Josquin des Prez

c.1450 - 1521

Josquin Desprez — often known simply as Josquin — is the centrepiece of this period, the greatest composer of the Franco-Flemish School and of the early Renaissance. Regarded highly within the music world, as much during his lifetime as after his death, he is considered the equal in his own era of Bach or Beethoven in theirs. More than any other composer before him, Josquin made the available compositional techniques his own, at the same time adding a great breadth of imagination to the craft of writing music.

Josquin des Prez (French: [ʒɔskɛ̃ depʁe]; c. 1450/1455 – 27 August 1521), often referred to simply as Josquin, was a French composer of the Renaissance. His original name is sometimes given as Josquin Lebloitte and his later name is given under a wide variety of spellings in French, Italian, and Latin, including Iosquinus Pratensis and Iodocus a Prato. His motet Illibata Dei virgo nutrix includes an acrostic of his name, where he spelled it "Josquin des Prez". He was the most famous European composer between Guillaume Dufay and Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, and is usually considered to be the central figure of the Franco-Flemish School. Josquin is widely considered by music scholars to be the first master of the high Renaissance style of polyphonic vocal music that was emerging during his lifetime.

During the 16th century, Josquin gradually acquired the reputation as the greatest composer of the age, his mastery of technique and expression universally imitated and admired. Writers as diverse as Baldassare Castiglione and Martin Luther wrote about his reputation and fame; theorists such as Heinrich Glarean and Gioseffo Zarlino held his style as that best representing perfection. He was so admired that many anonymous compositions were attributed to him by copyists, probably to increase their sales. More than 370 works are attributed to him; it was only after the advent of modern analytical scholarship that some of these attributions were challenged, and revealed as mistaken, on the basis of stylistic features and manuscript evidence. Yet in spite of Josquin's colossal reputation, which endured until the beginning of the Baroque era and was revived in the 20th century, his biography is shadowy, and virtually nothing is known about his personality. The only surviving work which may be in his own hand is a graffito on the wall of the Sistine Chapel, and only one contemporary mention of his character is known, in a letter to Duke Ercole I of Ferrara. The lives of dozens of less revered Renaissance composers are better documented than that of Josquin.

Josquin wrote both sacred and secular music, and in all of the significant vocal forms of the age, including massesmotetschansons and frottole. During the 16th century, he was praised for both his supreme melodic gift and his use of ingenious technical devices. In modern times, scholars have attempted to ascertain the basic details of his biography, and have tried to define the key characteristics of his style to correct misattributions, a task that has proved difficult, as Josquin liked to solve compositional problems in different ways in successive compositions—sometimes he wrote in an austere style devoid of ornamentation, and at other times he wrote music requiring considerable virtuosity. Heinrich Glarean wrote in 1547 that Josquin was not only a "magnificent virtuoso" (the Latin can be translated also as "show-off") but capable of being a "mocker", using satire effectively. While the focus of scholarship in recent years has been to remove music from the "Josquin canon" (including some of his most famous pieces) and to reattribute it to his contemporaries, the remaining music represents some of the most famous and enduring of the Renaissance.



Josquin lived during a transitional stage in music history. Musical styles were changing rapidly, in part owing to the movement of musicians between different regions of Europe.
Many northern musicians moved to Italy, the heart of the Renaissance, attracted by the Italian nobility's patronage of the arts; while in Italy, these composers were influenced by the native Italian styles, and often brought those ideas with them back to their homelands. The sinuous musical lines of the Ockeghem generation, the contrapuntal complexity of the Netherlanders, and the homophonic textures of the Italian lauda and secular music began to merge into a unified style; indeed Josquin was to be the leading figure in this musical process, which eventually resulted in the formation of an international musical language, of which the most famous composers included Palestrina and Lassus.

Josquin likely learned his craft in his home region in the North, in France, and then in Italy when he went to Milan and Rome. His early sacred works emulate the contrapuntal complexity and ornamented, melismatic lines of Ockeghem and his contemporaries, but at the same time he was learning his contrapuntal technique he was acquiring an Italianate idiom for his secular music: after all, he was surrounded by Italian popular music in Milan. By the end of his long creative career, which spanned approximately 50 productive years, he had developed a simplified style in which each voice of a polyphonic composition exhibited free and smooth motion, and close attention was paid to clear setting of text as well as clear alignment of text with musical motifs. While other composers were influential on the development of Josquin's style, especially in the late 15th century, he himself became the most influential composer in Europe, especially after the development of music printing, which was concurrent with the years of his maturity and peak output. This event made his influence even more decisive than it might otherwise have been.

Many "modern" musical compositional practices were being born in the era around 1500. Josquin made extensive use of "motivic cells" in his compositions, short, easily recognizable melodic fragments which passed from voice to voice in a contrapuntal texture, giving it an inner unity. This is a basic organizational principle in music which has been practiced continuously from approximately 1500 until the present day.

Josquin wrote in all of the important forms current at the time, including masses, motets, chansons, and frottole. He even contributed to the development of a new form, the motet-chanson, of which he left at least three examples. In addition, some of his pieces were probably intended for instrumental performance.

Each area of his output can be further subdivided by form or by hypothetical period of composition. Since dating Josquin's compositions is particularly problematic, with scholarly consensus only achieved on a minority of works, discussion here is by type.


Josquin wrote towards the end of the period in which the mass was the predominant form of sacred composition in Europe. The mass, as it had developed through the 15th century, was a long, multi-section form, with opportunities for large-scale structure and organization not possible in the other forms such as the motet. Josquin wrote some of the most famous examples of the genre, most using some kind of cyclic organization.

He wrote masses using the following general techniques, although there is considerable overlap between techniques in individual compositions:

  • cantus firmus mass, in which a pre-existing tune appeared, mostly unchanged, in one voice of the texture, with the other voices being more or less freely composed;

  • paraphrase mass, in which a pre-existing tune was used freely in all voices, and in many variations;

  • parody mass, in which a pre-existing multi-voice song appeared in whole or in part, with material from all voices in use, not just the tune;

  • soggetto cavato, or solmization mass, in which the tune is drawn from the syllables of a name or phrase (for example "la sol fa re mi"—A, G, F, D, E—based on the syllables of Lascia fare mi ("let me do it", a phrase used by an unknown patron, in a context around which much legend has arisen).

  • canon, in which an entire mass is based on canonic techniques, and no pre-existing material has been identified.

Most of these techniques, particularly paraphrase and parody, became standardized during the first half of the 16th century; Josquin was very much a pioneer, and what was perceived by later observers as the mixing of these techniques was actually the process by which they were created.

Cantus-firmus masses

Prior to Josquin's mature period, the most common technique for writing masses was the cantus firmus, a technique which had been in use already for most of the 15th century. It was the technique that Josquin used earliest in his career, with the Missa L'ami Baudichon, possibly his first mass. This mass is based on a secular – indeed ribald – tune similar to "Three Blind Mice". That basing a mass on such a source was an accepted procedure is evident from the existence of the mass in Sistine Chapel part-books copied during the papacy of Julius II (1503 to 1513).

Josquin's most famous cantus-firmus masses are the two based on the L'homme armé tune, which was the favorite tune for mass composition of the entire Renaissance. The earlier of the two, Missa L'homme armé super voces musicales, is a technical tour-de-force on the tune, containing numerous mensuration canons and contrapuntal display. It was by far the most famous of all his masses. The second, Missa L'homme armé sexti toni, is a "fantasia on the theme of the armed man." While based on a cantus firmus, it is also a paraphrase mass, for fragments of the tune appear in all voices. Technically it is almost restrained, compared to the other L'homme armé mass, until the closing Agnus Dei, which contains a complex canonic structure including a rare retrograde canon, around which other voices are woven.

Paraphrase masses

The paraphrase technique differs from the cantus-firmus technique in that the source material, though it still consists of a monophonic original, is embellished, often with ornaments. As in the cantus-firmus technique, the source tune may appear in many voices of the mass.

Several of Josquin's masses feature the paraphrase technique, and they include some of his most famous work. The relatively early Missa Ave maris stella, which probably dates from his years in the Sistine Chapel choir, paraphrases the Marian antiphon of the same name; it is also one of his shortest masses. The late Missa de Beata Virgine paraphrases plainchants in praise of the Virgin Mary; it is a Lady Mass, a votive mass for Saturday performance, and was his most popular mass in the 16th century.

By far the most famous of Josquin's masses using the technique, and one of the most famous mass settings of the entire era, was the Missa pange lingua, based on the hymn by Thomas Aquinas for the Vespers of Corpus Christi. It was probably the last mass that Josquin composed. This mass is an extended fantasia on the tune, using the melody in all voices and in all parts of the mass, in elaborate and ever-changing polyphony. One of the high points of the mass is the et incarnatus est section of the Credo, where the texture becomes homophonic, and the tune appears in the topmost voice; here the portion which would normally set "Sing, O my tongue, of the mystery of the divine body" is instead given the words "And he became incarnate by the Holy Ghost from the Virgin Mary, and was made man."

Parody masses, masses on popular songs

In parody masses, the source material was not a single line, but an entire texture, often of a popular song. Several works by Josquin fall loosely into this category, including the Missa Fortuna desperata, based on the three-voice song Fortuna desperata (possibly by Antoine Busnois); the Missa Malheur me bat (based on a chanson variously ascribed to ObrechtOckeghem, or, most likely, Abertijne Malcourt); and the Missa Mater Patris, based on a three-voice motet by Antoine Brumel. The Missa Mater Patris is probably the first true parody mass to be composed, for it no longer contains any hint of a cantus firmus. Parody technique was to become the most usual means of mass composition for the remainder of the 16th century, although the mass gradually fell out of favor as the motet grew in esteem.

Masses on solmization syllables

The earliest known mass by any composer using this method of composition – the soggetto cavato – is the Missa Hercules Dux Ferrariae, which Josquin probably wrote in the early 1480s for the powerful Ercole I, Duke of Ferrara. The notes of the cantus firmus are drawn from the musical syllables of the Duke's name in the following way: Ercole, Duke of Ferrara in Latin is Hercules Dux Ferrarie. Taking the solmization syllables with the same vowels gives: Re–Ut–Re–Ut–Re–Fa–Mi–Re (in modern nomenclature: D–C–D–C–D–F–E–D). Another mass using this technique is the Missa La sol fa re mi, based on the musical syllables contained in "Lascia fare mi" ("let me do it"). The story, as told by Glareanus in 1547, was that an unknown aristocrat used to order suitors away with this phrase, and Josquin immediately wrote an "exceedingly elegant" mass on it as a jab at him.

Canonic masses

Canonic masses came into increasing prominence in the latter part of the 15th century. Early examples include Ockeghem's famous Missa prolationum, consisting entirely of mensuration canons, the Missa L'homme armé of Guillaume Faugues, whose cantus firmus is presented in canon at the descending fifth, and the Missa [Ad fugam] of Marbrianus de Orto, based on freely composed canons at the fifth between superius and tenor. Josquin makes use of canon in the Osanna and Agnus Dei III of the Missa L'homme armé sexti toni, throughout the Missa Sine nomine, and in the final three movements of the Missa De beata virgine. The Missa L'homme armé super voces musicales incorporates mensuration canons in the Kyrie, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei II.


Josquin's motet style varied from almost strictly homophonic settings with block chords and syllabic text declamation to highly ornate contrapuntal fantasias, to the psalm settings which combined these extremes with the addition of rhetorical figures and text-painting that foreshadowed the later development of the madrigal. He wrote many of his motets for four voices, an ensemble size which had become the compositional norm around 1500, and he also was a considerable innovator in writing motets for five and six voices. No motets of more than six voices have been reliably attributed to Josquin.

Almost all of Josquin's motets use some kind of compositional constraint on the process; they are not freely composed. Some of them use a cantus firmus as a unifying device; some are canonic; some use a motto which repeats throughout; some use several of these methods. The motets that use canon can be roughly divided into two groups: those in which the canon is plainly designed to be heard and appreciated as such, and another group in which a canon is present, but almost impossible to hear, and seemingly written to be appreciated by the eye, and by connoisseurs.

Josquin frequently used imitation, especially paired imitation, in writing his motets, with sections akin to fugal expositions occurring on successive lines of the text he was setting. An example is his setting of Dominus regnavit (Psalm 93), for four voices; each of the lines of the psalm begins with a voice singing a new tune alone, quickly followed by entries of other three voices in imitation.

In writing polyphonic settings of psalms, Josquin was a pioneer, and psalm settings form a large proportion of the motets of his later years. Few composers prior to Josquin had written polyphonic psalm settings. Some of Josquin's settings include the famous Miserere, written in Ferrara in 1503 or 1504 and most likely inspired by the recent execution of the reformist monk Girolamo Savonarola, Memor esto verbi tui, based on Psalm 119, and two settings of De profundis (Psalm 130), both of which are often considered to be among his most significant accomplishments.

Key Works

1611 woodcut of Josquin des Prez, copied from a now-lost oil painting done during his lifetime

Missa Pange Lingua, Kyrie Eleison

Ave Maria (Motet)

Stabat mater dolorosa

Petite Camusette

Missa de Beata Virgine

0:00 - I. Kyrie
3:33 - II. Gloria
10:31 - III. Credo
16:27 - IV. Sanctus
19:47 - V. Benedictus
21:47 - VI. Agnus Dei

Manuscript showing the opening Kyrie of the Missa de Beata Virgine, a late work. 
Rome, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Capp. Sist. 45, ff. 1v-2r.

Our Facebook Page

  • Facebook - Black Circle

© 2017