Josquin des Prez and His Music


Josquin Des Prez (c.1440-1521) was one of the most influential and widely regarded composers in the history of Western music, so famous that he is known merely by his first name. Josquin was apparently born in the Duchy of Burgundy, in modern Belgium. He spent a large portion of his middle years in various Italian cities as a highly sought master of music, and then retired to Conde (in Northeast France) late in his life. Josquin's extended sojourns in Italy allowed him not only to spread the Northern polyphonic style there, but to pick up some of the Southern vitality noticeable in many of his secular works. However, his extended works are always marked by a subtlety and serenity characteristic of the Franco-Flemish school.


Josquin's surviving musical output is very large, comprising masses (20), motets (about 100), and secular songs (about 50) in both French and Italian. His style is marked by the technique of pervasive imitation, in which different vocal lines share material in a subtle interlocking manner. Most of his compositions are for four voices, though larger textures are not uncommon. Typically, Josquin utilizes pair-wise imitation between voices - such that the texture is divided into pairs of voices which interchange material in canon. This technique deliberately eschews the longer lines of the previous generation to concentrate on shorter motifs which lend themselves to various combinations of melody and harmony. This technique was to have direct consequence for the later Renaissance, and for the Baroque and Classical periods as well. His influential contrapuntal experimentation and structural refinement lead many people to consider Josquin the greatest composer in the history of Western music, and indeed composers would be studying and utilizing his material directly for more than a century.


Josquin's masses include not only cantus firmus masses, such as the "Missa Hercules" (cantus firmus is based on the vowels contained in the title "Hercules Dux Ferrariae"), paraphrase masses, such as the widely reknowned "Missa Pange Lingua," but also parody masses like the "Missa Mater patris et filia" in which entire contrapuntal complexes are borrowed from an earlier source.

His secular compositions are highly varied, from light songs called frottola, to weightier french chansons such as the widely parodied "Milles Regretz," to the motet-chanson "Deploration on the death of Ockeghem" and its gloomy textures. However, Josquin's motets contain some of his most varied and highly respected output, and it is here that his combination of piety, technical mastery, and individual discretion makes its surest showing. The motet "Ave Maria, gratia plena" is an especially crystalized example of his style, with its strict canonic opening and subsequent structural interplay. The massive motet "Miserere mei, Deus" (the first complete Psalm setting [Psalm 50]) shows Josquin at his most expressive and expansive, while the late motet "De profundis clamavi" shows him at his most serene.

Today, Josquin's reputation is as high as it has ever been, except perhaps during his lifetime when he was the most sought after composer in Europe. His command of text and structure makes his music one of the great legacies of Western art.