luther wrote about his reputation and fame; theorists such as Heinrich Glarean and Gioseffo Zarlino held his style as that best representing perfection. He was so admired that many anonymous compositions were attributed to him by copyists, probably to increase their sales. At least 374 works are attributed to him; it was only after the advent of modern analytical scholarship that some of these mistaken attributions have been challenged, on the basis of stylistic features and manuscript evidence. Yet in spite of Josquin's colossal reputation, which endured until the beginning of the Baroque era and was revived in the 20th century, his biography is shadowy, and we know next to nothing about his personality. The only surviving work which may be in his own hand is a graffito on the wall of the Sistine Chapel, and only one contemporary mention of his character is known, in a letter to Duke Ercole I of Ferrara. The lives of dozens of minor composers of the Renaissance are better documented than the life of Josquin.
Josquin wrote both sacred and secular music, and in all of the significant vocal forms of the age, including masses, motets, chansons and frottole. During the 16th century, he was praised for both his supreme melodic gift and his use of ingenious technical devices. In modern times, scholars have attempted to ascertain the basic details of his biography, and have tried to define the key characteristics of his style to correct misattributions, a task that has proved difficult. Josquin liked to solve compositional problems in different ways in successive compositions, as did Stravinsky more than 400 years later. Sometimes he wrote in an austere style devoid of ornamentation, and at other times he wrote music requiring considerable virtuosity. Heinrich Glarean wrote in 1547 that Josquin was not only a "magnificent virtuoso" (the Latin can be translated also as "show-off") but capable of being a "mocker", using satire effectively. While the focus of scholarship in recent years has been to remove music from the "Josquin canon", including some of his most famous pieces, and to reattribute it to his contemporaries, the remaining music represents some of the most famous and enduring of the Renaissance.
Around 1466, perhaps on the death of his father, Josquin was named by his uncle and aunt, Gilles Lebloitte dit Desprez and Jacque Banestonne, as their heir. Their will gives Josquin's actual surname as Lebloitte. According to Matthews and Merkley, "des Prez" was a nickname.
According to an account by Claude Hémeré, a friend and librarian of Cardinal Richelieu whose evidence dates as late as 1633, and who used the records of the collegiate church of Saint-Quentin, Josquin became a choirboy at Saint-Quentin, probably around 1460, and was in charge of its music. He may have studied counterpoint under Ockeghem, whom he greatly admired throughout his life: this is suggested both by the testimony of Gioseffo Zarlino and Lodovico Zacconi, writing later in the 16th century, and by Josquin's eloquent lament on the death of Ockeghem in 1497, Nymphes des bois/Requiem aeternam, based on the poem by Jean Molinet. All records from Saint-Quentin were destroyed in 1669; however the cathedral there was a center of music-making for the entire area, and in addition was an important center of royal patronage. Both Jean Mouton and Loyset Compère were buried there, and it is certainly possible that Josquin acquired his later connections with the French royal chapel through early experiences at Saint-Quentin.
The first definite record of his employment is dated April 19, 1477, and it shows that he was a singer at the chapel of René, Duke of Anjou, in Aix-en-Provence. He remained there at least until 1478. No certain records of his movements exist for the period from March 1478 until 1483, but if he remained in the employ of René he would have transferred to Paris in 1481 along with the rest of the chapel. One of Josquin's early motets, Misericordias Domini in aeternum cantabo, suggests a direct connection with Louis XI, who was king during this time. In 1483 Josquin returned to Condé to claim his inheritance from his aunt and uncle, who may have been killed by the army of Louis XI in May 1478, when they besieged the town, locked the population into the church, and burned them alive.
In either 1483 or 1484 Josquin is known to have been in the service of the Sforza family in Milan. While in their employ, he made one or more trips to Rome, and possibly also to Paris; while in Milan he made the acquaintance of Franchinus Gaffurius, who was maestro di cappella of the cathedral there. He was in Milan again in 1489, after a possible period of travel; but he left that year.
Josquin's mature style evolved during this period; as in Milan he had absorbed the influence of light Italian secular music, in Rome he refined his techniques of sacred music. Several of his motets have been dated to the years he spent at the papal chapel.
Some of Josquin's compositions, such as the instrumental Vive le roy, have been tentatively dated to the period around 1500 when he was in France. A motet, Memor esto verbi tui servo tuo ("Remember thy promise unto thy servant"), was, according to Heinrich Glarean writing in the Dodecachordon of 1547, composed as a gentle reminder to the king to keep his promise of a benefice to Josquin, which he had forgotten to keep. According to Glarean's story, it worked: the court applauded, and the king gave Josquin his benefice. Upon receiving it, Josquin reportedly wrote a motet on the text Benefecisti servo tuo, Domine ("Lord, thou hast dealt graciously with thy servant") to show his gratitude to the king.
Josquin probably remained in the service of Louis XII until 1503, when Duke Ercole I of Ferrara hired him for the chapel there. One of the rare mentions of Josquin's personality survives from this time. Prior to hiring Josquin, one of Duke Ercole's assistants recommended that he hire Heinrich Isaac instead, since Isaac was easier to get along with, more companionable, was more willing to compose on demand, and would cost significantly less (120 ducats vs. 200). Ercole, however, chose Josquin.
While in Ferrara, Josquin wrote some of his most famous compositions, including the austere, Savonarola-influenced Miserere, which became one of the most widely-distributed motets of the 16th century; the utterly contrasting, virtuoso motet Virgo Salutiferi; and possibly the Missa Hercules Dux Ferrariae, which is written on a cantus firmus derived from the musical letters in the Duke's name, a technique known as soggetto cavato.
Josquin did not stay in Ferrara long. An outbreak of the plague in the summer of 1503 prompted the evacuation of the Duke and his family, as well as two thirds of the citizens, and Josquin left by April of the next year, possibly also to escape the plague. His replacement, Jacob Obrecht, died of the plague in the summer of 1505, to be replaced by Antoine Brumel in 1506, who stayed until the disbanding of the chapel in 1510.
During the last two decades of his life, Josquin's fame spread abroad along with his music. The newly-developed technology of printing made wide dissemination of his music possible, and Josquin was the favorite of the first printers: one of Petrucci's first publications, and the earliest surviving print of music by a single composer, was a book of Josquin's masses which he printed in Venice in 1502. This publication was successful enough that Petrucci published two further volumes of Josquin's masses, in 1504 and 1514, and reissued them several times.
On his death-bed Josquin asked that he be listed on the rolls as a foreigner, so that his property would not pass to the Lords and Ladies of Condé. This bit of evidence has been used to show that he was French by birth. Additionally, he left an endowment for the performance of his late motet, Pater noster/Ave Maria, at all general processions in the town when they passed in front of his house, stopping to place a wafer on the marketplace altar to the Holy Virgin. Pater noster may have been his last work.
Josquin likely learned his craft in his home region in the North, in France, and then in Italy when he went to Milan and Rome. His early sacred works emulate the contrapuntal complexity and ornamented, melismatic lines of Ockeghem and his contemporaries, but at the same time he was learning his contrapuntal technique he was acquiring an Italianate idiom for his secular music: after all, he was surrounded by Italian popular music in Milan. By the end of his long creative career, which spanned approximately 50 productive years, he had developed a simplified style in which each voice of a polyphonic composition exhibited free and smooth motion, and close attention was paid to clear setting of text as well as clear alignment of text with musical motifs. While other composers were influential on the development of Josquin's style, especially in the late 15th century, he himself became the most influential composer in Europe, especially after the development of music printing, which was concurrent with the years of his maturity and peak output. This event made his influence even more decisive than it might otherwise have been.
Many "modern" musical compositional practices were being born in the era around 1500. Josquin made extensive use of "motivic cells" in his compositions, short, easily-recognizable melodic fragments which passed from voice to voice in a contrapuntal texture, giving it an inner unity. This is a basic organizational principle in music which has been practiced continuously from approximately 1500 until the present day.
Josquin wrote in all of the important forms current at the time, including masses, motets, chansons, and frottole. He even contributed to the development of a new form, the motet-chanson, of which he left at least three examples. In addition, some of his pieces were probably intended for instrumental performance.
Each area of his output can be further subdivided by form or by hypothetical period of composition. Since dating Josquin's compositions is particularly problematic, with scholarly consensus only achieved on a minority of works, discussion here is by type.
Josquin wrote towards the end of the period in which the mass was the predominant form of sacred composition in Europe. The mass, as it had developed through the 15th century, was a long, multi-section form, with opportunities for large-scale structure and organization not possible in the other forms such as the motet. Josquin wrote some of the most famous examples of the genre, most using some kind of cyclic organization.
He wrote masses using the following general techniques, although there is considerable overlap between techniques in individual compositions:
Most of these techniques, particularly paraphrase and parody, become standardized during the first half of the 16th century; Josquin was very much a pioneer, and what was perceived as mixing of these techniques by later observers was actually the process by which they were created.
Josquin was fond of canonic techniques, as were many other composers of his generation, and canon appears in all of his masses, sometimes to the exclusion of other structural devices.
Josquin's most famous cantus-firmus masses are the two based on the L'homme armé tune, which was the favorite tune for mass composition of the entire Renaissance. The earlier of the two, Missa L'homme armé super voces musicales, is a technical tour-de-force on the tune, containing numerous mensuration canons and contrapuntal display. It was by far the most famous of all his masses. The second, Missa L'homme armé sexti toni, is a "fantasia on the theme of the armed man. While based on a cantus firmus, it is also a paraphrase mass, for fragments of the tune appear in all voices. Technically it is almost restrained, compared to the other L'homme armé mass, until the closing Agnus Dei, which contains a complex canonic structure including a rare retrograde canon, around which other voices are woven.
Several of Josquin's masses feature the paraphrase technique, and they include some of his most famous work. The relatively early Missa Ave maris stella, which probably dates from his years in the Sistine Chapel choir, paraphrases the Marian antiphon of the same name; it is also one of his shortest masses. The late Missa de Beata Virgine paraphrases plainchants in praise of the Virgin Mary; it is a Lady Mass, a votive mass for Saturday performance, and was his most popular mass in the 16th century.
By far the most famous of Josquin's masses using the technique, and one of the most famous mass settings of the entire era, was the Missa pange lingua, based on the hymn by Thomas Aquinas for the Vespers of Corpus Christi. It was probably the last mass that Josquin composed. This mass is an extended fantasia on the tune, using the melody in all voices and in all parts of the mass, in elaborate and ever-changing polyphony. One of the high points of the mass is the et incarnatus est section of the Credo, where the texture becomes homophonic, and the tune appears in the topmost voice; here the portion which would normally set "Sing, O my tongue, of the mystery of the divine body" is instead given the words "And he became incarnate by the Holy Ghost from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.
Canonic masses came into increasing prominence in the latter part of the 15th century. Early examples include Ockeghem's famous Missa prolationum, consisting entirely of mensuration canons, the Missa L'homme armé of Guillaume Faugues, whose cantus firmus is presented in canon at the descending fifth, and the Missa [Ad fugam] of Marbrianus de Orto, based on freely composed canons at the fifth between superius and tenor. Josquin makes use of canon in the Osanna and Agnus Dei III of the Missa L'homme armé sexti toni, throughout the Missa Sine nomine, and in the final three movements of the Missa De beata virgine. The Missa L'homme armé super voces musicales incorporates mensuration canons in the Kyrie, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei II.
Almost all of Josquin's motets use some kind of compositional constraint on the process; they are not freely composed. Some of them use a cantus firmus as a unifying device; some are canonic; some use a motto which repeats throughout; some use several of these methods. The motets that use canon can be roughly divided into two groups: those in which the canon is plainly designed to be heard and appreciated as such, and another group in which a canon is present, but almost impossible to hear, and seemingly written to be appreciated by the eye, and by connoisseurs.
Josquin frequently used imitation, especially paired imitation, in writing his motets, with sections akin to fugal expositions occurring on successive lines of the text he was setting. An example is his setting of Dominus regnavit (Psalm 93), for four voices; each of the lines of the psalm begins with a voice singing a new tune alone, quickly followed by entries of other three voices in imitation.
In writing polyphonic settings of psalms, Josquin was a pioneer, and psalm settings form a large proportion of the motets of his later years. Few composers prior to Josquin had written polyphonic psalm settings. Some of Josquin's settings include the famous Miserere, written in Ferrara in 1503 or 1504 and most likely inspired by the recent execution of the reformist monk Girolamo Savonarola, Memor esto verbi tui, based on Psalm 119, and two settings of De profundis (Psalm 130), both of which are often considered to be among his most significant accomplishments.
Josquin's earliest chansons were probably composed in northern Europe, under the influence of composers such as Ockeghem and Busnois. Unlike them, however, he never adhered strictly to the conventions of the formes fixes – the rigid and complex repetition patterns of the rondeau, virelai, and ballade – instead he often wrote his early chansons in strict imitation, a feature they shared with many of his sacred works. He was one of the first composers of chansons to make all voices equal parts of the texture; and many of his chansons contain points of imitation, in the manner of motets. However he did use melodic repetition, especially where the lines of text rhymed, and many of his chansons had a lighter texture, as well a faster tempo, than his motets.
Inside of his chansons, he often used a cantus firmus, sometimes a popular song whose origin can no longer be traced, as in Si j'avoye Marion. Other times he used a tune originally associated with a separate text; and still other times he freely composed an entire song, using no apparent external source material. Another technique he sometimes used was to take a popular song and write it as a canon with itself, in two inner voices, and write new melodic material above and around it, to a new text: he used this technique in one of his most famous chansons, Faulte d'argent ("The problem with money"), a song sung by a man who wakes in bed with a prostitute, broke and unable to pay her.
Some of his chansons were doubtless designed to be performed instrumentally. That Petrucci published many of them without text is strong evidence of this; additionally, some of the pieces (for example, the fanfare-like Vive le roy) contain writing more idiomatic for instruments than voices.
Josquin's most famous chansons circulated widely in Europe. Some of the better known include his lament on the death of Ockeghem, Nymphes des bois/Requiem aeternam; Mille regretz (the attribution of which has recently been questioned); Plus nulz regretz; and Je me complains.
In addition to his French chansons, he wrote at least three pieces in the manner of the Italian frottola, a popular Italian song form which he would have encountered during his years in Milan. These songs include Scaramella, El grillo, and In te domine speravi. They are even more simple in texture than his French chansons, being almost uniformly syllabic and homophonic, and they remain among the most frequently sung portions of his output.
Since the 1950s Josquin's reputation has been boosted by the increasing availability of recordings, of which there are many, and the rise of ensembles specializing in the performance of 16th century vocal music, many of which consider Josquin's output to be at the heart of their repertory.
JOSQUIN DES PREZ: Missa L'homme armé super votes musicales. Missa L'homme armé sexti toni/ JOSQUIN DES PREZ: Missa Pange lingua. O virgo virginum. Sit nomen Domini. Ave nobilissima creatura. Ave virgo sanctissima. Verbum supernum prodiens. Tu solis qui facis mirabilia
May 01, 2011; JOSQUIN DES PREZ Missa L'homme armé super voces musicales. Missa L'homme armé sexti toni * Maurice Bourbon, dir; Métamorphoses *...
LASSUS: Aurora Lucis Rutilat. Timor et Tremor. Magnificat Super Praeter Rerum Seriem. Magnificat Super Aurora Lucis rutilat/ JOSQUIN DES PREZ: Praeter Rerum Seriem. Huc Me Sydereo. O Virgo prudentissima/ BRUMEL: Missa et Ecce Terraemotus: Gloria, Sanctus
Jul 03, 2012; LASSUS Aurora lucis rutilat. Timor et tremor. Magnificat super Praeter rerum seriem. Magnificat super Aurora lucis rutilat....