One of the greatest composers of the Renaissance, Josquin des Prez was born in the north of France and spent about two decades of his creative career in Italy. His first appearance in documents as a musician comes in 1477, when he is named as a singer in the court of Rene of Anjou in France. The early 1480s are largely unaccounted for, but by the middle of the decade he was working for Cardinal Ascanio Sforza of Milan, before moving to work for the papal chapel in Rome. After a period of employment at the Florentine court of Duke Ercoled’ Este in the early 1500s, he returned to France where he died.
Although biographical detail about Josquin is scant, including the exact date and place of his birth, there is ample evidence of his fame during his own day. Aristocratic patrons vied to have him in their employ, even passing over highly respected contemporaries who were known to be cheaper, easier to get along with, and more reliable about completing work on time. He was particularly admired for his mastery of counterpoint and his gift for expressing the meaning of words in his musical settings, an important goal of humanist composers. In the words of one commentator, “Josquin may be said to have been, in music, a prodigy of nature, just as our Michelangelo Buonarroti has been in architecture, painting and sculpture. Thus far there has not been anybody who in his compositions approaches Josquin. As with Michelangelo, among those who have been active in these his arts, he is still alone and without a peer. Both have opened the eyes of all those who delight in these arts or are to delight in them in the future.” One surviving portrait thought to be of Josquin is attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, and his death was mourned in several musical laments.
The invention of music printing during Josquin’s lifetime, coupled with his fame and popularity, ensured the preservation of a large number of his works and his enduring reputation today. Recent scholarship indicates some works formerly attributed to Josquin were, in fact, by other composers but published under Josquin’s name to ensure wider sales. As reported by one commentator toward the end of the period, “I recall that a certain famous man said that Josquin wrote more compositions after his death than during his life.”