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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century

CHAPTER 14 Josquin and the Humanists

Josquin Des Prez in Fact and Legend; Parody Masses

CHAPTER 14 Josquin and the Humanists
Richard Taruskin

Richard Taruskin


As with Machaut in chapter 9, we are going to take time out, so to speak, and devote a whole chapter to a single composer. This time the close-up will be on Josquin des Prez (d. 1521), whose work has already figured, alongside that of Busnoys, Ockeghem, Obrecht, Isaac, Martini, and others, in chapters 12 and 13. It is appropriate to single him out at this point, not only because of the intrinsic quality of his music (although that is axiomatic) but also — and mainly — because Josquin became a legend in his own time, remained a legend throughout the sixteenth century, and became one again when he was discovered by modern historians. Burney, in the late eighteenth century, called him “the type of all Musical excellence at the time in which he lived,” and so he has remained in the eye of history.1 His supreme legendary status has caused Josquin to be studied more intensively, and in greater detail, than any contemporary. Yet in seeming (but only seeming) paradox, that same legendary status has also worked to hide him from view.

To the student of history, the Josquin legend is if anything even more important than the composer himself, because in describing it and accounting for its formation we may gain some critical insight into certain momentous changes that took place in the sixteenth century affecting attitudes toward music and its creators. These changes, in their relationship to the body of contemporary thought known as humanism, provide whatever justification there is for the use of the word “Renaissance” as applied to music.

In his unprecedented stature and his undisputed preeminence in the eyes of his contemporaries and posterity, Josquin has never failed to remind recent historians of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827), who was similarly regarded three centuries later, and who retains a similar quasi-legendary aura. Drawing parallels between them is easy; doing so has become traditional in music historiography. Unease with this tradition has occasionally been expressed by those who see in it a danger to an unprejudiced view of Josquin and his time. Certainly we learn little if we merely assimilate what is less familiar to what is more familiar. To think of Josquin merely as a fifteenth- or sixteenth-century Beethoven would be like placing him behind the nearer figure and thereby obscuring him from view.

Worse, drawing parallels between historically remote figures simply on the basis of their perceived greatness may lead to the perpetuation of what many regard as an insidious art-idolatry that discourages critical thinking about artists and their work. Unease is certainly justified if unwarranted parallels are drawn between the two composers as persons, or if such parallels lead to (or even result from) an ahistorical, contingent but mistakenly universalized concept of “essential” musical greatness. Yet at the same time drawing parallels between Josquin and Beethoven as cultural figures can also shed light on the ways in which “cultural figures” are constructed.

The kind of legendary or symbolic status that both Josquin and Beethoven achieved in their times can tell us a lot about those times. Both composers broke through to plateaus of prestige and cultural influence beyond the reach of their predecessors. It can seem that by the sheer force of their example they caused the world to look not only upon their music but upon music itself, with new eyes, and to listen with new ears. A more accurate way of putting it, perhaps, would be to say that they each provided an apt focal point for the crystallization of new attitudes about music and about artistic creation.

Chapter 14 Josquin and the Humanists

fig. 14-1 Jean Perréal, The Liberal Arts: Music, a fresco from the cathedral of Le Puy in Auvergne, France. The shorter figure, possibly because of his characteristic hat, has been speculatively identified as Josquin des Prez. The one extant representation of Josquin that was possibly rendered from life—a woodcut published in 1611 copied from a panel portrait in oil that once adorned the walls of the church of Sainte Gudule in Brussels—is often reproduced; it shows a somewhat similar headdress and features that are not imcompatible with those in the Le Puy painting.

Josquin was the first composer to interest his contemporaries and (especially) his posterity as a personality. He was the subject of gossip and anecdote, and the picture that emerges again resembles the popular conception of Beethoven: a cantankerous, arrogant, distracted sort of man, difficult in social intercourse but excused by grace of his transcendent gift. Josquin, like Beethoven, was looked upon with awe as one marked off from others by divine inspiration—a status formerly reserved for prophets and saints. Among “musicians,” it had formerly been reserved for Pope Gregory alone (at least when his dove was present).

This, indeed, is the kernel of our popular conception of artistic genius to this day. But saying “to this day” implies a false continuity. Josquin was so regarded, and Beethoven was so regarded, but between Josquin’s time and Beethoven’s there were other times (and, of course, places) in which artists were not so regarded or valued. The “humanistic” sensibility that elevated Josquin and the “romantic” one that elevated Beethoven had an important component in common, though: namely a high awareness and appreciation of individualism. In both cases, moreover, that high awareness and appreciation stemmed on the one hand from cultural and social conditions, and on the other from economic and commercial ones.

Here the parallels must end, because the applicable conditions were not the same in Josquin’s and Beethoven’s times. For now the task will be to understand Josquin against the background of his time—a time that formed him, to be sure, but one that he helped form as well. Powerful individuals and historical conditions are never in a fixed or static relationship. Their formation is inevitably reciprocal, and for that reason all the more inexhaustibly fascinating.


(1) Charles Burney, A General History of Music, Vol. I, ed. Frank Mercer (New York: Dover, 1957), p. 752.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 14 Josquin and the Humanists." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 18 Oct. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-chapter-014.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 14 Josquin and the Humanists. In Oxford University Press, Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 18 Oct. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-chapter-014.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 14 Josquin and the Humanists." In Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 18 Oct. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-chapter-014.xml