The 100 most inspiring musicians of all Time: JOSQUIN DES PREZ
JOSQUIN DES PRES (b. c. 1450, Condé-sur-l’Escaut?, Burgundian Hainaut [France]—d. Aug. 27, 1521, Condé-sur-l’Escaut)
Josquin des Prez was one of the greatest composers of
Josquin’s early life has been the subject of much scholarly
debate, and the first solid evidence of his work comes from
a roll of musicians associated with the cathedral in Cambrai
in the early 1470s. During the late 1470s and early ’80s,
he sang for the courts of René I of Anjou and Duke Galeazzo
Maria Sforza of Milan, and from 1486 to about 1494 he
performed for the papal chapel. Sometime between then
and 1499, when he became choirmaster to Duke Ercole I
of Ferrara, he apparently had connections with the Chapel
Royal of Louis XII of France and with the Cathedral of
Cambrai. In Ferrara he wrote, in honour of his employer,
the mass Hercules Dux Ferrariae, and his motet Miserere was
composed at the duke’s request. He seems to have left
Ferrara on the death of the duke in 1505 and later became
provost of the collegiate church of Notre Dame in Condé.
Josquin’s compositions fall into the three principal categories
of motets, masses, and chansons. Of the 20 masses
that survive complete, 17 were printed in his lifetime in
three sets (1502, 1505, 1514) by Ottaviano dei Petrucci.
His motets and chansons were included in other Petrucci
publications, from the Odhecaton (an anthology of popular
chansons) of 1501 onward, and in collections of other printers.
Martin Luther expressed great admiration for Josquin’s
music, calling him “master of the notes, which must do as
he wishes; other composers must do as the notes wish.”
In his musical techniques he stands at the summit of the
Renaissance, blending traditional forms with innovations
that later became standard practices. The expressiveness
of his music marks a break with the medieval tradition of
more abstract music.
Especially in his motets, Josquin gave free reign to his
talent, expressing sorrow in poignant harmonies, employing
suspension for emphasis, and taking the voices gradually
into their lowest registers when the text speaks of death.
Josquin used the old cantus firmus style, but he also developed
the motet style that characterized the 16th century
after him. His motets, as well as his masses, show an
approach to the modern sense of tonality. In his later works
Josquin gradually abandoned cantus firmus technique for
parody and paraphrase. He also frequently used the techniques
of canon and of melodic imitation.
In his chansons Josquin was the principal exponent of
a style new in the mid-15th century, in which the learned
techniques of canon and counterpoint were applied to
secular song. He abandoned the fixed forms of the rondeau
and the ballade, employing freer forms of his own device.
Though a few chansons are set homophonically—in
chords—rather than polyphonically, a number of others are
examples of counterpoint in five or six voices, maintaining
sharp rhythm and clarity of texture.
The music of JOSQUIN DES PREZ: Miserere mei Deus
He then went to France (he may also have done so while at the papal chapel) and probably served Louis XII’s court. Although he may have had connections with the Ferrara court (through the Sforzas) in the 1480s and 1490s, no formal relationship with the court is known before 1503 when, for a year, he was maestro di cappella there and the highest-paid singer in the chapel’s history.
There he probably wrote primarily masses and motets. An outbreak of plague in 1503 forced the court to leave Ferrara (Josquin’s place was taken by Obrecht, who fell victim in 1505). He was in the north again, at Notre Dame at Condé, in 1504; he may have been connected with Margaret of Austria’s court, 1508-11. He died in 1521. Several portraits survive, one attributed to Leonardo da Vinci.
Josquin’s works gradually became known throughout western Europe and were regarded as models by many composers and theorists. Petrucci’s three books of his masses (1502-14) reflect contemporary esteem, as does Attaingnant’s collection of his chansons (1550). Several laments were written on his death (including Gombert’s elegy Musae Jovis), and as late as 1554 Jacquet of Mantua paid him tribute in a motet. He was praised by 16th-century literary figures (including Castiglione and Rabelais) and was Martin Luther’s favourite composer.
Josquin was the greatest composer of the high Renaissance, the most varied in invention and the most profound in expression. Much of his music cannot be dated. Generally, however, his first period (up to circa 1485) is characterized by abstract, melismatic counterpoint in the manner of Ockeghem and by tenuous relationships between words and music.
The middle period (to circa 1505) saw the development and perfection of the technique of pervasive imitation based on word-generated motifs. This style has been seen as a synthesis of two traditions: the northem polyphony of Dufay, Busnois and Ockeghem, in which he presumably had his earliest training, and the more chordal, harmonically orientated practice of Italy. In the final period the relationship between word and note becomes even closer and there is increasing emphasis on declamation and rhetorical expression within a style of the utmost economy.
His many motets span all three periods. One of the earliest, the four-part Victimae paschali laudes (1502), exemplifies his early style, with its dense texture, lack of imitation, patches of stagnant rhythm and rudimentary treatment of dissonance. Greater maturity is shown in Planxit autem David, in which homophonic and freely imitative passages alternate, and in Absalon, fili mi, with its flexible combination of textures. His later motets, such as In principio erat verbum, combine motivic intensity and melodic succinctness with formal clarity; they are either freely composed, four-part settings of biblical texts, or large-scale cantus firmus pieces. Transparent textures and duet writing are common.
Josquin’s 18 complete masses combine elements of cantus firmus, parody and paraphrase techniques. One of the earliest, L’ami Baudichon, is a cantus firmus mass on a simple dance formula; the simplicity of melody and rhythm and the clarity of harmony and texture recall the Burgundian style of the 1450s and 1460s. Fortuna desperata, on the other hand, is an early example of parody. Canonic writing and ostinato hgures are features. His last great masses, notably the Missa de beata virgine and the Missa ‘Pange lingua’ were preceded by works in which every resource is deployed with bravura.
Josquin’s secular music comprises three settings of Italian texts and numerous chansons. One of the earliest, Cela sans plus, typifies his observance of the formes fixes and the influences of the Burgundian style of Busnois and Ockeghem. Later works, such as Mille regretz, are less canonic, the clear articulation of line and points of imitation achieved by a carefull balanced hierarchy of cadences. Some, like Si j’ay perdu mon ami, look forward to the popular ‘Parisian’ chanson of Janequin.