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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 14 Josquin and the Humanists
Richard Taruskin

But is the story wholly false? Even if the attribution to Josquin of Bonitatem fecisti is obviously an embellishment, the authenticity of Memor esto (Ex. 14-1) is well attested. It is a prime example of Josquin’s characteristic “paired imitation” style, in which an opening imitative duo (here the tenor and bassus) is answered, when it reaches its cadence, by a complementary duo (here the superius and altus), and is entirely typical of his psalm motets, just as its high degree of “motivicity” (to use an ugly but handy word coined by Joshua Rifkin to denote the building up of long melodies and dense textures out of repetitions and transpositions of a tiny—here, a four-note—phrase) is generally typical of Josquin’s mature style. Can the motet’s connection with Louis XII and his forgotten promise be confirmed or, more decisively, disproved?

Not really. There is no documentary corroboration that Josquin wrote the motet during his period of presumed service at the French court, somewhere between 1494 and April 1503. The only guide we have to dating the work is the age of its sources, always a rough and potentially treacherous criterion. The oldest manuscript containing Memor esto is a Sistine Chapel choirbook of uncertain but (for our present purpose) uselessly late date. It was copied during the reign of the Medici pope, Leo X, who ascended the papal throne in 1513 and who died in 1521, which is also the year of Josquin’s death. The manuscript contains the work of several members of a distinctly younger generation—Jean Mouton, Antoine de Févin, Adrian Willaert—whose relationship to Josquin was confessedly discipular. And it contains Josquin’s last Mass, the famous Missa Pange lingua on the venerable Phrygian hymn melody we have known since chapter 2 (see Ex. 2-7b), which was presumably written too late for inclusion in Petrucci’s third and last volume of Josquin Masses, which came out in 1514.

That classic work is worth a parenthetical quote at this point (Ex. 14-2), since it is so securely associated with Josquin’s latest period, and therefore exemplifies his latest technique: that of subjecting a chant paraphrase to the same paired imitation technique we have just observed in Memor esto. The Missa Pange lingua takes the paraphrase technique a step further than the point where we left it: the chant paraphrase is no longer confined to the “cantus” voice alone, but through imitation suffuses the entire texture.

What Josquin was Really Like

ex. 14-1 Josquin des Prez, Memor esto, mm. 1–14

What Josquin was Really Like

ex. 14-2 Josquin des Prez, Missa Pange lingua, Kyrie I

As we have already seen, the year 1514, in which the third volume of Josquin’s Masses appeared, was also the year in which Petrucci issued both Josquin’s Memor esto and Carpentras’s Bonitatem fecisti in his Motetti della corona, and there is no demonstrably earlier source for either motet. The probable earliest source for Memor esto turns out to be not a manuscript but a print. And since even that print long postdates the events recounted by Glareanus, it can neither corroborate nor refute them. Indeed, a modern biographer of Josquin has found another version of the story about Josquin and the king, only this version involved a different king, Francis I (reigned 1515–47), Louis’s successor, whom Josquin could never have served.10

That sort of confusion is the usual situation with Josquin, alas. Determined research has produced an intermittently detailed but stubbornly gapped picture of his career. The details, moreover, have fluctuated greatly over the years, as more recent findings have not only supplemented earlier ones but at times invalidated them. The facts, then, have always, and necessarily, been complemented by an ever-changing web of speculation and inference.

According to the most recent scholarly consensus (summarized by Richard Sherr, the editor of The Josquin Companion, published by the Oxford University Press in 2000), Josquin was born in or near the town of St-Quentin in Picardy, a northeasterly region of France, about 20 miles south of the cathedral city of Cambrai where Du Fay had worked. The first document to mention him is a bequest of land from his uncle and aunt, dated December 1466 and executed in the town where they lived, Condé-sur-l’Escaut, a fortified town in northernmost France, right across the river from Belgium. This deed, first reported by the Canadian archivists Lora Matthews and Paul Merkley in 1998, gives the future composer’s name as Jossequin Lebloitte dit Desprez.11 Only since then has even so basic a fact as his original family name, Lebloitte, been known to modern scholarship.

The first documents to mention Josquin as a musician place him, from 1475, at the opposite end of France: in Aix-en-Provence near the Mediterranean coast, where he served in the chapel choir of René, King of Sicily and Duke of Anjou, who was then living in semi-retirement and devoting himself to artistic pursuits. “Good King René” died in 1480. The last document placing Josquin in Aix is dated 4 August 1481. In February 1483 he reappears in Condé to claim the land bequeathed to him in 1466. The next year, as noted above, he entered the service of Cardinal Ascanio Sforza, a Milanese aristocrat and churchman who made many trips to Rome accompanied by his full entourage.

For a period of about 40 years it was thought by modern scholars that Josquin had been at Milan much earlier than 1484. In 1956, the Italian musical bibliographer Claudio Sartori published an article in which he reported a document that attested to the arrival of “Iudochus de Picardia” as a biscantor, or singer of polyphony, at the Cathedral of Milan in 1459.12 This Iudochus (sometimes called Ioschinus in the documents) went from the cathedral to the personal chapel of Galeazzo Maria Sforza, the duke of Milan (and Ascanio’s brother) in 1474. Inasmuch as there was an already established connection between Josquin des Prez and Ascanio, the assumption that Galeazzo’s Iudochus—who hailed, like the famous composer, from Picardy—was in fact the same man was irresistibly attractive, for it managed to fill in a decade and a half of the composer’s early biography.

To make it possible for Josquin to have been a biscantor in 1459, Sartori postulated a birth date for him around 1440. There was no document to preclude the new birth date and it became an accepted fact, even though it introduced an unexplained anomaly into his biography: namely, that the works of the most famous composer of his time only began to appear in the extant sources when he was in his forties, normally the point at which a composer’s “late” period, in those days, began. It was not until 1998 that Mathews and Merkley were able to produce documents showing conclusively that Jossequin Lebloitte dit Desprez and Sartori’s Iudochus de Picardia (known to be active in Milan until 1479) had different fathers, and therefore had to be different men. (They also discovered documents attesting to the death of Iudochus in 1498.) Josquin’s birth date was duly re-emended to ca. 1450–55, just where the Belgian musicologist Edmund vander Straeten, the first modern scholar to attempt a reconstruction of the composer’s biography, had located it in 1882.13

That would put Josquin in his mid- to-late thirties when, as a document dated June 1489 attests, he joined the papal chapel choir in Rome. It was here, as a member of the most prestigious musical establishment in western Christendom, that he began to make his mark as a composer and his music began to circulate, most conspicuously in the output of Ottaviano Petrucci, the pioneering Venetian music printer. Petrucci’s initial offering, the Odhecaton, was issued in May 1501 and contained six carmina attributed to Josquin. In February 1502, the first printed music book devoted to a single composer (Liber primus missarum Josquini, “The first book of masses by Josquin”) came off Petrucci’s presses, followed in May by Motetti A numero cinquanta (“First book of motets, numbering fifty”), in which a motet by Josquin was given pride of place.

At this point Josquin seems to have left the papal service. In April, 1503, a document lists “Jusquino/Joschino cantore” as a member of the choirs attending Louis XII of France and Philip the Fair, Duke of Burgundy (and later King of Spain), at Lyons. That is the only literary evidence (besides Glareanus’s anecdotes) of Josquin’s possible service to the French royal court. Meanwhile, in September 1502, an agent from the court of Ercole (Hercules) d’Este, the Duke of Ferrara, advised his employer, in a letter that has become famous, to hire Isaac as Maistro della cappella rather than Josquin, since Isaac is “more sociable” and “composes new things more quickly,” while Josquin, though he “composes better,” does so “only when he pleases not when he is requested to, and has demanded 200 ducats in salary, while Isaac is content with 120.”14

Court payment records from June 1503 to April 1504 show that the Duke ignored his scout’s advice and hired Josquin. Duke Ercole has received much praise from historians for showing such keen artistic judgment, but he was probably acting on less lofty impulses. For one, there was the lure of conspicuous consumption—the same impulse that motivates the purchase of expensive designer jeans or luxury cars. Indeed, a rival scout had recommended Josquin to the Duke a month earlier, advising him that “there is neither lord nor king who will now have a better chapel than yours if Your Lordship sends for Josquin,” and that “by having Josquin in our chapel I want to place a crown upon this chapel of ours.”15 Lewis Lockwood, a scholar who did extensive research on the rich musical establishment at Ferrara, comments that Josquin was being touted to the Duke as “a crowning figure, and the implication is that, by hiring him, Ercole can aspire to higher status than most dukes can claim.” Very shrewdly, Lockwood noted a further implication: “the musician of great reputation can confer upon a patron the same measure of reflected glory that had traditionally been attributed to poets and painters.”16 This represented a new level of prestige for music itself, and Josquin was its protagonist. The Josquin legend had been born, and was already doing its historical work.

The most immediate evidence of that work was a Mass in which Josquin kept the implied promise to memorialize his patron the same way poets and painters had traditionally done it. One of his most famous and widely disseminated works, both in his own day and in ours, it bore the title Missa Hercules Dux Ferrariae (“The Mass of Hercules, Duke of Ferrara”) and was published by Petrucci in his second volume of Josquin Masses (1505), when—assuming dangerously for the moment that it was actually composed at Ferrara—the work was almost brand new. The Mass continued to circulate, in whole or in part, in manuscripts and prints until the 1590s. Since Josquin’s rediscovery by music historians, it has had several modern editions and many recordings. More than anything else, perhaps, this Mass has served to keep alive the name of Hercules, the Duke of Ferrara.

One of the reasons for the Mass’s popularity is the clever way in which Josquin fashioned its cantus firmus out of his patron’s name and title. It is an abstract series of pitches, usually presented in the tenor in long notes of equal value, arrived at by matching voces musicales (that is, solmization syllables) to the vowels (or vocali) in the phrase Hercules, Dux Ferrari(a)e, thus:


What Josquin was Really Like

ex. 14-3 “Hercules, Dux Ferrari(a)e” in musical notation

What Josquin was Really LikeWhat Josquin was Really Like

ex. 14-4 Josquin des Prez, Missa Hercules Dux Ferrariae, Hosanna

What Josquin was Really Like

fig. 14-3 Josquin, Vive le roy, from Canti C numero cento cinquanta (Venice: Petrucci, 1504), fols. 131v–132.

Ex. 14-4 is the Hosanna from the Missa Hercules, in which the soggetto cavato dalle vocali (“the theme carved out of the vowels,”17 as the Italian theorist Zarlino would later call it) is put through some basic exercises like transposition (from the natural hexachord up a fifth to the hard hexachord) and diminution. fig. 14-3 shows a page from Petrucci’s third carmina collection (Canti C, 1504), containing another piece based on a soggetto cavato, a little fanfare, almost certainly meant for a wind band, based on the vowels of the phrase Vive le roy (“Long live the King!”), treating the V, as per Latin usage, as a U (and the y as an i), thus:

This bit of fluff is actually the only evidence we have, beyond the single document and Glareanus’s gossip, to place Josquin at the court of Louis XII, the only patron he is supposed to have served whom one would have greeted with the words of this soggetto. But of course there is no reason why the king so greeted had to be the composer’s patron. The evidence is no “harder” than the stories.

By May 1504, Josquin is listed as provost, or head canon, of the collegiate church of Notre Dame in his ancestral home town of Condé-sur-l’Escaut. There he died on August 27, 1521, probably aged about seventy. Josquin had done as many aging musicians of eminence, like Machaut and Du Fay, had done before him: he retired to a clerical sinecure, where he continued to compose on commission up to the end of his life.

At the very end, again like Du Fay, he also composed for himself. His will, discovered by the musicologist Herbert Kellman in the French government archives at Lille and first described in 1976, contains a provision that after his death the Notre Dame choir was to stop before his house during all festival processions and sing his polyphonic setting of the Lord’s Prayer in his memory.18 The beginning of that eloquent piece, composed in six tightly woven parts and found only in sources that were copied or printed after the composer’s death, is shown in Ex. 14-5. It may be fairly taken as his swan song and dated around 1520.

Thus Josquin’s professional career spanned some 45 busily creative years and yielded a preserved output that dwarfed that of any earlier composer (plus an attributed output, as we have seen, that dwarfed the preserved one). The hugely, exasperatingly ironical fact is that, with only a tiny number of exceptions or possible exceptions like the ones discussed above, we cannot correlate Josquin’s enormous musical legacy with the sketchy biographical framework just outlined, and so we have no reliable chronology of his work.

Lacking the evidence on which to base a strictly documentary chronology, historians have had to construct a stylistic chronology—that is, a chronology based on our ideas about the evolution of Josquin’s style. And here we have to contend not only with the absence of facts but with the presence of myth. It is no wonder that many mistakes have been made and many agonizing reappraisals necessitated. We are still nowhere near a wholly reliable chronology and unlikely ever to reach it.

What Josquin was Really Like

ex. 14-5 Josquin des Prez, Pater noster, mm. 1–17

But the ultimately encouraging thing about mistakes is that one learns from them. The history of Josquin chronology has not yet produced a good Josquin chronology, but it has yielded a number of excellent cautionary tales. They tell us more about ourselves, and the way in which we come to know what we know, than they do about Josquin. One of them is particularly rich in implications about the relationship between perception and prejudice.


(10) Osthoff, Josquin Desprez, Vol. II, 39.

(11) L. Matthews and P. Merkley, “Iudochus de Picardia and Jossequin Lebloitte dit Desprez: The Names of the Singer(s),” Journal of Musicology XVI (1998): 200–226.

(12) C. Sartori, “Josquin des Prés, cantore del duomo di Milano (1459–1472),” Annales Musicologiques IV (1956): 55–83.

(13) See Emond vander Straeten, La Musique aux Pays-Bas avant le XIXe Siècle, Vol. VI (Brussels: G.-A. van Trigt, 1882; rpt., New York: Dover, 1969), 79n.

(14) Letter from Gian di Artiganova to Hercules of Ferrara, 2 September 1502, in Osthoff, Josquin Desprez, Vol. I (Tutzing: H. Schneider, 1962), 211–12. For a translation of the full text of the letter, see Piero Weiss and Richard Taruskin, Music in the Western World: A History in Documents, 2nd ed., p. 84.

(15) Girolamo da Sestola (alias “il Coglia”), letter to Hercules of Ferrara, 14 August 1502, quoted and translated in Lewis Lockwood, Music in Renaissance Ferrara, 1400–1505 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984), p. 203.

(16) Lockwood, Music in Renaissance Ferrara, p. 204.

(17) Gioseffo Zarlino, Le istitutioni harmoniche, Vol. III (Venice, 1558), p. 66.

(18) Herbert Kellman, “Josquin and the Courts of the Netherlands and France: The Evidence of the Sources,” in Lowinsky and Blackburn, Josquin des Prez, p. 208.

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. 25 Oct. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-014005.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 25 Oct. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-014005.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 25 Oct. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-014005.xml