Josquin des Prez was one of the most famous composers of the
Renaissance who occupied a prominent position between Dufay and Palestrina. A central
figure of the Franco-Flemish School, he is widely considered the first master
of the high Renaissance polyphonic style that was burgeoning during his
lifetime. His music, which spanned all the principle vocal forms, both secular
and sacred, benefited from the invention of the printing press, which made wide
dissemination possible, and was among the first compositions published by Ottaviano
Petrucci. Early theorists such as Heinrich Glarean and Gioseffo Zarlino sung
its praises, and authors, including Martin Luther, made mention of his fame.
However, despite the immense fame he garnered during his lifetime, much of the
details of his life are unknown or speculative at best. Nevertheless, modern
research has been able to provide some clarity to his life and remove
compositions that have been falsely attributed to his name.
Josquin was likely born in or near in Hainaut in modern-day
Belgium, in an area controlled by the Duke of Burgundy, around 1450 or perhaps
a few years later. Little is known about his early life. If accounts by Claude
Hémeré, friend and librarian of Cardinal Richelieu, are to be believed, Josquin
became a choirboy at the Saint-Quentin's royal church around 1460. However,
some doubts as to the accuracy of Hémeré's account exist. Nonetheless, the
chapel was an artistic center for the area, and it is quite possible that
Josquin made his first connections with the French royal chapel possible by his
work at Stain-Quentin. As for his musical studies, it is possible Josquin
studied with Ockeghem, whom he greatly admired.
The first definite record of Josquin's employment comes from
April 1477 when he was listed as a singer at the chapel of René, Duke of Anjou,
in Aix-en-Provence. He remained there for nearly a year, but no further records
of his whereabouts exist until 1483, when he travelled to Condé to claim the
inheritance left to him by his aunt and uncle. During this time, it has been
suggested that he already had entered the employ of the Sforza family or may
have even ventured as far as Hungary. Nevertheless, by 1483 or 1484, he was in
the service of the Sforza family in Milan. Travel possibly took Josquin to Rome
and Paris, and by 1489, he left Milan.
Beginning in 1489, Josquin was a member of the papal choir
in Rome. An engraving in the walls of the Sistine Chapel, "JOSQUINJ," was
uncovered by workers restoring the chapel. As it was the tradition at the time
for singers to carve their names in the wall, the engraving may be the only
example of the composer's autograph in existence. While in Rome, Josquin's
polyphonic style fully matured. Around 1498, Josquin likely was employed again
by the Sforza family. However, his time in Milan was quite possibly brief, cut
short by Louis XII's invasion of northern Italy. Though no concrete evidence
has been found, it is assumed he returned to France around the turn of the
In 1503, Josquin was in the employ of Duke Ercole I of Ferrara.
Many of his most famous compositions date from his time at the Ferrara chapel.
An outbreak of the plague that summer, however, quickly prompted him to leave.
Josquin left Ferrara for Condé-sur-l'Escaut, where he became provost of the
collegiate church of Notre-Dame in May 1504. Here it is assumed he remained for
the remainder of his life, and his fame continued to spread during his
remaining years, greatly aided by Petrucci's
publications. Josquin died on August 27, 1521.
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