Josquin Desprez

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Josquin Desprez (c 1440-1521) is considered to be one of the greatest composers of the Renaissance. His works demonstrate a wide range of invention and profound expression.


1611 woodcut of Josquin. This is generally thought to have been copied from an original oil painting, which is now lost.

Josquin's early life is something of a mystery; it is conjectured that he was a native of the Vermandois region of Picardy, but it is certain that he was a singer at Milan Cathedral in 1459, remaining there until December 1472. By July 1474 he was one of the 'cantori di capella' in the chapel of Galeazzo Maria Sforza. Between 1476 and 1504 he passed into the service of Cardinal Ascanio Sforza, whom he probably accompanied in Rome in 1484. His name first appears among the papal chapel choir in 1486 and recurs sporadically; he had left the choir by 1501. In this Italian period Josquin reached artistic maturity.

Josquin then went to France, probably serving in Louis XII's court. Although he may have had connections with the Ferrara court (through the Sforzas) in the 1480s and 1490s, no formal relationship with the court is known before 1503 when, for a year, he was maestro di cappella there and the highest-paid singer in the chapel's history. There he probably wrote primarily masses and motets. An outbreak of plague in 1503 forced the court to leave Ferrara (Josquin's place was taken by Obrecht, who fell victim in 1505). He was in the north again, at Notre Dame at Condé, in 1504; he may have been connected with Margaret of Austria's court, 1508-11. He died in 1521. Several portraits survive, one of which is attributed to Leonardo da Vinci.

Josquin's Music

Josquin's first period (up to 1485) is characterized by abstract, melismatic counterpoint in the manner of Ockeghem. His middle period (to 1505) saw the development and perfection of the technique of pervasive imitation based on word-generated motifs. This style has been seen as a synthesis of two traditions: the northern polyphony of Dufay, Busnois and Ockeghem, and the more chordal, harmonically orientated practice of Italy. In the final period the relationship between word and note becomes even closer and there is increasing emphasis on declamation and rhetorical expression within a style of the utmost economy.

Josquin's works gradually became known throughout western Europe and were regarded as models by many composers and theorists. Petrucci's three books of his masses (1502–14) reflect contemporary esteem, as does Attaingnant's collection of his chansons (1550). Several laments were written on his death (including Gombert's elegy Musae Jovis), and as late as 1554 Jacquet of Mantua paid him tribute in a motet. He was praised by 16th century literary figures (including Castiglione and Rabelais) and was Martin Luther's favourite composer.

Missa Pange Lingua, composed in the latter part of Josquin's life, is considered to be one of his finest works. The four-part polyphonic setting is in many ways evocative of Palestrina, who was composing some 50 years later

The Motets

His many motets span all three periods. One of the earliest, the four-part Victimae paschali laudes (1502), exemplifies his early style, with its dense texture, lack of imitation, and rudimentary treatment of dissonance. Greater maturity is shown in Planxit autem David, in which homophonic and freely imitative passages alternate, and in Absalon, fili mi, with its flexible combination of textures. His later motets, such as In principio erat verbum, combine motivic intensity and melodic succinctness with formal clarity; they are either freely composed, four-part settings of biblical texts, or large-scale cantus firmus pieces.

The Masses

Josquin's 18 complete masses combine elements of cantus firmus, parody and paraphrase techniques. One of the earliest, L'ami Baudichon, is a cantus firmus mass on a simple dance formula; the simplicity of melody and rhythm and the clarity of harmony and texture recall the Burgundian style of the 1450s and 1460s. Fortuna desperata, on the other hand, is an early example of parody. Canonic writing and ostinato figures are features. His last great masses, notably the Missa de Beata Virgine and the Missa 'Pange lingua' are works in which every resource is deployed with bravura, and include some innovatory chordal sections.

Secular Music

Kyrie from Missa de Beata Virgine

Josquin's secular music comprises three settings of Italian texts and numerous chansons. One of the earliest, Cela sans plus, typifies his observance of the forms fixes and the influences of the Burgundian style of Busnois and Ockeghem. Later works, such as Mille regretz, are less canonic, the clear articulation of line and points of imitation achieved by a carefully balanced hierarchy of cadences. Some, like Si j'ay perdu mon ami, look forward to the popular 'Parisian' chansons of Jannequin. One of Josquin's most famous pieces was a lament on the death of his friend and mentor, Johannes Ockeghem: Deploration sur la mort d'Ockeghem. In this remarkable piece, Josquin deliberately composes the first verse in an archaic style, and then in the second verse, changes to an innovative setting in which he calls upon all his contemporaries to mourn for the loss of their respected father figure.