Josquin Immortal

500 Years of a Composer in the Making

Bestriding the transition from the late medieval era to the Renaissance, Josquin des Prez (c. 1450–1521) is one of the few “early” composers who didn’t need to be rediscovered, because he was never forgotten. Like Palestrina (c. 1525–1594), the towering luminary of High Renaissance choral polyphony, Josquin became a byword for compositional rectitude and a model for generations of composers, teachers, and theorists. This posthumous mystique ensured that his fame and influence endured even during periods when his music fell out of fashion and out of hearing. Like most great artists, Josquin has been continually re-envisioned over the centuries in light of changing modes of interpretation and historical understanding, canons of beauty, and compositional practice.

Half a millennium after his death, the time is ripe to reconsider this rich reception history of Josquin and his music, a term that embraces everything from performance practice and audience responses to historical and textual analysis. In particular, the recent quincentenary offers an opportunity to reflect on how our ancestors sang, listened to, and thought about the eighteen masses featured in The Tallis Scholars’ four-concert tribute.

Sixteenth-Century Hero Worship

The exalted position that Josquin occupies in modern musical scholarship is rooted in the attitudes of his contemporaries. Martin Luther’s oft-cited encomium—“Josquin is the master of the notes, he made them do what he wanted; the other composers had to do what the notes wanted.”—reflects his time-honored image as an autonomous, almost godlike genius. Heinrich Glarean larded his influential textbook Dodecachordon of 1547 with examples gleaned from Josquin’s works. “No one has more effectively expressed the passions of the soul in music than this symphonist,” the Swiss theorist explained; “no one has been able to compete in grace and facility on an equal footing with him, just as there is no Latin poet superior to [Publius Vergilius] Maro.” Glarean’s kicker—linking Josquin to Vergil—was a commonplace of sixteenth-century reception history. Another writer dubbed him “the parent of music, as Homer is of poetry.” Still others ranked him alongside Michelangelo.

“No one has more effectively expressed the passions of the soul in music than this symphonist”—Heinrich Glarean, 1547

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Glarean’s Dodecachordon of 1547 (© Austrian National Library)

Josquin even put in an appearance in Baldassare Castiglione’s bestselling Book of the Courtier of 1528, where a certain motet is dismissed as “worthless” until his authorship is revealed. So marketable was the composer’s name that dozens of works were dubiously attributed to him, creating a snarl that modern musicologists have diligently striven to untangle. One publisher of the day quipped that Josquin was said to have written “more compositions after his death than during his life.”

Some 1,000 sixteenth-century books and manuscripts contain works ascribed to the Franco-Flemish composer, laying the groundwork for a veritable Josquin industry.

In fact, the rise of music publishing in the early 1500s was a significant factor in Josquin’s unprecedented celebrity. The first printed collection devoted exclusively to the music of a living composer, Ottaviano Petrucci’s Misse Josquin (Josquin Masses), appeared in 1502 and sold so well that two more volumes were issued in short order. By one estimate, some 1,000 sixteenth-century books and manuscripts contain works ascribed to the Franco-Flemish composer, laying the groundwork for a veritable Josquin industry. Although performances of his music had begun to decline by the fiftieth anniversary of his death, as Palestrina’s star began its meteoric ascent, he was by then securely enshrined in the pantheon of immortals.

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A late 16th-century printing workshop (print by Philips Galle © Rijksmuseum Amsterdam)

Josquin’s reputation for sensitive text setting particularly endeared him to Renaissance humanists, who held him up as a paragon in an art form that, unlike poetry, painting, and sculpture, could not demonstrably trace its lineage to classical antiquity. When poet Pierre de Ronsard lauded him in 1560 as a worthy disciple of the “ancients,” he meant it as the highest praise, “because the music of the ancients has always been esteemed the most divine, the more so since it was composed in a happier age, less contaminated by the vices that reign in this last age of iron.”

Icon of the Enlightenment

Like their humanist forebears, the intellectuals and tastemakers of the Enlightenment had a vital interest in investing the music of contemporary composers with historical authority, the better to demonstrate that they lived “in the best of all possible worlds.” Writing amid the religious upheavals of the Counter-Reformation, Glarean and his fellow Catholics had extolled Josquin in part as a pious Christian who not only sang in the papal choir but commendably used Catholic plainchant as the basis for many of his masses and other works. To his more secular-minded Enlightenment champions, by contrast, Josquin epitomized the ageless qualities they sought in the composers of their own day, and his music, while undeniably dated in some respects, provided a firm foundation for the wonders of modern civilization.

In the late 1700s, for example, Johann Nikolaus Forkel devoted no fewer than sixty-five pages of his pathbreaking Allgemeine Geschichte der Musik (General History of Music) to depicting Josquin as a heroic genius whose “great natural gifts led him, as it were, beyond, and set him apart from, the rules of art generally accepted in his time.” Nevertheless, by eighteenth-century standards Josquin frequently transgressed the bounds of good taste, displaying a regrettable fondness for arcane contrapuntal “contrivances” and other “affectations” that made much music of his era “unenjoyable for our times.”

“Indeed, the laws and difficulties of Canon, Fugue, Augmentation, Diminution, Reversion, and almost every other species of learned contrivance were never so well observed, or happily vanquished, as by Josquin.”—Charles Burney, 1782

Charles Burney’s assessment of Josquin in his own General History of Music is equally representative of received opinion around the 250th anniversary of the composer’s death. Like Forkel, Burney professed to see “this ingenious, learned, and voluminous composer” warts and all. In the Englishman’s view, Josquin’s “compositions for the church, though long laid aside, continue still to merit the attention of the curious. 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.” Despite such vestiges of “Gothic pedantry,” Burney opined that Josquin “may justly be called the father of modern harmony” and “the Type of all Musical excellence at the time in which he lived.” Furthermore, anyone who examines a Josquin score “will find that no notes have had admission by chance, or for the sake of remplissage [filling out], but that, like the prints of Hogarth, every thing not only contributes to the principal design and harmony of the whole, but has a specific character, and meaning in itself.” In sum, Burney had not seen “a single movement” by Josquin “which is not stamped with some mark of the great master. There is such a manifest superiority in his powers, such a simple majesty in his ideas, and such dignity of design, as wholly justify the homage he received.”

The Renaissance Beethoven

It remained for the nineteenth century to mount Josquin on a permanent pedestal and anoint him as a prototype of the quintessential Romantic genius, Beethoven. By Josquin’s 300th anniversary, scattered attempts were being made to revive his music in performance, as evidenced by the choral concerts conducted in Paris in the 1820s by the early music pioneer Alexandre Choron. (Choron had up to 200 singers at his disposal, as compared to the two dozen or so men who constituted the Sistine Chapel Choir when Josquin was a chorister there.)

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Early music pioneer Alexandre Choron (© Bibliothèque national de France)

At the same time, music historians like Giuseppe Baini and Raphael Georg Kiesewetter persisted in highlighting the now-familiar “deficiencies” of Josquin’s taste and technique. In Baini’s case, this emphasis served the broader agenda of identifying his compatriot Palestrina as the fons et origo of musical excellence. “Josquin had outstanding talents which could have brought all manner of good things to music. Yet he capriciously squandered the gift bestowed on him on trifles,” the Italian wrote with chauvinistic disdain. Kiesewetter followed suit in his widely read history of European music, accusing Josquin of “having practiced tricks and contrivances to an inordinate degree.” Franz Brendel’s popular history of music in Italy, Germany, and France, first published in 1851, also parroted the party line—but the tide would soon turn.

“In Josquin we see the first appearance in music history of a composer who strikes one, predominantly, with the impression of genius”—August Wilhelm Ambros, 1868

When August Wilhelm Ambros wrote in 1868 that Josquin’s career marked “the first appearance in music history of a composer who strikes one, predominantly, with the impression of genius,” he did more than upset a long-established scholarly consensus; he opened the door to a wholesale reappraisal of early Renaissance polyphony. Ambros’s statement was none the less powerful for relying on an anachronistic Romantic conception of genius. (In fact, the word that Glarean and his contemporaries had applied to Josquin was ingenium, Latin for “natural talent.”) Just in time for his 350th anniversary, Josquin took his rightful place in the Western musical canon. The composer memorialized in Ambros’s landmark Geschichte der Musik (History of Music) was indeed the Beethoven of the Renaissance, a heroic iconoclast who, by dint of his “inner spiritual power” alone, “tore himself more and more free from those bitter archaisms and succeeded finally [in producing] pure-gold, dross-free works which stand in the full brightness of the sun.”

With a further nod to Beethoven, Ambros divided Josquin’s life into three style periods, early, middle, and late, as if to bestow the final seal of approval on this hitherto misunderstood figure. His book helped spark a mini-Josquin revival in the late 1800s, led by ensembles such as the Amsterdam A Capella Choir, Charles Bordes’s Chanteurs de Saint Gervais in Paris, and Frank Damrosch’s Musical Arts Society in New York.

Apotheosis and Demystification

The development of phonograph and radio technology in the early 1900s had momentous consequences for Josquin’s reception history.

The development of phonograph and radio technology in the early 1900s, like the music-publishing revolution four centuries earlier, had momentous consequences for Josquin’s reception history. As the modern early music revival gathered steam, performances, recordings, and broadcasts made the composer’s music available to more people than ever before. Scholars who knew Josquin’s works only as notes on a page experienced epiphanies akin to the one the German musicologist Friedrich Blume described upon hearing an impromptu student performance of the Missa Pange lingua in 1927. (For want of a more up-to-date score, the students used Ambros’s old edition from the 1860s. Blume decided to make amends by initiating Das Chorwerk, a pioneering series of publications of Renaissance choral music.)

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Friedrich Blume’s 1929 edition of Josquin’s Missa Pange lingua for the series “Das Chorwerk” (© Creative Commons)

Three years later Josquin made his recording debut in Parlophone’s historical anthology 2000 Jahre Musik (2000 Years of Music), with the Berlin State Academy for Church and School Music Choir singing an excerpt from the Missa Pange lingua. The first complete recording of a Josquin mass, also the Missa Pange lingua, appeared in 1955. No longer the exclusive preserve of specialists and connoisseurs, Josquin’s music was rapidly becoming mainstream, even as the composer himself underwent a second apotheosis.

Josquin’s 450th anniversary in 1971 was highlighted by a well-publicized festival-conference in New York City that has been described as a “musicological blockbuster.” The proximity to the Beethoven bicentennial bash a year earlier presented an irresistible opportunity to pair the two composers yet again. Edward Lowinsky, the conference organizer, noted the “peculiar affinity between the personalities and the creative characteristics of the great genius of the fifteenth century who came out of the Middle Ages and moved toward the new world of the Renaissance, and the composer of the eighteenth century who moved from classicism to romanticism, creating in the process a musical amalgam of an utterly unique character.”

The wheel of Josquin’s reception history has turned full circle. The music hasn’t changed, but we have, and so has the way we think about and listen to his masses, motets, and other works.

In the wake of the conference, musicologists redoubled their efforts to weed out spurious works lurking in Josquin’s catalogue; as a result, the number of masses deemed worthy of his genius was reduced by almost 40 percent, from the twenty-nine formerly attributed to him to the eighteen that The Tallis Scholars perform at the Pierre Boulez Saal. In recent years, scholars have questioned not only Josquin’s authorship of specific works, but the very concept of authorial privilege as it relates to the Renaissance. It has even been suggested that Josquin’s masterpieces were written by more than one hand, in a collaborative process similar to that of the workshops headed by the master artists to whom he was routinely compared in the sixteenth century.

And so, in a sense, the wheel of Josquin’s reception history has turned full circle. The music hasn’t changed, but we have, and so has the way we think about and listen to Josquin’s masses, motets, and other works. Wanda Landowska grasped this essential truth more than a century ago and expressed it in terms that would have struck a familiar chord with the composer’s contemporaries. “Sooner or later, everyone will understand that a work of Josquin des Prez is well worth a Breughel,” the harpsichordist predicted in 1909. “Then they will help us to erect a museum where we shall be able to hear and admire all our Titians, our Velasquezes, and our Raphaels, just as painters are able to admire theirs.”

A former performing arts editor for Yale University Press, Harry Haskell is a program annotator for Carnegie Hall in New York, the Edinburgh Festival, and other venues, and the author of several books, including The Early Music Revival: A History, winner of the 2014 Prix des Muses awarded by the Fondation Singer-Polignac.

Essays & Videos

Essays & Videos

Simon Marmion, Scenes from the Life of St. Bertin (1459, detail) © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie (photo: Christoph Schmidt)

Take a look behind the scenes and join The Tallis Scholars for a rehearsal in preparation for their concerts at the Pierre Boulez Saal! In addition, a selection of essays on various topics from the seemingly inexhaustible cosmos of Renaissanc music adds a few more layers to the picture.

Peter Phillips

Renaissance Perspectives

What would Josquin des Prez and architect Filippo Brunelleschi have talked about if they had ever met? Read Peter Phillips’s thoughts on a hypothetical conversation between two of the most influential artists of the Renaissance, exploring fascinating parallels and paradoxes between music and visual arts.

The Tallis Scholars in Rehearsal

Take a look behind the scenes: The Tallis Scholars invited us to join one of their rehearsals in preparation for their concerts at the Pierre Boulez Saal. We learned a lot about Josquin, the singers, and the history of the extraordinary ensemble.

Harry Haskell

Josquin Immortal

Why do we still perform, record, celebrate, and listen to Josquin’s music half a millennium after his death? Harry Haskell looks back on the unique history of the composer’s reception through the centuries and sheds light on what the generations before us have made of his genius.

Ivan Moody

Sounding Out Josquin

With their recording of Josquin’s Missa Pange lingua in 1987, Peter Phillips and The Tallis Scholars started what today stands as one of the most ambitious early-music projects in recording history. Following the final release of the series in 2020, Phillips spoke with composer and musicologist Ivan Moody for Gramophone magazine about how it all started and where the journey took them.

Anthony Parr

Mapping Renaissance Europe

The span of Josquin’s life is roughly framed by two momentous events in European history: the invention of the printing press around 1450, and Luther’s 1517 attack on corruption in the Catholic church. His career was essentially a product of what art historians call the quattrocento, the era of the 1400s that first saw the revival of arts and learning known as the European Renaissance. Anthony Parr explores a fascinating and turbulent period of innovation.

Jenny Körber

Himmlische Töne – Irdische Klänge (In German)

As much as the difference between music and painting has been emphasized since antiquity, their close connection has also been pointed out again and again. But in Christian art, music and sound have always been closely associated with the divine and thus with the unrepresentable per se. So how can music and heavenly sounds be represented in the earthly medium of painting? Art historian Jenny Körber seeks and finds answers in a painting by the Venetian painter Vittore Carpaccio.

Peter Phillips

A Performer’s Guide to Josquin’s Masses

Peter Phillips, founder and director of The Tallis Scholars, has explored and championed Josquin’s masses like few other musicians today—both from a performer’s and from a scholar’s perspective. In 2018, he distilled his experience and knowledge in an extensive essay for the Musical Times, providing in-depth analysis and insights into each of the masses. This is our advanced course on Josquin—dive in and lose yourself in the music!

Michael Kube

Josquin’s Motets and Chansons (In German)

In addition to his 18 mass settings, Josquin wrote numerous motets and chansons during his lifetime, which equally secured his enduring fame. Michael Kube presents a selection of his most fascinating contributions to these genres.