Early Music Masters: Josquin des Prez
On the 27th of August 1521, the Renaissance Netherlandish composer Josquin des Prez died in Condé-sur-l’Escaut, nowadays Northern France. The exact year and place of his birth are still not known, yet this does not prevent scholars and early music lovers from stating that Josquin was one of the most renowned musicians of his time. As Martin Luther said of him: “He is the master of the notes. They must do as he wills; as for the other composers, they have to do as the notes will” (Gustave Reese, Music in the Renaissance). On the other hand, in 1567, “Cosimo Bartoli of Florence wrote that Josquin was without a peer in music, even as Michelangelo was peerless in architecture, painting, and sculpture.” (William Roscoe Estep, Renaissance and Reformation). “Some rank him as the fourth member, honoris causa, of the venerable triumvirate of genius composers tout court: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven – and Josquin. His personality and career are so often compared with Beethoven’s that he is popularly known as the “Beethoven of his time”. His Missa Pange lingua, as performed by the Tallis Scholars, won the Gramophone “Record of the Year” award in 1987, the only time a recording of early music has garnered the coveted prize.” (Paula Higgins, The Apotheosis of Josquin des Prez and Other Mythologies of Musical Genius; Journal of the American Musicological Society, Vol. 57, No. 3, Fall 2004).
As a composer, Josquin des Pres showed a remarkable ability to combine the musical elements, devices, and novelties of the time into music that would endure without being dated. The music of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance showed signs of advance in the use of counterpoint (the pitting of one melody against another). Josquin showed an unusual ease in his compositions in the use of counterpoint and depth of emotion that had not been seen before in the music of the Middle Ages or Renaissance. In actual fact, Josquin can be noted as one of the great ‘transition’ composers in music history, closing off the Medieval period and launching the musical world into the Renaissance. Josquin was also a very prolific composer. “He composed twenty masses, a hundred motets, and seventy chansons and other secular works. Of his contribution Donald Grout writes, “The early Netherlands chanson reached the climax of its development at Josquin’s hand. He was unmatched in the skill of combining the hearty, colourful quality of secular popular song with the intricacies of counterpoint.” He is also known to have incorporated secular melodies such as My Mistress into his mass compositions – hence the worldly and even obscene became a part of the solemn celebration of the mass.” (Roscoe Estep)
Josquin’s career as a composer coincided with the advent of printing, which only added to his popularity. The larger number of musical scores produced enabled quicker circulation and better access to the music. “The first collection of polyphonic music printed on the new presses was published in 1501 by Ottaviano dei Petrucci in Venice. During the next two years Petrucci brought out fifty-nine volumes of vocal and instrumental music. Sheets of instrumental music were run through the press twice – first to print the staff lines, then the notes; sheets of vocal music were run through a third time for printing of the lyrics.” (Roscoe Estep). “From the outset in 1501, his first edition, a collection of three and four-part secular works entitled Harmonice Musices Odhecaton A, included eight pieces from Josquin’s hand; and the opening piece in each of Petrucci’s four earliest motet collections is also by him. His first edition of Masses in 1502 – as immediately evident in the title Misse Josquin – is devoted entirely to the composer. It was reprinted fourteen years later as Lieber primus Missarum Josquin, because two further volumes had meanwhile appeared. Petrucci published a total of 17 Masses, 8 Mass movements, 32 motets and 24 secular works by Josquin.” (Willem Elders, Josquin Des Prez and His Musical Legacy: An Introductory Guide)
The quality of Josquin’s music was also noted by the first music historians. In his General History of Music (1789), Charles Burney wrote: “Indeed the laws and difficulties of Canon, Fugue, Augmentation, Diminution, Reversion, and almost every other species of learned contrivance allowable in ecclesiastical compositions for voices, were never so well observed, or happily vanquished, as by Josquin; who may justly be called the father of modern harmony, and the inventor of almost every ingenious contexture of its constituent parts, near a hundred years before the time of Palestrina, Orlando di Lasso, Tallis, or Bird…”
Credit: Edward Murray