Personalities | Josquin des Prez | Renaissance | Classical

(Zhos-kan’ da Pra) c. 1440–1521
Franco-Flemish composer

In the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, there were at least five musicians by the name of Josquin belonging to musical establishments around Europe. Most were singers, with perhaps a small-time composer among them. As a result much ambiguity surrounds the Josquin who was undoubtedly the greatest composer of his generation.

Untangling the strands of references to the various Josquins in order to trace the biography of the composer has proven a daunting and absorbing task. It is not helped by the state of the sources containing his music. At the end of Josquin’s life the new technology of music printing was just taking hold, and printers were eager to publish works by well-known composers. Thus, in the 30 years after his death, a substantial body of music appeared in print attributed to Josquin. Unfortunately, of this impressive repertory little can actually be proved to be by him, and much of it can be shown to be by someone else. Figuring out exactly what Josquin wrote is a worthy pursuit, for among the works attributed to this mysterious character are some of the most heart-rendingly beautiful pieces ever written.

Current opinion holds that Josquin des Prez was probably born in Tournai in the 1440s, although he seems to have moved early to Condé. The first documentation that definitely refers to him dates from 1477–78 when he was at the court of René of Anjou in Aix-en-Provence. He seems to have remained in France until 1483, when he moved to Milan, beginning an Italian period that was to last until 1504. In that year he returned to Condé, where he spent the rest of his life.

Josquin’s Works

A number of works can be firmly attributed to Josquin, and several can be dated with some precision. Among his compositions are approximately 18 Masses, 112 motets and around 70 chansons. Pieces from the 1470s bear the marks of a young composer learning his trade by imitating contemporary masters Guillaume Du Fay (c. 1397–1474) and Ockeghem. Among these is the lovely song ‘Adieu mes amours’ (‘Goodbye My Loves’). Even at this early stage in his career, Josquin was developing the imitative four-voice style for which he is famous. The motet ‘Ave Maria Virgo Serena’ (‘Hail Mary, Happy Virgin’, now known to have been composed in the 1470s), was long thought to be the prime example of his mature style.

In 1502 Ottaviano Petrucci published a book of five Masses by Josquin – the first volume of music devoted to a single composer. Largely composed in the 1490s, they have an astounding technical mastery. The book includes both of the composer’s Masses using the famous ‘L’homme armé’ (‘The Armed Man’) melody as a cantus firmus. In the Missa L’homme armé super voces musicales, the tune is set a step higher in each succeeding movement, bursting into the top voice in the Agnus Dei. The Missa Fortuna is an imitation Mass,...

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