Melanie Spiller and Coloratura Consulting

Escapades in Early Music, Writing, and Editing

Composer Biography: Josquin des Prez (also Desprez and Des Pres) (c1440-1521)

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You might well have heard of the Franco-Flemish composer called Josquin. He’s one of my favorite composers, partially because his music tries to convey the meaning of the words via the melodies in a way that we now call word painting, but mostly because of the polyphony (multiple parallel melodies that each work when sung independently but are even better when sung simultaneously—not harmony or chords, but simultaneous melodies). There’s some evidence that polyphony caught on in Cambrai, a huge center for musicians and musical innovation from about the 13th century, earlier than in most other places, and Josquin was its greatest advocate and master.

Josquin’s style reflects formal balance and symmetry by using imitation and sequence. He carefully conceals elements like canon and ostinato (where a melody is performed against a repeating phrase), occasionally passing it among the voices, which is why it’s so much fun to sing his music—it’s like playing a musical form of button-button-who’s-got-the-button. He was a master of imitating the rhythms of speech in the music, making it natural to sing and understand. Josquin wrote the music and the words at the same time, which was a big leap from the older style of writing the melodies and then forcing the words into that structure.

It’s possible that Josquin’s family name was Lebliotte based on the discovery of a will that left him a house and land in Conde-sur-l’Escaut, which is now in Belgium. By the 15th century, quite a few people were starting to have family names and he could easily be one of them. Regardless, he’s known by the next big town (Prez) to the little town where he was born (Hainaut) for posterity. (Note that Prez is rather near Dendermonde, a place Hildegard fans will be fond of for preserving her music.)

He held a series of prestigious positions at courts and churches in France and Italy, and in 1538, Martin Luther proclaimed him “the master of the notes. They must do as he wills…other composers must do as the notes will.”

Records show that Josquin encouraged his singers to ornament freely, although it’s doubtful that he would have the whole choir ornamenting or it would have sounded like chaos. Somewhere in the next hundred years, especially in Germany and Italy, soloists were particularly encouraged to ornament in what would become the distinctive Baroque style, and that’s likely what Josquin had in mind, too.

Josquin probably trained in or near Saint Quentin in northern France, halfway between Paris and Brussels. During the course of his life, he traveled extensively around Europe, a common practice for composers or musicians of such great reputation.

He was a singer at the Milan Cathedral from 1459-1474, and sang at the private chapel of the Sforza family in 1474. There, he felt undervalued and underpaid; Sforza was notoriously tight-fisted with his household staff. From 1476-1479, Josquin worked for Cardinal Ascanio Sforza and later went to Rome with him, singing in the papal chapel choir from 1486-99.

He also served in the chapel of Rene, Duke of Anjou, in the late 1470s. When the Duke of Anjou died, he took a job with King Louis XI at Sante Chapelle in Paris in 1480. Then he went back and served the Sforzas from c1484-89. He found himself working in the Sistine Chapel in Rome from 1489-95 or thereabout and he seems to have been in France at the court of Louis XII from 1501-1503.

In 1503, he was appointed maestro di capella to Duke Ercole I d’Este in Ferrara in 1503 at the highest salary in the history of that chapel. He beat out the already famous Heinrich Isaac (still famous for his “Innsbruck, ich muss dich lassen”) for the position. A recruiter had preferred Isaac because Josquin cost more and was undisciplined. In the end, Josquin only stayed a year, apparently leaving to escape the plague. From 1504 until his death in 1521, he lived at Conde-sur l’Escaut, where he was the provost at the church of Notre Dame. He seems to be connected with the court of French Louis XII before 1515, but I’m not sure how.

In the 15th century, music was changing and Josquin was pushing it. By 1498, modal music was starting to disappear–not all the modes went <poof!> at once; there were more popular modes, such as Dorian and Phrygian, and less popular modes like the plagal ones, and they lingered (or didn’t). (For more on modes, see Musical Modes, Part 1: Church modes.) By 1600, the Lydian and Mixolydian modes had virtually become the major scale that we know today, and Dorian and Phrygian got absorbed into the minor scales. (In 1547, Glareanus advocated a system of twelve modes, with the authentic and plagal forms of the major Ionian and minor Aeolian modes added to the previously acknowledged eight church modes. The reason you haven’t heard about this is because history is written by the victors.)

At any rate, Josquin’s music was more than a little popular. For instance, Martin Luther, the religious reformer, liked Josquin’s music and proclaimed that he believed strongly in the educational and ethical power of such music.

Josquin spent 60 years writing music, which seems like a very long time by any standards. He wrote 20 Masses, 100 motets, and 75 secular pieces. His work was considered central to the High Renaissance and a gateway to the Baroque.

Part of his fame during his lifetime came from printing his own music and distributing it—Gutenberg had invented the printing press around the time of Josquin’s birth. A Venetian called Petrucci was the first to publish and disseminate Josquin’s work.

Josquin’s masses and motets are still considered technically ingenious. He often borrowed secular tunes as a cantus firmus (a sort of foundation melody that was sung underneath the fancier other parts and kept them moving along), and changed the words.

His most famous Mass was Missa Pange lingua, which was based on the plainchant by the same name. This was common practice, and modern composers (such as Eric Whitacre and Maurice Lauridsen) are still basing some of their work on plainchants in the same way.

Josquin’s compositions show a logical economy and a sort of mathematical precision. He particularly loved the form where each singing voice was a fourth or a fifth below the one above, and which led to the categories of soprano, alto, tenor, and bass, the system we’re still using five centuries later.

Josquin died in Condé-sur Escaut in 1521 or thereabout. His tombstone was destroyed in 1793 during a siege by Austrians that pushed the French out, so there’s a question about the actual date. His birth date is also in question, mostly because these things were poorly documented.

Sources:

  • “A Dictionary of Early Music, from the Troubadours to Monteverdi,” by Jerome and Elizabeth Roche, Oxford University Press, New York, 1981.
  • “The Pelican History of Music, Volume 2: Renaissance and Baroque,” edited by Alec Robertson and Denis Stevens, Penguin Books, London, 1973.
  • “The Concise Oxford History of Music,” by Gerald Abraham, Oxford University Press, New York 1979.
  • “A History of Western Music,” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2010.
  • “The New Grove High Renaissance Masters,” by Jeremy Noble, Gustave Reese, Lewis Lockwood, Jessie Ann Owens, James Haar, Joseph Kerman, Robert Stevenson, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1984.
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Written by Melanie Spiller

February 12, 2013 at 10:00 am

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