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Josquin des Prez (c1450/55-1521)

Josquin des Prez

born: c1450/55
died: 27 August 1521
country: France

Few composers of any period have enjoyed the widespread admiration and unanimous praise of successive generations as Josquin des Prez. He is considered to be the greatest creator and innovator of musical composition during the Renaissance, and for some half a millennium his music has stood the test of time. Music printing came about during Josquin’s lifetime, and it is highly significant that Petrucci placed the composer at the opening of each of the first four motet anthologies, dating from 1502 to 1505. It was also in 1502 when Petrucci’s Misse Josquin was published, marking the first collection ever to be devoted to a single composer. Josquin was truly at the pinnacle of his profession, famous throughout Europe, and served as a model of exquisite beauty and compositional prowess for generations to come.

Relatively little is known of Josquin before his death in 1521, and, indeed, most reports date from decades later. They do, however, point to the fact that he must have been a perfectionist. Commenting in 1547, more than two decades after the composer’s death, the Swiss theorist, poet and humanist Heinrich Glarean tells us that Josquin ‘… published his works after much deliberation and with manifold corrections; neither did he release a song to the public unless he had kept it to himself for some years’. The Lutheran humanist, Johannes Manlius reported an anecdote concerning Josquin’s own choir rehearsals: he was said to have walked among the singers during a performance of one of his works, and if something dissatisfied him, the composer would say ‘Be silent; I will change that’. Martin Luther himself greatly admired Josquin, and, after singing the chanson Nymphes, nappés, proclaimed the now-famous quote that ‘Josquin is the master of the notes, which must do as he wishes while other composers must follow what the notes dictate.’

Such was Josquin’s popularity that after his death in 1521 other composers sought to emulate his style; compositions were often found to be reattributed to Josquin as they would then become more respected and marketable. In 1540 the German editor and composer George Forster famously recalled hearing ‘… a certain eminent man saying that, now that Josquin is dead, he is putting out more works than when he was alive!’

from notes by David Skinner © 2013


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