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Saturday morning quotes 8.23: Dead Josquin

August 28, 2021
josquin-des-pres-circa-1440-1521-engraved-from-a-work-in-st-gudule-cathedral-brussels

Persons peripherally associated with early music will no doubt be inundated this weekend with tributes to the famous composer, Josquin des Prez (c. 1440 – 1521). Although it might seem a bit ghoulish to indulge in general jollifications to celebrate a person’s demise, on the 500th anniversary of his death we are compelled add our unique take on Josquin, his music and what it means to us as early music specialists with a deep-rooted concentration in sacred polyphony.

Many apocryphal legends about Josquin have emerged over the 500 years since his passing, but we must make do with scant factual information about the life of the man responsible for such deeply moving and enduring music. Even the woodcut from Petrus Opmeer’s Opus chronographicum (Antwerp, 1611) may or may not represent the human face of Josquin. Like this illustration, the substance of the legend of Josquin was formed and disseminated many years after his death, and in the presence of so much speculation, we are happily compelled instead to turn our focus to the fruit of his labors, the music itself.

Josquin’s early career began, as with all composers of the era, as a singer employed to provide music for daily worship in the chapels of affluent patrons. With an estimated birth date of 1440, Josquin may even have been composing as early as the 1460s. In The Rise of European Music, 1380-1500 (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1993), Reinhard Strohm reveals that Josquin was part of a cadre of composers employed at the chapel of Galeazzo Maria Sforza in Milan, a team that included Weerbeke, Compère, Agricola and Martini.  With this sort of inspiring company, it is not difficult to see how Josquin’s mastery of form and style was fully developed by the time Ottaviano Petrucci fired up his printing press, the monumental event that cemented the enduring reputation of the composer.

“The relatively small number of sources for Josquin’s music and the sparse biographical evidence of his stature before about 1500 make it seem almost as though he were catapulted to fame at the turn of the sixteenth century. Indeed, Jessie Ann Owens has argued persuasively that Josquin really only “became Josquin” with the advent of music printing and Petrucci’s subsequent publication of three books of Josquin masses in 1502,1505, and 1514. Regardless of when these masses were composed—at least one dates from no later than 1494—there is little evidence of their impact before Petrucci.”

– Jesse Rodin, “When Josquin Became Josquin”, Acta Musicologica, [Vol.] 81, [Fasc.] 1 (2009), pp. 23-38

There is scant evidence of Josquin and his work prior to Petrucci’s innovations in moveable type at the printing press.  The earliest source of Josquin’s music is a manuscript from the Leopold Codex, copied circa 1476, that contains a setting of the famous Ave Maria…virgo serena. Another early source is found in Obrecht’s Missa Plurimorum Caminum I, composed c. 1487; the Et resurrexit of the Credo movement is clearly based on the tenor of ]osquin’s chanson, “Adieu mes amours.”

Josquin produced a respectable catalogue of secular works, with 20 or so appearing in Petrucci’s early prints. But secure attribution of these pieces aside, Petrucci did not include texts for the secular chansons, and the question remains whether these pieces were meant to be sung or played instrumentally. There is also the fact that, for Josquin, the sacred and the secular were not so far removed. Several of his masses and motets were composed on melodic themes drawn from what we consider today secular chansons, and several of his secular chansons are peppered with bits of recognizable chant as sacred canti firmi. An example is the chanson “Que vous ma dame” that is built upon the chant, In pace in idipsum.

Once more, we see an example of the historical integration of sacred and secular music, which seems to be confusing to both musicians and appreciative listeners today. We see both performers and audiences extracting Josquin’s music from its context and assigning the repertory a comfortably numb “Zen” quality that tactfully avoids the depth of Josquin’s faith. How do we embrace the music today?

“For whom do the singers sing? This is not a question that is asked very often, and it is probably one that singers themselves rarely think about. If it is chant, the easy answer would be ‘for the glory of God’. Often the answer will be that the singers sing for themselves, for the sheer love of singing. Sometimes it is just a job: they sing for their supper. The question becomes more pressing in the case of sacred music: do the words matter to the singer? Is it necessary to be a believer in order to sing a confession of faith, as we must do when we sing the Ordinary of the Mass? Of course the answer, for many people, is ‘No’. Yet I suspect that many will sing what they might not be willing to say.”

– Bonnie J. Blackburn,”For Whom Do the Singers Sing?” Early Music, Vol. 25, No. 4, 25th Anniversary Issue; Listening Practice (Nov., 1997), p. 594.

 The result of decontexualizing Josquin’s music is that, in many performances, the depth of emotion has just gone missing. This is acutely observable in the (mostly historical) instrumental arrangements of Josquin’s music, sacred or secular. Mainly what is missing is a sense of line that Josquin so lovingly wove together into strands of polyphony. And also missing is the understanding vocalist’s essential sense of pulse that ties the polyphony together—foregone in favor of a flurry of notes.

How did we get to this point with Josquin’s music? How is it possible that we can collectively get the man and his music so wrong? It seems that his posthumous reputation as a towering genius in the model of the 19th-century Romantic composer is what done him in.

“In this postmodern era, the ubiquitous phenomenon of genius has become inefficacious, arguably pernicious, and so invested with hyperbole as to render it an almost meaningless category of thought. Do we really want to saddle Josquin (or any other artist) with a label so intellectually bankrupt that it is now more often linked in the popular imagination with gridiron celebrity than with astonishing creative achievement? If seeing Josquin as a “genius” means eradicating all signs of History—of his own musical and cultural past—and regarding him as some infallible, timeless, mythical force of Nature; if it means imposing ahistorical standards of perfection on pieces historically attributed to him; if it means perpetuating in eternam the current fetish with authentication studies and thereby consigning some of the most breathtaking music ever written to the dustbin; if it means misappropriating “Josquin” in the commodification of stereotypes of gender, race, class, and sexuality, then for the sake of the disservice it does to the historical body of musical texts surviving under his name, I would not only deny but, more importantly, spare him the ignominy of genius status.”

– Paula Higgins, “The Apotheosis of Josquin des Prez and Other Mythologies of Musical Genius”, Journal of the American Musicological Society, Vol. 57, No. 3 (Fall 2004), p. 493.

Josquin lived four score years and died on 27th August 1521 in Condé-sur-l’Escaut. Possessing a highly-developed sense of self-worth and good business acumen during his long career, Josquin accumulated a bit of wealth and so had the means to establish an endowment to finance the performance of his six-voice setting of the Pater noster and Ave Maria during feast day processions that passed his house, terminating at the town’s marketplace altar to the Virgin Mary where a communion wafer was to be placed. This was not the act of an agnostic.

We celebrate the general noticing of Josquin and his music with a few clips of some of our favorites.


Adieu mes amours

Comment peult avoir joye

Que vous ma dame / In pace in idipsum

Stabat Mater dolorosa

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