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Composer Biography: Antoine Brumel (c1460-c1515)

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Antoine Brumel was a French composer, and probably the first of the Franco-Flemish school to be from France. Most of the Franco-Flemish composers were from the lowlands area that is now Belgium and the Netherlands, once called Flanders.

When polyphony (independently composed lines rather than composed around chords) was a new thing, just evolving from homophony (unison chant), Brumel was the first to apply this new technique to the psalms that were sung at every Mass. Polyphony had gained in importance in the 13th and 14th centuries, but was mostly used for secular music. Guillaume Machaut (c1300-1377) was the first to write the Ordinaries of the Mass (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, and the Ite, misse est) as polyphony, and slowly, the Propers (the Introit, Gradual, Offertory, Communion, Marian antiphons, and later, the Tract) were added. Psalms were—and are—a common choice for text for the Ordinaries, so that Brumel was the first to do this is an important accomplishment.

It’s not known where Brumel was born, although some music historians say that he was born west of Chartres, possibly in the little town of Brunelles. This puts him in the Netherlands, but just across the border that would soon move to make him French.

His name is prominent among the handful of composers who rank after Josquin de Prez (c1440-1521) as the most eminent masters of the late 15th century and early 16th centuries. You’ve probably heard Brumel’s music—or music influenced by him—whether you know it or not.

Records show Brumel as a singer at Notre Dame in Chartres from 1483 until 1486. He became Master of the Innocents (children’s choirmaster) at St. Peter’s in Geneva in 1486 and stayed there until 1492. In 1497, he was installed as a canon at Laon Cathedral, and the following year, he took charge of the choirboys at Notre Dame in Paris. There he stayed until 1500.

For the next two years, Brumel was a singer at the Duke of Savoy’s Court in Chambery and from 1506 to 1510, he acted as maestro di cappel to Alfonso I d’Este (1476-1534) in Ferrara, replacing Jacob Obrecht (c1457-1505, blog post to come), who’d died of the plague the previous year. The post was meant to be for life, but that chapel was disbanded in 1510. Brumel stayed on in Italy as part of the Franco-Flemish musical invasion and he’s connected with both Faenza and Mantua, where he probably died in 1512 or thereabout, although there are stories of him dying in Ferrara as late as 1520.

He wrote at least one piece after he was dismissed from Alfonso I’s court, the Missa de beata virgine. In 1513, Brumel is mentioned in a treatise by Vincenzo Galilei (c1520-1591 and famous astronomer Gallileo’s father) as one of a group of composers who met with Pope Leo X (1475-1521). Because Vincenzo Galilei didn’t write his treatise for more than two decades after the event and hadn’t been there himself, it’s also possible that Brumel wasn’t there at all, one reason for his absence being that he was already dead by then.

Brumel was renowned on the musical scene during his lifetime and his music was performed far from where he lived. Josquin borrowed two voices from Brumel’s three-part motet and based his own piece, Missa Mater patris on it. Josquin’s Agnus Dei movement consists of the entire text from Brumel’s motet, plus two new voices. Josquin did this in some of his secular music as well, but it’s unusual to find Josquin using someone else’s work so literally right at the most climactic section of the Mass.

Brumel had a whole volume of his Masses published by Pandolfo Petrucci (1452-1512), like both Josquin and Obrecht, and his music appears peppered all over various manuscripts and collections of the period.

Musicological historian Glareanus said that Brumel excelled more through industry than natural gifts, but his music is truly lovely, so Glareanus was just a poor sport. You should listen for yourself and see what yObrechtou think. (Chanticleer put out an excellent album of Brumel’s music, which is how I first heard his works.)

Glareanus’ attitude might have been sour only because there was so much competition. Brumel was active at the same time as Jacob Obrecht (c1457-1505, blog post to come), Alexander Agricola (1446-1506, blog post to come), Heinrich Isaac (c1450-1517, blog post to come), Loyset Compere (c1445-1518, blog post to come), Josquin, Pierre de la Rue (c1452-1518, blog post to come), and Jean Mouton (c1459-1522), who are considered the brightest lights in a particularly stellar time.

When Johannes Ockeghem died, Brumel was one of those called upon by Guillaume Cretin (c1460-1525, a poet) to compose a lamentation in Ockeghem’s honor.

Brumel was primarily a composer of sacred music, notably of Masses. There are twelve Masses and three Magnifacats that survive complete. His works can be divided into three stylistic groups: those with cantus firmus (the chant melody) underlying the tenor voice, those exhibiting greater rhythmic regularity and a closer relationship between text and melody in all parts, and those that are condensed and brief.

He also wrote 29 motets (a sacred version of the madrigal), many of which use cantus firmus, sometimes with an altered or completely different text (these were usually quotations from the Bible, so this straying was rare and notable), and are in a flowing and rhythmically interesting style. His Sicut lilium is one of these, and exhibits an attractive simplicity that suggests influence by Italian composers.

Sometimes Brumel embellishes and other times he simplifies the underlying chant melodies for his sacred pieces. He occasionally uses cantus firmus with the elongated notes in the tenor, and other times, it’s paraphrased in the superius (highest) voice only. In yet other pieces, the chant is paraphrased in both the tenor and the superius, and occasionally, it’s in all the voices, in imitation (see Johannes Ciconia for more about imitation).

Brumel excelled at a style called paraphrase, where the melody of the chant, instead of being in the tenor, is in the topmost voice. Guillaume Dufay was probably the first to use paraphrase in a Mass setting (listen to Ave regina coelorum, written between 1463 and 1474 for a good example), and other composers were quick to follow. Brumel also used bits of his own motets in his Masses, foreshadowing the parody technique (see Bartholomeo da Bologna for more about parody). By the 1470s or 1480s, Masses started appearing that had the paraphrase in more than one voice, such as those by Johannes Martini (c1440-c1498).

Brumel was an important part of the change from writing independent, parallel lines of polyphony (where a singer could get sick or die of the plague or something, and the piece still sounded good with the part missing) to writing dependent, chordal, and simultaneous lines (where all the singers had to show up for work or the piece fell apart). His earlier works (before 1500) use the cantus firmus or a similar style of polyphony. His later works (after 1500) line up into more chord-like progressions, which included less melodically independent lines that served mainly to fill in a part of the chord. (This is very common today, with the melody in the soprano line and the other parts forming chords that support the melody.)

Brumel also used the parody technique, made popular by Bartholomeo da Bologna, wherein the source material appears elaborately altered and in other voices than the tenor. He also used paired imitation, like Josquin did, but more freely than any previous composer.

He wrote quite a few motets, chansons, and some instrumental music. His earlier pieces have irregular lines and rhythmic complexity, like those of Ockeghem, and the later ones use the smooth imitative polyphony of Josquin’s style and homophonic textures of the Italian composers of the time, such as Bartolomeo Tromboncino (c1470-1535), who was in Ferrara at the same time as Brumel.

Brumel was notable for his cleverness, playing with melodies and accompaniment. For instance, the tenor line of his James que la ne peut ester chanson uses the opening phrase of “Je ne vis oncques” twice; first forward and then backward.

Brumel’s motet Regina coeli was a clear paraphrase of the Marian antiphon by the same name. It has the melody in the tenor, but it’s also found in the other voices. He uses the same paraphrase and chant permeation of the texture in his motet Lauda Sion, in which he wrote polyphony only for the odd-numbered verses.

Brumel’s Laudate Dominum is one of the earliest motet settings of a psalm that can be given an approximate date. Although printer Ottaviano Petrucci (1466-1539) included Josquin’s psalm Memor esto in the same publication of 1514, Brumel’s piece can be traced back to 1507, the date on the Capella Sistina 42 manuscript.

Brumel and Josquin clearly had a healthy working relationship. Josquin based his own Mass on Brumel’s motet Mater Patris, and Brumel’s short and simple motet Sicut lilium has clear phrases that resemble Josquin’s Planxit autem David. Josquin wasn’t the only one to borrow from Brumel. Ockeghem’s Fors seulement l’attente has a tenor that is attributed both to Brumel and to Agricola, but is most likely from Brumel, based on dates.

Brumel’s secular works frequently use pre-existing melodies. His four part secular pieces have texts but those in three parts are purely instrumental. Most are chansons. You have to keep in mind that writing in four voices was a new thing. And writing in more voices was considerably rarer.

Brumel wrote a textless vocal piece in eight voices that is sung with each part in a different mode. (To learn about modes, read Musical Mode, Part 1s: Church Modes). Although the modes are simpler than modern key signatures and scales (no sharps at all and only one possible flat—B), it must have sounded like the various parts were being pushed and pulled by the other parts. This interesting concept didn’t catch on. (I didn’t find the name of this piece, but I’ll keep looking.)

Probably the pinnacle of Brumel’s accomplishment was a twelve-part Mass, Et ecce terrae motus. You have to realize what an achievement that was—most pieces at the time were written in two or three voices. Later, Thomas Tallis would write my favorite piece (Spem in alium) in 40 voices, a feat that couldn’t ever have been had Brumel and his peers not pushed the edges of tradition.

Brumel’s Missa de Beata Virgine and Josquin’s version of the same piece use different chants in their Sanctus and Agnus Dei movements—Brumel’s was based on Gregorian Mass IX and XVII respectively, and Josquin’s was based on IV. Brumel’s choice was from the Medicean edition of the chant, which is an interesting political tidbit. The Medici family was rich and powerful, as you probably already know. The rest of Brumel’s Masses use the same Mass movements as the chants they’re based on

It’s possible that Brumel wrote his Missa de Beata Virgine in competition with Josquin—you have to listen to both to decide who won for yourself. Generally speaking, Brumel’s Masses are conspicuous for their melodiousness and euphony and this particular work was his most popular during his lifetime, as recorded by Glareanus.

The rest of his Masses were in four voices. He often wrote simple note-against-note counterpoint, which is especially conspicuous in his Missa de Dringhs, (no one seems to know what that last word means, but it’s thought to be Greek. The Mass is in Latin). He used parallel thirds and sixths in the Benedictus movement and other pieces, so that may have been a popular sound (it’s strange sounding to modern ears) or just something he was experimenting with.

The Mass called O quam suavis is lost. It has only a few surviving movements, based on an antiphon by the same name. Another untitled Mass uses different source materials for each section. It was unusual for the chant from one part of the Ordinary of the Mass (the pieces that change with the days of the liturgical calendar) to be used in a polyphonic setting for another. This is probably where Brumel got the idea of setting a psalm to polyphony.

In his Mass Je n’ay dueil, which survives under the designation Missa Festiva, is based on Agricola’s chanson by the same name. Brumel’s Missa Pro defunctis is notable for being the first requiem Mass to include a polyphonic setting of the Dies Irae. It’s one of the earliest surviving requiems, with only Ockeghem’s being earlier.

One of Bumel’s distinctive styles is that he often used quick syllables to form chords, which anticipated the madrigal style that developed by the end of the 16th century. He was particularly fond of using this technique during the Credo sections of his Masses. Credos have the longest texts, which can make them very long, and using this style helped keep the movement the same length as the others in the Mass.

Quite a few notable composers wrote pieces commemorating Brumel after his death.

Jachet Brumel (no dates available), was an organist for the Ferrara court in 1543, and is presumed to have been Antoine’s son. I found no mention of a wife or other children.


“The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music,” edited by Stanley Sadie. W.W. Norton, New York, 1994.

“Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music,” by Don Michael Randel. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1974.

“A Dictionary of Early Music, from the Troubadours to Monteverdi,” by Jerome & Elizabeth Roche. Oxford University Press, New York, 1981.

“The Concise Oxford History of Music,” by Gerard Abraham. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1985.

“The Pelican History of Music, Volume 2: Renaissance and Baroque,” edited by Alec Robertson and Denis Stevens. Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1973.

“Music in the Renaissance,” by Gustave Reese. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1959.

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.


  • “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.

Written by Melanie Spiller

February 12, 2013 at 10:00 am