Josquin Desprez

Born: 1470
Died: August 27, 1521, Condé-sur-l'Escaut, France

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French/Franco-Flemish composer. Generally acknowledged as the greatest composer of the High Renaissance.

Martin Luther, who had a good knowledge of music, said of Josquin Desprez, "he alone is the master of the notes, they have to do as he bids them." Indeed, Josquin was acknowledged by nearly all his contemporaries as the greatest composer of his time. If so, he stands as the first among many great musicians, for the composers of what we often term the Netherlands School created one of the richest periods in Western musical history. His contemporaries—including Antoine Brumel (c. 1460–c. 1515), Pierre de la Rue (c. 1460–1518) and Loyset Compère (c. 1445–1518)—and the previous generation— led by Johannes Ockeghem (c. 1410–1497)—created a style of music that can rightly be compared to the art of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo.

As for Josquin himself, we know surprisingly little of his early life. We know that in the 1470s he began service in the court of Cardinal Ascanio Sforza, and that by 1489 he was a member of the papal choir in Rome. But we know nothing of his early training, or even when he came to Italy (it was believed that he came in 1459 as a choirboy in the Milan cathedral, but it seems that this was a case of mistaken identity). Later in his life he served Duke Ercole d'Este in Ferrara, and possibly King Louis XII of France. The final years of his life were spent in the town of Condé-sur-l'Escaut in northern France (possibly his birthplace). The rest of his biography is still subject to scholarly speculation.

What we do know is just what Josquin's contemporaries knew: that he created wonderful music. What stands out most in this music is his care for the words. This is seen in part by the way he uses imitation to allow each voice to present the text before the texture becomes too dense to be clear. He also made use of homophonic textures to give the text an added clarity. Some of his works, especially his Masses, use the older cantus firmus technique. Here he uses the borrowed melody to create a huge scaffolding upon which he constructs the other melodies. Some of these pieces display a high level of technical complexity. At the same time, he could create pieces of marvelous simplicity and elegance, as he did so often in his motets and chansons.

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  • Sacred works, including 18 masses (Missa " La sol fa re mi ," L'homme armé Masses, Missa " Pange lingua "), more than 100 motets
  • Secular Works, including nearly 70 French chansons and settings of German, Spanish, and Italian texts
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Musical Examples

Missa La sol fa re mi, Kyrie 02:15
Ave maria virga serena
Download MP3 [5.43 MB]
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Listening Guide [pdf file - 415 KB]
Mille regretz
Listening Guide [pdf file - 381 KB]
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