Josquin des Prez

Period: Renaissance

Born: c. 1450 in Hainault, Belgium

Died: Saturday, August 27, 1521 in Condé-sur-l'Escaut, Belgium

Nation of Origin: Belgium

Major Works:

19 Masses, 100 Motets, 70 Chansons, Instrumental Pieces, and Frottole
Déploration sur le trépas de Jean Ockeghem
Tu solus, qui facis mirabilia
Adieu mes amours
Mille regretz
Faulte d'argent
L'homme armé super voces musicales Mass
Hercules dux Ferrariae Mass
Malheur me bat Mass
Faysans regres
Absalon fili mi
Dominus regnavit

Other Information:

Josquin studied with Ockeghem and stands at the border of the Medieval and the Renaissance worlds. The British musicologist and composer, Charles Burney revived interest in Josquin's work in the late 18th century.

Quick Facts:

  • Earlier research had confused Josquin with Juschinus de Frantia (aka Judochus de Picardia), a singer at the Milan Cathedral from 1459 to 1472. Earlier references to Josquin singing at Milan during this time are now thought to be incorrect. As a result, Josquin was thought to have been an adult in 1459 prompting an estimate of 1440 as his birth. Scholars now believe his birth year is closer to 1450 because his earliest known adult activity occurred in the mid-1470s.
  • He spent most of his career in Italy.
  • His many motets show a freer style, wide variety of texts, and more possibilities for text/music relationships.
  • His masses were more conservative - most are cantus firmi but the parody mass on Ockeghem's chanson Malheur me bat is important. Parody mass was the dominant form by 1540. The Mass offered little opportunity for experimentation.
  • He made use of many secular tunes for cantus firmi.
  • In his motets, each phrase of text has its own motive, presented in imitation by each voice before moving to a cadence. His cadences were often concealed by overlapping phrases. The music continues without obvious divisions into sections. He used rounded 3-part forms.
  • His harmony sounds more major and minor than modal.
  • He fit the music to text - correct declamation with word (tone) painting.
  • He made use of Soggetto cavato - a subject carved out - each vowel indicates a corresponding syllable of the hexachord.
Josquin des Prez was one of the few composers to enjoy renowned fame. He was highly regarded by such patrons and admirers as Martin Luther, Pope Alexander VI, the Sforza family of Milan, the Estes of Ferrara, and Louis XII of France. Born about 1450, probably in Condé-sur-l'Escaut, Hainaut (now part of Belgium), Josquin lived a long, successful life until his death in 1521. His first known adult activity is in the service of Duke Galeazzo Sforza of Milan (1474 to 1479). In 1484 he is known to have served Cardinal Ascanio Sforza and was a member of the papal chapel in Rome. In 1503 he was choir director at the court of Ferrara in Italy, where he was paid quite well. In 1504 Josquin returned to his homeland, possibly to escape the plague, which later killed Obrecht. He would live the remainder of his life in Condé-sur-l'Escaut, Hainaut.

During his lifetime Josquin composed approximately eighteen Masses, 100 motets, and seventy chansons. Unfortunately, many of his works cannot be dated. As a result, the chronology of his works can only be hypothesized and debated. Although his motets and chansons greatly outnumber his Masses, the Mass was the traditional outlet for the mastery of composers in his day. Whether or not he composed all eighteen of the Masses for which he is credited is a matter of additional debate. The Masses under question are Missa Da pacem and Missa Alez regretz, which were discovered in sources compiled long after his death.

Josquin's Masses exemplify his technical and constructive genius. The three types of compositional techniques that he used in composing his Masses were the use of cantus firmi, paraphrased pre-existing melodies, and cyclic canons. The largest group of his Masses are cantus-firmus masses. The number of his cantus-firmus Masses based on secular melody is indicative of his preference to secular rather than sacred melodies. Perhaps he and other composers preferred secular tunes because they were more melodically interesting than sacred tunes. The secular tunes typically had more shape than the sacred tunes; however, it should be noted that Josquin did not go without composing Masses around sacred tunes, which were mostly derived from plainchant. Among some of the secular cantus-firmi used by Josquin are L'ami Baudichon, N'auray je jamais mieulx, and L'homme armé.

Some of the Josquin's secular tunes are borrowed from chansons, such as N'auray je jamais mieulx. L'homme armé could possibly have been the tenor of a three-voice chanson. This notion is currently under investigation.

L'homme armé (The Armed Man), has a rich history in Masses. At least thirty-one Mass-settings were based on this melody in the Renaissance period. Two of these, which were by Josquin, are Missa L'homme armé super voces musicales and Missa L'homme armé sexti toni. Among other well known composers to use the tune were Dufay, Ockeghem, Palestrina, and Obrecht. The last Mass to incorporate the tune was a seventeenth century twelve-voice work by Carissimi.

Missa L'homme armé sexti toni is of Josquin's modern tendencies of composition, such as transposition for the purpose of creating a major key tonality. In this Mass he transposes to F (in the sixth mode) from the normal G. This is but one technique borrowed from the former Super voces musicales version. The most obvious difference in the two Masses is the overall wide range of the voices in Sexti toni.

Sexti toni (discussed from here on) begins with a brief unison in the tenor and bass, followed by open fifths leading to a rich major triad with the statement of the third voice in the Kyrie. Each voice is independent of the barline (as in all sections). This is precisely what gives the Mass the floating quality which it so appropriately exudes.

The Gloria begins with a duet between the soprano and tenor. The soprano leads the sequence, beginning in measure five, soon followed by the tenor, resulting in a canon. The alto and bass enter with their own duet at bar nine. The Gloria is shaped by a cadential hierarchy. The introduction of the first duet is followed by the tutti, ending on a half cadence. The next duet and tutti lead to a full cadence. The second phrase is characterized by the sequence ending on the half cadence. A sense of climax is achieved in the third phrase with the highest note of the section and a satisfying full V-I cadence. A new section of text starts with each new section of music. The contour of melody indicates text-painting such as a rise in melody at the phrase, "in the highest."

The melody is stated in retrograde in Agnus Dei, simultaneously with the direct melody. Retrograde was first used by Josquin in the Super voces musicales version; however, it was presented in succession with the direct melody instead of simultaneously. This particular section of Sexti toni contains an increase of voices from four to six. The retrograde and direct melodies are in the lower two voices. The upper four voices are in paired canons. Josquin achieves variance in the speed of the melody by increasing and decreasing note durations in proportions.
May 3, 1993
Updated January 11, 2002 with assistance from Kristine Brancolini

Essay contributed by:
Robert L. Hinson, Jr.

Composer Bibliography:

Scherr, Richard, The Josquin Companion, Oxford University Press, March 2000, ISBN: 0198163355

General Bibliography:

Reese, Gustave, Music in the Renaissance, W.W. Norton & Company; November 1959, ISBN: 0393095304

Sachs, Curt, The Rise of Music in the Ancient World , W. W. Norton & Company, 1943, ASIN: 0393097188

Slonimsky, Nicolas and Kuhn, Laura; Editors, Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, Gale Group, December 2000, ISBN: 0028655257

Sadie, Stanley and Tyrrell, John; Editors, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Groves Dictionaries, Inc., January 2004, ISBN: 0195170679

Rutherford-Johnson, Tim, Kennedy, Michael, and Kennedy, Joyce The Oxford Dictionary of Music, Oxford University Press, 6th Edition, 2012, ISBN: 0199578109

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Biographical essay from Wikipedia

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