Josquin des Prez was born around 1450 in the county of Hainaut or possibly just across the border in modern-day France. Josquin was a Franco-Flemish composer of the early renaissance. He was the most famous and influential European composer. Considered to be the paramount figure of the Franco-Flemish School, Josquin was is credited by many music scholars to be the first master of the high Renaissance style of polyphonic vocal music that was emerging during his lifetime.
Like many composers of this period, little is known of Josquin’s early life, albeit numerous clues have emerged from his works and the writing of some composers, theorists, and writers of the following generations. Although his exact birth location is not known, Josquin was classified legally as a Frenchman. Josquin’s path took him to Aix-en-Provence, where he joined King René d’Anjou’s court as a singer. The young and enthusiastic musician began his career as early as 1475 in an opulent and thriving (and Italian speaking) court establishment, which was surrounded by a supportive courtiers’ “network”. After king René’s death in 1480, many of the singers were retained by his nephew, King Louis XI of France. Josquin may have served King Louis XI from 1480 or 1481 to 1483. This position provided Josquin with the opportunity to meet the King’s premier Chapelain, Johannes Ockeghem. By 1484, Josquin became known to Ascanio Sforza, who was the brother of the Duke of Milan. Not only did this bring Josquin into one of the most splendid courts of Quattrocento Italy, but Ascanio’s elevation to the Cardinalate likely brought Josquin to Rome. Josquin’s relationship to this generous and well-connected patron continued into the next century.
His next musical assignment was to the Papal Choir in Rome, from June of 1489 until at least 1495. His location around the turn of the century is unknown, though that period saw a surge in the dissemination of his music, in manuscripts from populace centers such as Rome, Milan, and Brussels/Mechlin, to Petrucci’s revolutionary musical press in Venice.
Josquin des Prez’s fame increased for several decades after his death. His complete works include 19 Masses, 9 Mass Fragments, 61 Motets, 3 Motet-Chansons, 61 Chansons, and 3 Frottoles. Gioseffo Zarlino, who was writing in the 1580s, was still using examples from Josquin in his treatises on composition. Since the 1950s, Josquin’s reputation has been boosted by the increasing availability of recordings and the rise of ensembles specializing in the performance of 16th century vocal music, many of which place Josquin’s music at the heart of their repertoire.
After a brief, but highly lucrative tenure as Maestro di cappella for the Duke of Ferrara from 1503 to 1504, the aging Josquin entered into semi-retirement back in Condé. The collegiate church of Notre-Dame in Condé accepted him as provost in May 1504. During this time, he was ordained priest and maintained some level of activity as a composer. As late as 1520, he presented a volume of chansons to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. On August 27, 1521, Josquin died at Condé-sur-l’Escaut, France. Josquin’s will bestowed his home to the collegiate church, to endow his designated obituary services: Marian “Salve” services on Saturdays throughout the year and on Marian feast days, and the singing of his own Pater noster and Ave Maria in front of his house during all general ritualistic processions.