Childhood & Early Years
Although there is a controversy about the exact place or time of his birth it is evident that Josquin des Prez was born in some place under the Duchy of Burgundy during the reign of Philip the Good. Different scholars have different opinion on that.
While a large number of scholars believe that he was born in Condé-sur-l'Escaut of Hainaut in present-day Belgium, another group believes that he was born immediately across the border in Picardy in present-day France. That he had been legally classified as Frenchman on several occasions collaborate the later belief.
Recent researches pinpoint Josquin’s year of birth sometime between 1450 and 1455. Earlier, it was believed that he was born in 1440; but later it was found that Milanese singer Josquin de Kessalia was born in that particular year, not Josquin des Prez.
There is also a controversy about his name. Many scholars believe that des Prez was actually his nickname. From a will made by his uncle, Gille Lebloitte dit Desprez, in 1466 we come to know that his actual surname was Lebloitte. Moreover, in an acrostic, he had spelled his name as des Prez.
Nothing is known about Josquin’s parents or siblings. We only know that he had an uncle and an aunt, Gille Lebloitte dit Desprez and Jacque Banestonne, who left their estate to him.
From the writings of Claude Hémeré, dated 1633, we know that in 1460 Josquin des Prez became a choirboy at the Collegiate Church at Saint-Quentin and that Franco-Flemish composer Jean Mouton was his colleague and friend. But scholars have cast doubts on its authenticity because it was written 173 years later.
To give Hémeré his due, it has to be acknowledged, he had used the church records and therefore it must be true to some extent at least. Since those records were destroyed in 1669 there is no way to collaborate or refute his claims.
We do not know if Josquin had formal training in music. But it is believed that he studied counterpoint under Johannes Ockeghem, one of the most famous composer and teacher of the Franco-Flemish school during that period. Again, the evidence in this regard is merely circumstantial.
As is suggested by the writings of Gioseffo Zarlino and Lodovico Zacconi, throughout his life Josquin had shown a great respect for Ockeghem. When the master died in 1497, he wrote an eloquent motet, ‘La déploration de la mort de Johannes Ockeghem’.
It is possible that he remained with Ockeghem for some years, learning from the master all his subtleties. Later, he might have joined the Collegiate Chapel at Saint-Quentin as a master-musician. However, all these are purely guess work.
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The first substantial evidence that has cropped up regarding Josquin’s employment is a role of musicians associated with the cathedral in Cambrai in early 1470s. Since his name was included in that, it is fair to suggest that he might have begun his career as a singer at Cambrai.
From Cambrai he might have moved directly to Aix-en-Provence. A document, dated 19 April 1477, mentions him employed as a singer at the chapel of René, Duke of Anjou, at that time held at Aix-en-Provence.
It is believed that he joined the service of René as early as 1475 and remained at Aix-en-Provence at least until March 1478. What happened thereafter is unclear. Scholars talk about three distinct possibilities.
One theory suggests that he might have remained with René till René’s death in 1480. Then from 1480 to 1482, he was in employment with Ascanio Sforza, at that time living in Ferrara or Naples, temporarily banished from his home in Milan.
Another possibility is that, he went to Hungary to be employed as a court singer. A 16th-century Roman document, describing the then Hungarian courts, includes his names as a singer at the court of Matthias Corvinus, King of Hungary
The third possibility is that when in 1481 the whole chapel was shifted to Paris by René’s nephew, King Louis XI, Josquin too went along. His early motel, ‘Misericordias Domini in aeternum cantabo’, suggesting a direct link to the King, gives rise to such hypothesis.
In 1483, Josquin des Prez visited Condé-sur-l'Escaut to claim his inheritance, left by his uncle and aunt. Thereafter, he moved to Milan, where he found employment with the influential Sforza family.
A document dated June 19, 1484 describes Josquin as chaplain in the service of Ascanio Sforza, implying that he was in Milan at least until then. But other sources claim he was in Milan until 1489 and was introduced to papal court by his employer, Ascanio Sforza, in 1486.
During his stay at Milan, he became friendly with music theorist and composer Franchinus Gaffurius. That Gaffurius benefitted greatly from this association is evident from many of his masses, which show a clear influence of Josquin. His writings also confirm that Josquin was in Milan during this period.
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During this period, he might have also traveled a lot, visiting Rome several times and Paris at least once. Although the chronology of this period is very vague it is evident that he returned to Milan in 1489, but left in the same year to join the papal choir.
According to most scholars, he did not actually leave the service of Ascanio Sforza, but joined the papal chapel of Innocent VIII in exchange of Gaspar van Weerbeke, who now returned to Milan. Later when Innocent VIII died Josquin was retained by his successor Alexander VI.
Josquin remained in the Papal service possibly until 1498 or 1499. However, one cannot be sure of that date because all the employment records from 1496 to 1500 are lost and so one can only be sure he was in Rome till 1495.
His stay at Rome had been highly productive for it was here he developed his mature style. While working in Milan, he had imbibed Italian secular light music; but in Rome, he refined his sacred music and wrote several motets.
On leaving Rome, he reentered the service of Ascanio Sforza. But when in 1499 Milan was invaded by King Louis XII of France and his employer was taken prisoner he possibly left Italy. He is likely to have returned to France, remaining in the service of the king till 1503
Before he left Italy, he wrote one of his most famous secular composition, the ‘frottola El grillo’ (the Cricket). Another well-known work was ‘In te Domine speravi’ (I have placed my hope in you, Lord). Many believe the latter refers to Girolamo Savonarola, for whom he had greatest regard.
In France, Josquin wrote several pieces at the direction of the French Court, such as ‘Vive le roy’ (Long Live the King). Contrarily, his ‘Memor esto verbi tui servo tuo’ (Remember your Word to your Servant) was a reminder to the King who had promised him a benefice, but forgot.
In 1503, Josquin returned to Italy as maestro di cappella at the court of Duke Ercole I d'Este of Ferrara, receiving a salary of 200 ducats. It was here that he created few of his famous compositions, such as ‘Miserere’, ‘Virgo salutiferi’ and ‘Missa Hercules Dux Ferrariae’.
Last Days in CondÃ©-sur-l'Escaut
In 1504, Josquin des Prez left Ferrara, possibly to escape plague, which had broken out in the previous year and went directly to Condé-sur-l'Escaut, where he had inherited an estate from his uncle. There on 3 May 1504, he was appointed provost of the collegiate church of Notre-Dame.
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He remained in Condé for the rest of his life, heading the large musical establishment at the collegiate church. It was during this period that his fame began to spread far and wide; but his activities remained undocumented.
In 1502, while he was still in Italy, his first book on masses was printed by Italian printer, Ottaviano Petrucci. He now published two further volumes of his masses; one in 1504 and the other in 1514. They became so popular that they continued to be reissued several times.
In 1508, Josquin received an invitation from the Bourges Cathedral to become master of their choirboys. He must have refused the offer because there is no documentary evidence of his response.
In 1509, he was invited to become choir master at Saint Quentin collegiate church, an offer he must have accepted happily. From now until his death in 1521, he concurrently held two positions; one of provost of the collegiate church of Notre-Dame and other of choir master at Saint Quentin.
'La Déploration de Johannes Ockeghem', also known as ‘Nymphes des bois’, is one of Josquin’s best known works. Based on a poem by Jean Molinet and composed on the occasion of Johannes Ockeghem’s death in February 1497, the piece is considered one of the most moving memorials ever written.
‘Miserere’, which commemorates the execution of Girolamo Savonarola in 1498, is another of his well-known works. Witten in spare austere style, it is considered to be the most famous setting of that particular psalm in the entire Renaissance. Later it played an important role in settings of the Penitential Psalms.
Death & Legacy
Josquin des Prez spent the last seventeen years of his life in Condé-sur-l'Escaut and died there on 27 August 1521 from unspecified cause. However, he knew that he was dying because just a few days before his death, he established his last will, witnessed, among others, by the Mayor of Condé.
In the will, he declared himself a Frenchman and endowed his possession to the Chapter of the Church. He also wished that processions passing by his house would pause by the image of Virgin Mary on his wall and sing his settings of the ‘Ave Maria and Pater Noster’.
He must have been buried in the church of Condé; but as it had been destroyed during the French Revolution, no trace of it exists. Fortunately, a seventeenth-century manuscript, containing the copy of the inscription on the tombstone, has been found, giving us the exact date of his demise.
After his death, Josquin’s reputation continued to increase and as late as in 1580, his writings were being referred by eminent scholars
Today Josquin des Prez is known as one of the greatest composer of his time. Many scholars consider him to be the first master of the high Renaissance style of polyphonic vocal music and the central figure of the Franco-Flemish School.