Josquin Desprez

Josquin Desprez (c.1440/55-1521) is widely regarded as one of the finest and most influential composers in the history of Western music. The stylistic traits of his music, both in contrapuntal technique and in text-setting, gave the defining direction to the High Renaissance and with it the course of music history as a whole. Not only was Josquin admired by Martin Luther as the greatest of composers, but his music was distributed throughout Europe and especially in Germany for decades after his death. The clear textures and text declamation which Josquin employed set the stage not only for the next developments of technical harmony, but for the clarity and conciseness demanded by the Counter-Reformation of Palestrina et al. as well. Josquin’s output displays a rare combination of innovation and accomplished technical mastery, and has retained for him a position as the most prominent composer of the early sixteenth century, perhaps the high point of Western music as a whole.

The circumstances of Josquin’s early life are mostly unclear. No documentary evidence exists prior to engagements in his early adulthood, and later contemporary suggestions that he was born in Hainaut are disputed effectively by documentary evidence that he was a legal alien there during the last years of his life at Condé. What can be stated with some certainty is that legally and culturally, Josquin was French, from somewhere in the region of Picardy. His career was first discernible in Milan, but this fact is now disputed, and indeed under some proposed scenarios the year of his birth may be closer to 1455 than the traditional 1440. He certainly received relatively early appointments at the French Court and at the Papal Chapel in Rome. Perhaps the decisive appointment is that to Ferrara in 1503, not only for the extravagance of both the setting and his salary, but for the degree of precision with which it is documented. In any event, Josquin did not remain there long, and fleeing the plague, went to Condé for his retirement by 1504. His appointment in Ferrara also coincides nicely with Petrucci’s first publication of a volume of Josquin’s masses in 1502. The establishment of movable-type printing for polyphony by Petrucci in Venice is one of the most significant events in Western music history, and the choice of Josquin for the first dedicated volume is perhaps the single most instrumental event defining Josquin’s subsequent reputation. Aside from this event, some of his contemporaries have resumes of similar quality.

Although he spent a substantial portion of his career in Italy, Josquin evidently received his training in the Northern Franco-Flemish style before then, perhaps at the feet of Ockeghem. Josquin’s international career certainly marks him as a special talent of the period, and consequently a composer of wide influence and cosmopolitan taste. However, there is a clear precedent in the career of Dufay, which follows a similar outline (as do those of Josquin’s contemporaries such as Isaac or Obrecht). Josquin’s Northern foundation is clearly seen in his mastery of contrapuntal textures in four, five and six voices, and especially in his canonic technique. His Italian influence is frequently sought in the increasingly lucid textures he employed, together with his new emphasis on homophony. The lightness and short phrases of Italianate settings were to be balanced against the more melismatic and contrapuntal Northern style, and consequently Josquin perfected the technique of “pervasive imitation” to achieve a contrapuntally-based structure around short motives and interlocking phrases. Pervasive imitation describes a situation in which shared material between voices determines the contrapuntal texture of a piece, and in Josquin’s case, this usually meant interlocking canonic duets.

Josquin’s stylistic progression can be perceived first in a reduction of melismatic phrases and ornately spun lines to a more succinct and syllabic style built around canonic technique, and second in a more sophisticated deployment of this technique such that its structural implications are not particularly evident to the listener. In some cases, this increased subtlety can cause some confusion as to whether a work dates to before or after Josquin’s perfection of the pervasive imitation technique (which is frequently exemplified by the eloquent motet Ave Maria, gratia plena in four parts).

Josquin des Prez: Ave Maria

As a leader in the most fundamental stylistic shift of the High Renaissance, Josquin continued to place music more and more at the service of text. This was accomplished not only by cleaner textures and declamations, but also by early word-painting techniques which would become a staple of the later madrigal schools. Priority was also given to text in larger and more sophisticated ways, letting details of the structure of the poetry dictate elements of the musical progression, a practice which at his best Josquin could perform in particularly unselfconscious and compelling ways. Josquin’s subsequent reputation rests both on his response to text and his development of pervasive imitation as a technique for straightforward settings able to support larger structures, leading to the sixteenth century codifications of harmony by Zarlino et al.

Josquin’s musical output consists of some eighteen mass cycles, plus independent sections and doubtful attributions, more than a hundred motets, and about eighty secular works primarily in French. His is a relatively large surviving output for the period and accordingly varied. Although modern taste for the mass cycle as a sort of proto-symphony has brought an emphasis on Josquin’s music in this genre, his motets are clearly his most individual, expressive and masterful contributions. The variety of expression they contain, together with their formal ingenuity make them sufficient by themselves to establish Josquin’s posthumous reputation. Among these, such works as Miserere mei, DeusStabat Mater dolorosa, and Praeter rerum serium (in five, five, and six parts, respectively) have become especially popular and important today.

Josquin Desprez: Miserere Mei, Deus

Josquin des Prez: Stabat Mater

Josquin Desprez: Praeter rerum serium

Josquin’s masses are certainly not to be neglected, especially considering the restraint and serenity he was able to convey in this form. Of these, the Missa de beata virgine was by far the most popular in contemporary sources, even if it apparently did not originate as a cycle and is the only Josquin mass cycle with entire movements not in four parts.

Josquin: Missa de beata virgine 

Also based quite austerely on direct plainsong quotation, the Missa Pange lingua is the one securely attributed Josquin mass not to be published by Petrucci, possibly because of its late date.

Josquin: Missa Pange lingua

The circumstances surrounding Josquin’s secular music are frequently even less clear, although his position as a transitional figure in this genre, between the Burgundian court chansons of Busnoys and others to the fully sixteenth century madrigal style, is easy to observe. His secular music is accordingly broad in its stylistic range, and it has even been suggested that much of it was intended for instrumental performance.

Josquin’s lofty posthumous reputation was reflected both in the widespread survival of his substantial and varied output as well as in many misattributions, intentional and otherwise. For instance, frottole such as El grillo are no longer regarded as of certain authenticity, casting a different light on some of his secular activity. In addition, various transcriptions exist, as well as authentic works with parts added by other composers. Although these facts mean that Josquin’s catalog remains in a state of flux, understanding of his music and historical position has never been better. Even many casual listeners today regard him as the greatest composer in Western music, and of course his position with respect to the origin of music printing guarantees that his influence will remain tangible.

Todd M. McComb, 7/99
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