The Franco-Flemish composer Josquin des Prez (ca. 1440-1521) developed a personal style by adding to the northern, contrapuntal idiom the text-oriented chordal writing of Italian masters. His works were described as models of the "perfect art."
The birth date and birthplace of Josquin des Prez are unknown, and until recently even the spelling of his name was conjectural. If the Milanese archives from 1459 to 1472 that refer to the "biscantor" (singer) "Juschino de Frantia" concern the composer, he must have been born about 1440, or 10 years before the hitherto-accepted date. A travel document of 1479 describes him as "Joschino picardo," and he is identified as "belga veromanduus" in an early-16th-century manuscript. Both remarks indicate that he was born on Burgundian territory, then ruled by Philip the Good. The discovery of an acrostic "Josquin des Prez" in a poem, Illibata Dei virgo, presumably written by the composer himself, has settled the spelling of his name.
All that is known about the composer's early training is a remark by Claude Hémeré, writing over 100 years after Josquin's death, that he studied music at the collegiate church of St-Quentin. Despite the epitaph for the composer Johannes Ockeghem, in which Josquin (among others) is asked to lament his "good father" ("perdu avez vostre bon père"), the assumption of a teacher-student relationship between the two is not warranted.
Years in Italy
The earliest report about Josquin is an archival document of 1459 from Milan Cathedral, where he was employed as a singer. He remained in the choir until 1472, when his name disappeared from the rolls. He sang in the chapel choir of the dukes of Milan from 1474 until at least 1479. Where Josquin was until 1486, when he was listed in the papal choir in Rome, is not known. He stayed in Rome until 1494 and perhaps even later. The chapel files for the years 1494-1501 are lost, but the absence of his name in the lists of 1501 indicates he departed before that date.
Josquin worked for Ascanio, Cardinal Sforza, the youngest brother of his former Milanese employer, in Rome probably between 1490 and 1493. At least two Italian frottole, El grillo and In te, Domine by "Josquin Dascanio" (Josquin [singer] of Ascanio), date from this period. Both pieces, written in the chordal style Josquin learned in Italy, contain allusions to the parsimoniousness of his employer.
His Service to Patrons
From 1501 to 1503 Josquin was at Blois with King Louis XII of France. Compositions from this time include the chanson Adieu mes amours with the biting verse "Vivrai-je du vent si I'argent du roi ne vient pas souvent?" and a motet, Memor esto, in which the composer reminds the monarch of a forgotten promise. An instrumental fanfare, Vive le roi, and a humorous work with a single tenor note for the King to sing along on also probably date from these years.
Despite this activity in France, much evidence suggests that Josquin was "on loan" to the French king from his Italian employer, Ercole d'Este, Duke of Ferrara. Relations between the composer and the duke can be traced to 1499, but only in 1501 is there proof of a contractual agreement between them. In a letter believed to date from 1502, an agent of the duke, signing himself "Gian," describes for Ercole his impressions of Josquin des Prez and Heinrich Isaac, both under consideration for the position of choir conductor. The writer recommends Isaac as more flexible, industrious, and engaging and less expensive, but he does give the palm to Josquin in one respect: talent as a composer. For Ercole of Ferrara this was sufficient, and Josquin was appointed to the coveted post.
Leaving the French court, then at Lyons, on April 17, 1503, Josquin journeyed to Ferrara, where he remained until after the duke's death 2 years later. Among the master's most important works composed during this time are the motets Salve regina and Miserere mei Deus and the celebrated Missa Hercules Dux Ferrariae.
Josquin passed the rest of his life in his native land. Famous throughout the Continent in his old age, compatriots and foreigners alike requested musical works from him. In 1507 he set to music the verses Plus nulz regretz of the poet Jean Lemaire de Belges, written to celebrate a treaty between Flanders and England. In 1515 he wrote a beautiful five-voice De profundis for the funeral of his former patron Louis XII. As late as 1520 Josquin composed "aucunes chanssons nouvelles" for the young monarch Charles V, nephew of his last patron, Marguerite of Austria, regent of the Netherlands. This intelligent and talented woman especially admired the composer and appointed him provost of the collegiate church of Notre Dame at Condé-sur-l'Escaut.
Josquin's death date is inscribed in a 17th-century volume of Flemish grave inscriptions. Marguerite ordered a monument and portrait of the composer erected in the church of St-Gudule in Brussels; the portrait has long since disappeared, but a woodcut made of it by Petrus Opmeer in 1611 exists.
Josquin's fame during and after his lifetime resulted in many spurious works that carry his name. Scribes and publishers often attributed works to him through ignorance or deceit. At present 20 Masses, about 90 motets, and 70 secular works (including 10 for instruments) are assumed to be genuine.
Of the 20 Masses, 17 were published during the composer's lifetime. Among the 9 works probably written before Josquin left Milan (ca. 1479) are the Missa L'ami Baudichon and Missa Ad fugam. In the Missa L'ami Baudichon he stresses long duets, emphasizes the upper voices, and generally avoids imitation, all of which point to the model of Guillaume Dufay. The Missa Ad fugam, on the other hand, is a canonic work that owes much to the Missa Prolationum of Ockeghem. In these as well as several other Masses of his early period, Josquin uses ostinato and sequences, and he manipulates the cantus firmus through rhythmic proportions—all for structural purposes.
Between 1486 and 1505 Josquin devised even more elaborate techniques. Most celebrated is his Missa L'homme armé super voces musicales, in which the "L'homme armé" tune is repeated for each movement on a different step of the scale. In the Missa Hercules Dux Ferrariae, he contrived a cantus firmus by replacing the vowels in his patron's name and title with their scale equivalents, that is, "Re ut re ut re fa mi re." It is also believed that the vowels in the opening words of the poem Lassa far a mi furnish the pitches of the cantus firmus in the Missa La sol fa re mi.
Josquin's last three Masses, Da pacem, De beata Virgine, and Pange lingua, all differ from one another in some respect. For the Missa Da pacem Josquin at times retains the sustained-note cantus firmus and canonic writing of earlier works, while he completely abandons the cyclic tenor in the Missa De beata Virgine. In the Missa Pange lingua he avoids canonic obscurities and a sustained-note cantus firmus for a paraphrase of the borrowed tune that moves from voice to voice by means of imitation. What distinguishes these Masses from earlier compositions, however, is the close relation between music and text.
Josquin's motets represent him at his best. By setting texts rarely touched by his predecessors or contemporaries (psalms, Gospel verses), he opened up new possibilities for musicians. By having the motet text generate melodic motives and thereby replace in function the traditional cantus firmus, he made the motet the harbinger of a new style.
From most evidence it appears that Josquin turned to the writing of motets somewhat late in his career but composed them in large numbers after he turned away from the Mass. The earliest motets, Illibata Dei virgo and Ut Phoebi radiis, are built on a solmization tenor in which the vowels of specific words ("Ma ria" ) are assigned equivalent degrees of the scale (la, mi, la).
In Josquin's famed motet Ave Maria … virgo serena, probably composed in his middle (Roman) period, he consistently uses imitation. For each of several lines or phrases, he creates a unique musical motive that is imitated by each voice in turn. Sometimes a phrase is set to a pair of counter pointing voices that are in turn imitated by a second pair. For variety, chordal sections emphasizing the text alternate with those in imitation. A few motets like Domine Jesu Christe and Qui velatus facie fuisti are wholly chordal, but Josquin prefers, as in his Ave Maria, to alternate chordal with linear writing.
The text is underscored syntactically and symbolically in other prominent works such as the Miserere mei Deus, in which the tenor unceasingly repeats an ostinato phrase. Similarly, the repetition of the opening words at the close of the motet Memor esto verbi tui illustrates the composer's awareness of the text as an equal partner with the music.
Several of Josquin's secular songs match the high level of the motets. In his early period the composer wrote bitextual chansons with two French voice parts supported by a Latin contratenor, as well as French chansons for three and four voices in such traditional formes fixes as the ballade, rondeau, and virelai. In his middle and late periods he wrote many chansons for five and six parts with canon in two or more voices. To replace the old ballade, rondeau, and virelai, Josquin devised new formal structures in his songs Faulte d'argent (ABA), Basiez moy (ABB'C), and Incessament livré (AABBC). The few chordal frottole that are extant (such as El grillo and In te, Domine) reveal Josquin's full command of the Italian secular style, a style that influenced the Masses and motets of his later years.
Although other masters of Josquin's generation wrote much music of high quality, not one, with the possible exception of Heinrich Isaac, reached his level. Josquin's reputation was unequaled in the early 16th century, and he was considered the composer of the "Ars perfecta" or perfect art, to which nothing could be added or taken away. His "humanizing" of music from a branch of mathematics to a synthesis in which music and word were equals was to be the signpost for succeeding generations.
Further Reading on Josquin des Prez
Gustave Reese, Music in the Renaissance (1954; rev. ed. 1959), discusses Josquin and his works. Additional information is in the New Oxford History of Music, vol. 3 (1960).