Josquin des Prez ( c. 1450/1455 – August 27, 1521), often referred to simply as Josquin, was a Flemish, French speaking composer of the Renaissance. Little is known for certain of Josquin’s early life. His original name is sometimes given as Josquin Lebloitte. He was came from the area controlled by the Dukes of Burgundy, and was possibly born c. 1450-1455 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 many years, his birth year was given as 1440, but this was 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. 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—thus the name “Josquin des Prez.”
Josquin may have become a choirboy with his friend and colleague the Franco Flemish composer Jean Mouton at Saint-Quentin’s royal church, probably around 1460. It is certainly possible that Josquin acquired his later connections with the French royal chapel through early experiences at Saint-Quentin. Josquin may also have studied counterpoint under Ockeghem, whom he greatly admired throughout his life. Josquin composed an eloquent lament on the death of Ockeghem in 1497. The first definite record of his employment is dated 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. 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). 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.
Josquin probably remained in the service of Louis XII until 1503, when Duke Ercole I d’Este of Ferrara hired him for the chapel there. Ercole was an important patron of the arts during the Italian Renaissance and was Josquin’s employer in 1503 and 1504. 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.
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 May 3, 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. When he died at Conde on August 27, 1521, he 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, which may have been his last work.
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. 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. Even during the 16th century, when he was praised for both his supreme melodic gift and his use of ingenious technical devices, Josquin gradually acquired the reputation as the greatest composer of the age, his mastery of technique and expression universally imitated and admired. He wrote both sacred and secular music, and in all of the significant vocal forms of the age, including masses, motets, chansons and frottole. 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. 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.
My collection includes the following works by Josquin Des Prez: