Josquin des Prez (French: [ʒɔskɛ̃ depʁe]; c. 1450/1455 – 27 August 1521), often referred to simply as Josquin, was a French composer of the Renaissance. His original name is sometimes given as Josquin Lebloitte and his later name is given under a wide variety of spellings in French, Italian, and Latin, including Iosquinus Pratensis and Iodocus a Prato. His motet Illibata Dei virgo nutrix includes an acrostic of his name, where he spelled it "Josquin des Prez". He was the most famous European composer between Guillaume Dufay and Giovanni Pierluigi da 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. More than 370 works are attributed to him; it was only after the advent of modern analytical scholarship that some of these attributions were challenged, and revealed as mistaken, 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 virtually nothing is known 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 less revered Renaissance composers are better documented than that 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, as Josquin liked to solve compositional problems in different ways in successive compositions—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.
Little is known for certain of Josquin's early life. Much is inferential and speculative, though numerous clues have emerged from his works and the writings of contemporary composers, theorists, and writers of the next several generations. Josquin was born in the area controlled by the Dukes of Burgundy, and was possibly born either in Hainaut (modern-day Belgium), or immediately across the border in modern-day France, since several times in his life he was classified legally as a Frenchman (for instance, when he made his will). Josquin was long mistaken for a man with a similar name, Josquin de Kessalia, born around the year 1440, who sang in Milan from 1459 to 1474, dying in 1498. More recent scholarship has shown that Josquin des Prez was born around 1450 or a few years later, and did not go to Italy until the early 1480s.
Around 1466, perhaps on the death of his father, Josquin was named by his uncle and aunt, Gille 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 an alternative name.
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 with his friend and colleague the Franco Flemish composer Jean Mouton at Saint-Quentin's royal church, probably around 1460. Doubt has been cast on the accuracy of Hémeré's account, however. Josquin 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 collegiate chapel 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 19 April 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.
The period from 1480 to 1482 has puzzled biographers; contradictory evidence exists suggesting either that Josquin was still in France, or was already in the service of the Sforza family, specifically with Ascanio Sforza, who had been banished from Milan and resided temporarily in Ferrara or Naples. Residence in Ferrara in the early 1480s could explain the Missa Hercules dux Ferrariae, composed for Ercole d'Este, but which stylistically does not fit with the usual date of 1503–4 when Josquin was known to be in Ferrara. Alternatively it has been suggested that Josquin spent some of that time in Hungary, based on a mid-16th-century Roman document describing the Hungarian court in those years, and including Josquin as one of the musicians present.
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.
From 1489 to 1495, Josquin was a member of the papal choir, first under Pope Innocent VIII, and later under the Borgia pope Alexander VI. He may have gone there as part of a singer exchange with Gaspar van Weerbeke, who went back to Milan at the same time. While there, he may have been the one who carved his name into the wall of the Sistine Chapel; a "JOSQUINJ" was recently revealed by workers restoring the chapel. Since it was traditional for singers to carve their names into the walls, and hundreds of names were inscribed there during the period from the 15th to the 18th centuries, it is considered highly likely that the graffiti is by Josquin – and if so, it would be his only surviving autograph.
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.
Around 1498, Josquin most likely re-entered the service of the Sforza family, on the evidence of a pair of letters between the Gonzaga and Sforza families. He probably did not stay in Milan long, for in 1499 Louis XII captured Milan in his invasion of northern Italy and imprisoned Josquin's former employers. Around this time Josquin most likely returned to France, although documented details of his career around the turn of the 16th century are lacking. Prior to departing Italy he most likely wrote one of his most famous secular compositions, the frottola El grillo (the Cricket), as well as In te Domine speravi ("I have placed my hope in you, Lord"), based on Psalm 30. The latter composition may have been a veiled reference to the religious reformer Girolamo Savonarola, who had been burned at the stake in Florence in 1498, and for whom Josquin seems to have had a special reverence; the text was the Dominican friar's favorite psalm, a meditation on which he left incomplete in prison prior to his execution.
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.
Josquin went directly from Ferrara to his home region of Condé-sur-l'Escaut, southeast of Lille on the present-day border between Belgium and France, becoming provost of the collegiate church of Notre-Dame on 3 May 1504, a large musical establishment that he headed for the rest of his life. While the chapter at Bourges Cathedral asked him to become master of the choirboys there in 1508, it is not known how he responded, and there is no record of his having been employed there; most scholars presume he remained in Condé. In 1509, he held concurrently provost and choir master offices at Saint Quentin collegiate church.
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, 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 lived during a transitional stage in music history. Musical styles were changing rapidly, in part owing to the movement of musicians between different regions of Europe. Many northern musicians moved to Italy, the heart of the Renaissance, attracted by the Italian nobility's patronage of the arts; while in Italy, these composers were influenced by the native Italian styles, and often brought those ideas with them back to their homelands. The sinuous musical lines of the Ockeghem generation, the contrapuntal complexity of the Netherlanders, and the homophonic textures of the Italian lauda and secular music began to merge into a unified style; indeed Josquin was to be the leading figure in this musical process, which eventually resulted in the formation of an international musical language, of which the most famous composers included Palestrina and Lassus.
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, became standardized during the first half of the 16th century; Josquin was very much a pioneer, and what was perceived by later observers as the mixing of these techniques was actually the process by which they were created.
Prior to Josquin's mature period, the most common technique for writing masses was the cantus firmus, a technique which had been in use already for most of the 15th century. It was the technique that Josquin used earliest in his career, with the Missa L'ami Baudichon, possibly his first mass. This mass is based on a secular – indeed ribald – tune similar to "Three Blind Mice". That basing a mass on such a source was an accepted procedure is evident from the existence of the mass in Sistine Chapel part-books copied during the papacy of Julius II (1503 to 1513).
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.
The paraphrase technique differs from the cantus-firmus technique in that the source material, though it still consists of a monophonic original, is embellished, often with ornaments. As in the cantus-firmus technique, the source tune may appear in many voices of the mass.
Several of Josquin's masses feature the paraphrase technique, and they include some of his most famous work including the great Missa Gaudeamus. 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."
In parody masses, the source material was not a single line, but an entire texture, often of a popular song. Several works by Josquin fall loosely into this category, including the Missa Fortuna desperata, based on the three-voice song Fortuna desperata (possibly by Antoine Busnois); the Missa Malheur me bat (based on a chanson variously ascribed to Obrecht, Ockeghem, or, most likely, Abertijne Malcourt); and the Missa Mater Patris, based on a three-voice motet by Antoine Brumel. The Missa Mater Patris is probably the first true parody mass to be composed, for it no longer contains any hint of a cantus firmus. Parody technique was to become the most usual means of mass composition for the remainder of the 16th century, although the mass gradually fell out of favor as the motet grew in esteem.
The earliest known mass by any composer using this method of composition – the soggetto cavato – is the Missa Hercules Dux Ferrariae, which Josquin probably wrote in the early 1480s for the powerful Ercole I, Duke of Ferrara. The notes of the cantus firmus are drawn from the musical syllables of the Duke's name in the following way: Ercole, Duke of Ferrara in Latin is Hercules Dux Ferrarie. Taking the solmization syllables with the same vowels gives: Re–Ut–Re–Ut–Re–Fa–Mi–Re (in modern nomenclature: D–C–D–C–D–F–E–D). Another mass using this technique is the Missa La sol fa re mi, based on the musical syllables contained in "Lascia fare mi" ("let me do it"). The story, as told by Glareanus in 1547, was that an unknown aristocrat used to order suitors away with this phrase, and Josquin immediately wrote an "exceedingly elegant" mass on it as a jab at him.
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, the Missa [Ad fugam] of Marbrianus de Orto, based on freely composed canons at the fifth between superius and tenor, and the two great canonic masses of Josquin, the Missa Ad fugam and Missa Sine nomine. 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 Missa Ad fugam, 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.
Josquin's motet style varied from almost strictly homophonic settings with block chords and syllabic text declamation to highly ornate contrapuntal fantasias, to the psalm settings which combined these extremes with the addition of rhetorical figures and text-painting that foreshadowed the later development of the madrigal. He wrote many of his motets for four voices, an ensemble size which had become the compositional norm around 1500, and he was also a considerable innovator in writing motets for five and six voices. No motets of more than six voices have been reliably attributed to Josquin.
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.
In the domain of secular music, Josquin left numerous French chansons, for from three to six voices, as well as a handful of Italian secular songs known as frottole, as well as some pieces which were probably intended for instrumental performance. Problems of attribution are even more acute with the chansons than they are with other portions of his output: while about 70 three and four-voice chansons were published under his name during his lifetime, only six of the more than thirty five- and six-voice chansons attributed to him were circulated under his name during the same time. Many of the attributions added after his death are considered to be unreliable, and much work has been done in the last decades of the 20th century to correct attributions on stylistic grounds.
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 as 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 simpler in texture than his French chansons, being almost uniformly syllabic and homophonic, and they remain among the most frequently sung portions of his output.
While in Milan, Josquin wrote several examples of a new type of piece developed by the composers there, the motet-chanson. These compositions were texturally very similar to 15th century chansons in the formes fixes mold, except that unlike those completely secular works, they contained a chant-derived Latin cantus-firmus in the lowest of the three voices. The other voices, in French, sang a secular text which had either a symbolic relationship to the sacred Latin text, or commented on it. Josquin's three known motet-chansons, Que vous madame/In pace, A la mort/Monstra te esse matrem, and Fortune destrange plummaige/Pauper sum ego, are similar stylistically to those by the other composers of the Milan chapel, such as Loyset Compère and Alexander Agricola.
Josquin's fame lasted throughout the 16th century, and indeed increased for several decades after his death. Zarlino, writing in the 1580s, was still using examples from Josquin in his treatises on composition; and Josquin's fame was only eclipsed after the beginning of the Baroque era, with the decline of the pre-tonal polyphonic style. During the 18th and 19th centuries Josquin's fame was overshadowed by later Roman School composer Palestrina, whose music was seen as the summit of polyphonic refinement, and codified into a system of composition by theorists such as Johann Fux; however, during the 20th century, Josquin's reputation has grown steadily, to the point where scholars again consider him "the greatest and most successful composer of the age." According to Richard Sherr, writing in the introduction to the Josquin Companion, addressing specifically the shrinking of Josquin's canon due to correction of misattributions, "Josquin will survive because his best music really is as magnificent as everybody has always said it was."
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 place Josquin's output at the heart of their repertoire.
Tu Pauperum Refugium
Four bassoon ensemble performing from Josquin Des Prez's Magnus es tu, Domine.
The difficulties in compiling a works list for Josquin cannot be overstated. Because of his immense prestige in the early sixteenth century, many scribes and publishers did not resist the temptation of attributing anonymous or otherwise spurious works to Josquin. The German editor Georg Forster summed up the situation admirably in 1540 when he wrote, "I remember a certain eminent man saying that, now that Josquin is dead, he is putting out more works than when he was alive." Thus, the authenticity of many of the works listed below is disputed on stylistic grounds or problems with sources or both. This thorny issue has been taken up vigorously in the now nearly complete New Josquin Edition (NJE).