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Who was Josquin des Prez?

Everything you need to know about the French composer and his revolutionary Renaissance music

UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1754: Josquin Desprez or des Pres (c1440-1521) French composer and singer. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)
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Who is Josquin des Prez?

Josquin des Prez, or simply Josquin, was a French composer and the best-recognised figure of the Franco-Flemish School of composition. Josquin’s reputation as the greatest Renaissance composer in Europe began in his lifetime and is yet to diminish. He is credited with being a true innovator of the period, pioneering its polyphonic style of choral music.

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When was Josquin des Prez born?

Very little is known about Josquin’s early life. Scholars estimate that he was born in Picardy around 1450 but it possibly have been as late as 1455. While some suggest he was born in Burgundy or modern-day Belgium, making him Franco-Flemish, surviving documents show that he was, at least, a self-proclaimed Frenchman. His name has been given a variety of different spellings, including his speculated original name of Josquin Lebloitte dit Desprez, from which the familiar Josquin de Prez evolved.

When did Josquin des Prez die?

Scholars are more certain about Josquin’s date of death: August 27 1521. He died in Condé-sur-l’Escaut, where he had been provost of the collegiate church of Notre Dame since 1504.

What did Josquin des Prez compose?

Josquin’s compositions encompass both secular and sacred works and represent a cross-section of the period’s most popular forms. His secular works included chansons and Italian frattole, the former written for three to six voices. At the other end of the spectrum, Josquin produced sacred masses and motets, both of which were usually for four equal voices. Many of his masses were based on pre-existing melodies accompanied by varying degrees of free composition for the different voice parts.

He also contributed to the development of the motet-chanson, a hybrid song form which combines secular and sacred choral features.

Which works is Josquin des Prez most famous for?

Generally speaking, nearly of Josquin’s repertoire receives popular attention. However, a number of individual pieces stand out as the best of the composer’s creativity, remaining as readily in-demand for performances today as they did in the 15th century.

While his Miserere remains the Renaissance period’s most revered setting of Psalm 50, the Ave Maria… Virgo serena steals the top spot as Josquin’s most famous and influential motet.

Of Josquin’s masses, the following are his most famous: Missa L’homme armé super voces musicales, Missa beata virgine and Missa Pange Lingua.

How did Josquin des Prez influence the Renaissance period?

Josquin was a master of Renaissance polyphony. He was the greatest innovator of counterpoint (pre-Bach) and pioneered the technique of melodic imitation between voices in the composition of choral music. His influence in these areas directed the later Renaissance period and created new styles for both secular and sacred music, moving them away from the homophonic traditions of the medieval period.

Josquin’s influence is somewhat indebted to the invention of printing, which allowed his work to be distributed far and wide. A particular favourite of printer Petrucci, Josquin’s works were chosen to introduce important anthologies and comprises the earliest surviving anthology of a single composer’s music. Josquin’s talents were widely sought after throughout Europe.

Josquin’s reputation survived the decline of polyphonic music in the Baroque era, and today is still thought of as the most influential composer of the Renaissance.

What are the best recordings of works by Josquin des Prez?

It is very difficult to go wrong with the Tallis Scholars’ performances of Josquin repertoire. On their own Gimell label, the ensemble has released a series of nine discs, dedicated to the composer’s masses. The first instalment is a reissue of their award-winning 1986 recording, and the final instalment received Recording of the Year at our 2021 BBC Music Magazine Awards.

Josquin Masses: Missa Hercules Dux Ferrarie, Missa D’ung aultre amer & Missa Faysant regretz
The Tallis Scholars/Peter Phillips
Gimmell CDGIM 051   (2020)

Read our review of this recording here

Josquin Masses: Missa Pange lingua & Missa La sol fa re mi
The Tallis Scholars/Peter Phillips
Gimmell CDGIM 009   (1986)

More great recordings of works by Josquin des Prez

Josquin
Motets and Mass Movements: O bone et dulcissime Jesu a 6; Domine, ne in furore tuo, etc.
The Brabant Ensemble/Stephen Rice
Hyperion CDA68321

Read our review of this recording here

The Golden Renaissance
Jacquet of Mantua: Motet; Josquin: Missa Pangue Lingua; Motets; Vinders: Lament
Stile Antico
Decca 485 1340  

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Read our review of this recording here