Though famous as contemporary musician details about his life and his compositions are not well documented. He was considered to be one of the most important composers of music during the renaissance period. He has been confused with many other contemporary musicians.
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Josquin des Prez was born in the region near Conde-Sur-l’Escaut controlled by the duke of Burgundy in modern-day Belgium, where he spent part of his childhood and old age period. Many times Josquin was confused with a man who bore a similar name, Josquin de Kessalia who was born around 1440 the same time that Josquin was born, Josquin de Kessalia was also a musician who sang in Milan from 1459 to 1474 before he died in 1498.
When his father passed away in 1466 Josquin was adopted by his uncle and aunt; Gilles Lebloitte Dit Desprez and Jacque Banestonne who renamed him as their heir. His real surname was Lebloitte while des prez was just a nickname that stuck more than his real name. His love for music and immense talent was brought out when he became a choirboy at Saint-Quentin, probably around 1460, and was in charge of its music docket. As a result of his early initiative, Saint Quentin was used for music training for many years.
He was first employed on April 19, 1477, as a singer at the chapel of Rene. The chapel was then under the leadership of duke Anjou. Upon leaving the chapel of Rene Josquin worked for the Sforza family and later on worked at the papal chapel from 1489 to 1495. His name was discovered lately by workers who were renovating the Sestina chapel and this was a clear indication that he worked in that chapel at one point in time. Carving one’s name on the walls of the chapel was a common practice during the 15th to 18th century period. Unlike in the 21st century when celebrities and famous people sign autographs, Josquin’s period had not discovered this technology and thus his carved name remains his only existing autograph. Later by 1497, he was at the French court of Charles VIII and Louis XII, though he was not employed to serve the royal class.
Between April 1503 and March 1504, Josquin is thought to have been employed by duke Ercole I d’este in Ferrara as the Maestro Di Capella. He returned in 1504 to Conde as provost of the cathedral, an appointment that is thought to have been engineered by Phillip the fair, duke of Burgundy, and king of Castile.
Josquin fame and success seem to have been the major reason for the many misattributions of his works. He was a household name used even by early printers to market their products. This was further aggravated by Martin Luther when he publicly announced his love for Josquin’s music. This acted as a catalyst and permission to Martin Luther’s followers to use Josquin’s name in as many of their works as possible. As a matter of fact some anonymous compositions were passed as his just to increase their sales.
He was greatly inspired by Ockeghem whom he greatly admired throughout his life. This inspiration went on until Ockeghem’s death when he composed a song in his honor. The song was titled ‘nymphes des bois/requiem aeterman’ founded on the poem by Jean Molinet. During Josquin’s time, it was the culture of the French lords and ladies to inherit the property of deceased people. To avoid this Josquin requested for his registration to be made as a foreigner so as to safeguard his property. This part clearly indicates that Josquin was French by birth.
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Although he sometimes receives credit for the transformation of music styles during his time he did not achieve this alone but with the help of other musicians. However, he was the leader of these contemporary groups and perhaps the reason he receives much of the credit. The new style inaugurated by Josquin and his contemporaries utilized the use of voice pairs in fugue-like imitation as the principal compositional device. They introduced the system of utilizing all the four voices perhaps what is fondly referred to as set peace today. He followed the footsteps of composers before him but his style was a bit different. Whereas his predecessors had all the voice parts singing simultaneously, Josquin invented a method whereby the voices entered one after another. Just as was the tradition among composers of the renaissance mass to compose music for the ordinary of the mass using a phrase from the chant as a ‘cantus firmus’, Josquin wrote eighteen different settings of the mass.
More than any other previous composer, Josquin was keen to ensure a consistent organization of harmonies. In the secular music docket, Josquin and his generation presided over the end of the medieval fixed forms of French chansons and the beginning of a new simpler style and also the re-emergence of Italian texted part songs.
Josquin is fondly remembered for his composition of mass chants. His masses were quite many and surprisingly enough some of them are still being utilized to date.
Not only did he compose sacred songs but he was also talented in composing secular songs such as Frotolla which he might have composed while employed in Ferrara. While working and living in Milan Josquin had absorbed the influence of light Italian secular music which he utilized while composing his own. On the other hand while in Rome he refined his skills of gospel music.
In his later years in Ferrara he composed a song directed to the king to remember the promise he had made to Josquin, the song was titled “ memor esto verbi tui servo tuo” which is Latin for ‘remember the promise you made to your servant.’ True to his words the king honored this promise and it’s from here that Josquin left Ferrara. After this he composed another motet that was meant to thank the king for honoring the promise. It is evident that the better part of his career Josquin moved from place to place very oftenly. While in Ferrara, Josquin wrote some of his most famous compositions, like ‘Missa Hercules Dux Ferrariae’ and perhaps‘Virgo Salutiferi’; ‘austere Miserere’ which became one of the most popular motets of the 16th century is also thought to have been composed during this period. His stay in Ferrara was short-lived as a plague hit the region leading to an evacuation of the duke’s family together with a third of the citizens.
Upon escaping from the plague Josquin went directly to his home region of Conde-sur-l’Escaut, south east of Lille on the present-day border between Belgium and France where he founded a large musical establishment in the church of Notre-Dame which he headed until his death.
The last two decades of his life might be considered the most fruitful in his life. The development of printing technology made it possible to disseminate his music.
His total works both sacred and secular go well beyond anyone’s imagination. In total thirty masses are attributed to Josquin, seventeen of which were printed by Petrucci and distributed all over the world. While some of his printed work is doubtful, all the manuscripts printed by Petrucci are considered genuine. Most of his works are preserved in libraries in Vienna, Berlin, Munich, Basle as well as in the archives of the papal choir in Rome. This clearly indicates that Josquin was an artist and a musician whose great works went beyond the boundaries of his hometown and spread the world over.
‘Missa Ave Maris Stella’ and ‘Missa Pange Lingua’ are documented as probably the finest of Josquins’ masses which are utilized up-to-date especially by acapella vocal groups. However much of his works have undergone changes and have been reproduced by other artists such as Forkel, Burney, Hawkins, Busby and Choron.
Josquin is portrayed as a man who had an independent mind such that in 1503 when Duke Ercole 1 of Ferrara wanted to hire him, one of the duke’s assistants recommended that Heinrich Isaac be hired in place of Josquin. He justified his recommendations by stating that Heinrich was easier to get along with and was more willing to compose music on demand. He was also less costly in terms of payments for music production. This clearly indicates that Josquin was not very likeable simply because he stood his grounds and was independent minded.
Josquin was also very calculating. He was always sure of the right buttons to press inorder to get what he wanted. While in France in 1500, he composed a motet, ‘memor esto verbi tui servo tuo’ which was a piece directed to the king to honor the promise he had made to Josquin and true to this words the king remembered this promise. Even at these early times Josquin was aware of the power of music and he relentlessly utilized this to achieve his dreams.
According to the available history on Josquin, he was a very hardworking man. Most of his available history is documented in terms of his employment history. His musical pieces were composed while he was working for one employer or the other. Surprisingly enough most of the people he worked for were politicians or what can be referred to as political leaders of the time. If it was not a king in France then it was a duke in Ferrara.
In addition Josquin can be seen as a man who had personal initiative. At a very tender age in 1460, Josquin was already a choirboy at Saint-Quentin where he was given the prerogative of leading the music docket. When he retired and went back to his home town of Conde-sur-l’Escaut he established a large musical group, which he headed until his death.
No other musician was as famous as Josquin during his time. His skills and originality beat those of the other musicians. However it was his personal ability to bring together the many streams of contemporary musical practice that won him the hearts of most of his fans. He was so famous such that he used his baptismal name only to introduce himself.
During this time he was in great demand to compose and perform his music more than any other musician of his time. His reputation went well beyond his death such that some musicians were still using his style to compose their music. None the less his fame only seemed to fade away with the introduction of the Baroque era which led to the death of the polyphonic style.
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Frustratingly very little is known of the man who brought renaissance to the music world. Though his music continues to exert its effective power across the world for more than five centuries, very few artists comprehend neither its origin nor the composer.
Surprisingly, little is documented on most of the famous musicians especially those who reigned before the 21st century. To read about them requires patching information from many sources which at times give contradictory information. In the end the students are left with an unclear picture about the real contribution of the particular person.
More so the problem has been aggravated by the similarities in names of the ancient artists. Thus the 21st century generation trying to put together information might be misled if not careful. However it is now a bit late to rectify this problem. This is because the legends who witnessed the existence of these important artists are also no more. However this is also a problem of the 21st century whereby though technology is advanced the information documented about the popular people is also contradictory. Nonetheless the idea of writing biographies and autobiographies has come in handy to alleviate this problem.
Comparing the composition that were done before the 21st century and those currently being composed there exists a very great difference. Whereas the music and art in general of the earlier years carried meaningful messages, those of the present are known to use words that are not conducive and can well be described as not having any educative themes; Perhaps the reason why true music lovers still consult the earlier musicians for guidance. Current musicians are only concerned with rhyming their lyrics without a care whether their music is delivering any important message or not. It is normally argued that the real music lovers or those who treasure the true meaning of music are those that adore the music of the classical times. However this does not come as a surprise considering the level of indecency that rocks our current music industry. Whereas parents can comfortably watch music videos of the yester years with their children, those of the 21st century are not conducive for family viewing.
In conclusion, to alleviate the problem of lack of adequate and clear information about important people who have made history, early steps of documenting their past and achievements should start when they are still alive. This can be achieved through as earlier suggested writing of biographies and autobiographies as well as creating websites which acknowledge their works and successes in life. Through accessing this perhaps upcoming artists will have role models to emulate and upgrade the music industry to the standards it should be.
Carney Eldridge, 2001. Renaissance and Reformation, 1500-1620: a biographical dictionary Connecticut: greenwood publishing group.
Hoffer, Charles. 2009. Music listening today. Fourth edition. Boston: Baxter Clark.
Macey, Patrick, 1991. Early Music: Joaquin’s Misericordias Domini and Louis XI. New York: Oxford University Press.
Schiltz, Katejline and Blackburn J. Bonnie, 2007. Canons and Canonic techniques, 14th-16th Centuries: Theory, practice, and reception history. Belgium: Peters Publishers.
Schlagel, Stephanie, 2006. Di Placet for motets by Josquin and his contemporaries.Wisconsia: A-R Editors Inc.