Josquin des Prez ( c. 1450/1455 – 27 August 1521), often referred to simply as Josquin, was a Franco-Flemish 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 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 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 next to 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 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, 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.
Birth and early career
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 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 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. 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 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.
Departure from Rome; Milan and France
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.
Retirement to Condé-sur-l'Escaut
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.