Josquin Des Prez

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Josquin Des Prez
Josquin Des Prez

Josquin Des Prez (diminutive of "Joseph"; latinized Josquinus Pratensis) (c. 1450August 27, 1521) was a Franco-Flemish composer of the Renaissance. He was the most famous European composer between Guillaume Dufay and Palestrina, and is usually considered to be the central figure of the Netherlands style.


Little is known of his early life, but he was probably born either in Hainaut, Belgium, or immediately across the border in France, since several times in his life he was classified legally as a Frenchman (for instance, when he made his will). Josquin was long mistaken for a man with a similar name who sang in Milan from 1459 to 1474, and his birthdate was long considered to be around 1440: more recent scholarship has shown that he was born around 1450, and did not go to Italy until the early 1470s. According to 17th century records, he became a choir boy in the collegiate church of Saint-Quentin at an early age, probably around 1460, and may have studied counterpoint under Ockeghem, whom he greatly admired throughout his life (on Ockeghem's death in 1497 he wrote the impressive motet La D鰬oration sur la mort Ockeghem). By 1474 Josquin was a singer at the court chapel of the Sforza family in Milan, during the period when it became one of the largest and most famous choirs in Europe; the ensemble included the composers Gaspar van Weerbeke and Loyset Comp貥. In 1476, after the murder of Duke Sforza, he left this position, going to work for the Duke's brother instead. From 1486 to 1494 (except the year 1487-1488, which he may have spent in Florence), Josquin was a member of the papal choir under Pope Innocent VIII. In the later 1490s he was in France, probably in the service of Louis XII for most of the time, and he likely stayed there until 1503, when Duke Ercole I of Ferrara hired him for the chapel there; so Josquin returned to Italy.

In Ferrara Josquin wrote the exquisite Missa Hercules Dux Ferrariae, which is written on a cantus firmus derived from the musical letters in the Duke's name. While there he also wrote a setting of the Miserere, Psalm 50, for five voices, widely acknowledged to be one of his masterpieces.

Josquin only stayed in Ferrara for a year, departing in 1504, possibly fleeing an outbreak of the plague (the Duke, his family, and two thirds of the citizens fled as well). His position at Ferrara was filled by Jacob Obrecht in 1505, who died of the plague that year, and by Antoine Brumel in 1506, who stayed until the disbanding of the chapel in 1510. Josquin went directly from Ferrara to his home region of Cond鬠southeast of Lille on the present-day border between Belgium and France, becoming provost of the cathedral there. During this time he had immense fame, and although he was well known to the Netherlands court and his works were often performed there, no direct connection to them has been discovered by researchers. He remained at Cond頵ntil his death in 1521.

Works and influence

Josquin dominated the musical world of his time, not only on account of his learning, skill, and originality, but because of his singular ability to bring together the many streams of contemporary musical practice. He possessed a vivid conception of the meaning and dramatic possibilities of the sacred texts, as well as polyphonic dexterity and supreme melodic skill. During his lifetime he acquired immense popularity and fame, and was much in demand. Duke Ercole I sent an (undated) letter to his secretary with the interesting comment "It may be true that Josquin is a better composer, ...but Isaac is better able to get along with his colleagues." His fame lasted long after his death; Zarlino, writing in the 1580s, was still using examples from Josquin in his treatises on composition; and his fame was only eclipsed after the beginning of the Baroque era, with the decline of the polyphonic style.

Josquin's fame was overshadowed by Palestrina and his school until the 20th century, but his reputation has grown steadily for the last hundred years, and Josquin's music is often sung and recorded today. A possible reason for his current popularity is that his music contains, to many listeners, a direct emotional appeal often seen to be lacking in the austere, impersonal, but technically perfect music of Palestrina. The 19th-century trend in musicology was to consider early music as moving from primitive forms to ever increasing perfection, and thus venerated Palestrina as the peak of development of polyphony; contemporary musicology tends to consider changes in style not as changes towards or away from perfection but as trends of adaptation and influence; as such Josquin is seen as someone who simultaneously brought together most of the contemporary trends, innovated significantly, and was also able to express intense emotion with economy of means.

Josquin wrote thirty-two masses, seventeen of which were printed by Petrucci (1466-1539) in Fossombrone and Venice. Others were preserved in manuscript in the archives of the papal choir in Rome and in the libraries of Munich, Vienna, Basle, Berlin, the Ratisbon cathedral, and Cambrai. Motets by Josquin were published by Petrucci, Pierre Attaignant (1533), Tylman Susato (1544), and by Le Roy and Ballard (1555). Numerous fragments and shorter works are reproduced in the historical works of Forkel, Burney, Hawkins, Busby, and in Choron's collection.

In addition to the sacred works, Josquin wrote numerous chansons, some of which became very popular, and were circulated throughout Europe; many of them are sung regularly by a cappella vocal groups today.

References and further reading

  • Gustave Reese, Music in the Renaissance. New York, W.W. Norton & Co., 1954. ISBN 0393095304
  • Article "Josquin Desprez," in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie. 20 vol. London, Macmillan Publishers Ltd., 1980. ISBN 1561591742
  • Harold Gleason and Warren Becker, Music in the Middle Ages and Renaissance (Music Literature Outlines Series I). Bloomington, Indiana. Frangipani Press, 1986. ISBN 089917034X

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