Josquin Desprez

Josquin Desprez

Man sitting in front of orguealso Josquin des Préz, Jossequin Lebloitte or Latinized Josquinus Pratensis, (* between 1450 and 1455 in the surroundings of Saint-Quentin; † August 27, 1521 in Condé-sur-l’Escaut, France) was a Franco-Flemish composer and singer of the Renaissance, who mastered all the compositional techniques of the early Renaissance, was regarded as the most important representative of his time and was already a famous composer during his lifetime.

The man who was to become the greatest composer of the early Renaissance was Josquin Desprez (c. 1440 – 1521) Josquin, a Frenchman, spent most of his adult life in Italy, first as a chapel singer at Milan Cathedral and then in the service of the powerful Sforza family who reigned in Milan. Later he belonged to the papal chapel in Rome. He then entered the service of Ercole 1st, Duke of Ferrara, before returning to France and becoming provost of the Cathedral Chapter of Condé-sur-l’Escaut, where he also died.

Before Josquin left the north, he composed in a restrained, sober style. But his stay in Italy introduced him to a more fluid, flexible spelling, influenced by “lighter” secular genres. Compositions from this middle and later creative period are generally regarded as his best. Josquin was an extremely fruitful composer, his creative spectrum very broad. A large part of his oeuvre consists of masses, but he also wrote about eighty polyphonic motets and about seventy chansons (mostly on French texts).

The motet offered Josquin the best opportunity to bring his compositional personality to bear. Its form was more flexible than that of the Mass, and the variety of available texts opened up an almost as wide range of moods as the chansons used to.
There are several reasons why Josquin’s motets sound so different from those of the 14th century. The melodies flow more freely, wandering into other areas, freed from the formulaic nature of the Gregorian chant. The rhythms are more varied, less by metre and less by artistic means such as isorhythmics. The harmonics are richer, the intervals are more sonorous and the chord progressions more natural. The imitation has developed into an important structural element, and its smooth flow is often brought to a standstill by chordal sections where the voices meet. Dissonance has now acquired its own expressive value and contributes greatly to the overall effect.Picture of a man wearing a medieval hat

Martin Luther expressed great admiration for Josquin’s music, calling him “master of the notes, which must do as he wishes; other composers must do as the notes wish.” In his musical techniques he stands at the summit of the Renaissance, blending traditional forms with innovations that later became standard practices.

The most important difference between Josquin’s works and medieval music lies in the general objective. Josquin was the first important composer who tried consistently to express feelings with music. Apart from the leading cathedrals and monasteries with their highly developed musical practices, church music at that time still consisted of unanimous chants. Polyphony was still something relatively new. The great concern of composers in the late Middle Ages was to master the technical complexities of counterpoint – a goal that fitted in with the intellectual currents of the time. When one listens to a medieval motet – and this applies to almost all of these works – without having the text in front of one, it is difficult to determine from the music alone whether the piece has a narrative or reflective character, whether it has penitence or pious jubilation as its theme, where one encounters the highlights of the text, whether it ends with an optimistic or a gloomy “tone”. Josquin, however, was the first to take up the new humanistic thinking of the Renaissance – not only with regard to the expression of religious contents, but also with regard to the whole attitude towards his relationship to the outside world.

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