Josquin Desprez

Synonym: Prez, Josquin Des

Josquin Desprez (c. 1450-1521) is often called the most important composer of the Renaissance period. His name is derived from the Flemish ‘Josken’ (Little Joseph). Very little is known about his childhood, but like all the early composers he must have been a choirboy or altar-boy, in Cambrai (Flanders). His name is often used without a family name, just Josquin.
Since 1480 his name appears in account books of the Sforza court in Milan. There is a portrait of Josquin, attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, who was working at the same court of the Sforzas.
Together with Cardinal Ascanio Sforza he moved to Rome where he was a member of the papal court chapel during the papacy of Innocentius III and Alexander VI.
Anecdotic and not historically affirmed is that Josquin might have worked in Paris at the Sainte Chapelle. During peace negotiations between the French King and the Ferrarese Duke Ercole d’Este he is bought away to Ferrara in 1503. There he composed his well-known Missa Hercules Dux Ferrariæ (with the famous melodic theme re-ur-re-ut-re-fa-mi-re, a sound imitation of his patron’s name). Fearing the plague he left Ferrara in 1504 and moved to Condé in Burgundy where he became a canon and provost of the Notre Dame. From this court he had contacts with Margaretha of Austria and her cousin Charles V.
In Josquin’s music the text was the most important. In order to enhance the audibility there is seldom a polyphony of more than three voices. An imitation or canon technique is more common in his music. In this way he preluded on the instructions of the Counsel of Trent (1545-1563), in which was ordained that church music had to be transparent and not too intricate and frivolous. Audibilty of the text was mandatory.
Josquin was prolific not only in sacred music (nearly 20 masses and 60 motets) but also in chansons (more than 60). Of the chansons there are two very important ones: Mille regretz, which was the basis for the Missa Mille Regretz, a parody mass by Cristóbal de Morales, and Faulte d’argent which provided the cantus firmus in the Requiem by Jean Richafort.

Cees Wagemakers