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Josquin Desprez: Josquin Desprez (b.? Picardy, c. 1440; d. Conde-sur-l'Escaut, 27 Aug 1521).
This composer's family name occurs in many forms, in one word or two but with 'z' rather than 's', is thought to be the one he himself favoured, since it occurs as an anagram in the text of one of his motets, Illibata dei virgo nutrix. He was in any case most often referred to during his lifetime, as since, by his rather unusual first name, a Picard diminutive of Josse (Joseph). This perhaps indicates his exceptional standing among the composers of his generation, a generation which includes such famous names as Obrecht, Isaac, Brumel and Pierre de la Rue, but which he effortlessly dominates by the variety, breadth and intensity of his music.
Considering his prominence it is surprising that we do not know precisely when or where he was born. If the Josquin Desprez who is documented as a singer at Milan Cathedral from 1459 was indeed the composer, as is now generally accepted, he can hardly have been born much later than 1440, nor, since he is known to have died in 1521, much earlier; eighty years is an exceptional life-span for the period. Various traditions and scraps of evidence put his birthplace in Picardy, in the county of Hainault, in the county of Vermandois (around St Quentin) and in the diocese of Cambrai, in which he was ordained. All that can be said with certainty is that he came from the general area of Cambrai, which was then an episcopal city within the Holy Roman Empire, but probably from the French side of the nearby border.
There are various indications that Josquin Desprez held Johannes Ockeghem and his music in particular respect, and it is tempting to postulate a period of service under Ockeghem in the French royal chapel, but no direct evidence for this has yet been found. Josquin Desprez was at any rate almost certainly at Milan by 1459, and in 1473 was accepted into the personal chapel of the new duke, Galeazzo Maria Sforza, a passionate music-lover who declared his intention of assembling the best chapel in Europe and was prepared to recruit singers for it from as far away as England. After Galeazzo's assassination (22th September 1476) this group of singers was allowed to decline. Many of its members took service at the nearby court of Ferrara or in the Papal Chapel at Rome. Josquin Desprez himself joined this latter group, but not until 1486; in the interval it seems likely that he spent some time at least in the service of Galeazzo's younger brother, Cardinal Ascanio Sforza, who became the Milanese dynasty's political representative at the court of Rome. Josquin Desprez's presence in the Papal Chapel is documented (with a two-year gap between 1487 and 1489) from September 1486 until at least November 1494; he thus served two popes, Innocent VIII and his more celebrated successor Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia), at the height of Rome's late-medieval magnificence and corruption, and witnessed the first of the French invasions which were to reshape the political map of Italy.
After another gap in the evidence Josquin Desprez reappears north of the Alps in 1502, this time in the orbit of the court of Louis XII of France, with whom he is connected by various anecdotes, unfortunately undated. He was also in communication with the court of Ferrara, and was employed there at a very handsome salary from April 1503 to April 1504 as the aged Duke Ercole I's maestro di cappella. In the following month he had already returned north once more, by now as Provost of the collegiate church of Notre Dame at Conde-sur-1'Escaut. Conde is now in France but lay at that time within the borders of Hainault and thus of the Empire; it may well have been due to Josquin Desprez's influence that its collegiate church apparently maintained a more sumptuous level of ecclesiastical ceremony than any of its more richly endowed neighbours. Here Josquin Desprez spent, so far as is known, the last years of his long life, though he may have had some contact with the French court and that of the Archduchess Margaret of Austria, the Regent of the Low Countries. He died on the 27th August 1521 according to his epitaph; this is preserved in a manuscript at Lille, but his tomb, together with his church, was destroyed at the French Revolution.
That Josquin Desprez was regarded as towering over his contemporaries even during his lifetime is proved not only by flattering references in the writings of theorists and of such diverse literary figures as Castiglione, Rabelais and Luther, but by the fact that Ottaviano dei Petrucci, the inventor of music-printing and the first music-publisher, devoted three volumes to his masses (1502, 1505, 1514) and no more than one to those of any other composer. This high reputation lasted throughout the 16th century, particularly in Germany, but went into eclipse thereafter. In the late 18th century Charles Burney began to re-establish Josquin Desprez's place in his history of music, but the real foundations of his present recognition were laid by the musicologist A. W. Ambros (1868). Since then a complete edition of his music has appeared (ed. Smijers and Antonowycz), and the work of many scholars has contributed to analysing and endorsing his greatness as a composer.
The bulk of Josquin Desprez's surviving work is sacred: some eighteen masses and about eighty motets (many inauthentic works in both categories have been attributed to him by unscrupulous publishers and careless collectors over the centuries); there are also a number of instrumental pieces and settings of secular French texts. One of Josquin Desprez's achievements was to take the largely linear art of Dufay and Ockeghem and to infuse it with a stronger sense of harmonic direction, a greater expressive power. This is particularly conspicuous in the motets, in which he sets a wider variety of texts, liturgical and non-liturgical, than any of his contemporaries, and with a new sensitivity both to the rhythm of the words and to their expressive meaning that is entirely characteristic of the Renaissance. The radiant tenderness of Ave Maria ... virgo serena, the pathos of Hue me sydereo or Absalom fili mi, the austere grandeur of Pater nosier are all immediately recognisable to a 20th-century listener. Less immediately obvious, perhaps, is the constructive strength and imaginative vitality displayed in the masses, where Josquin Desprez's mastery of contrapuntal technique (especially every form of canonic writing) combines with his subtle sense of rhythm and texture and his ability to spin apparently self-generating melodies to fill the broadest canvas of his day with no trace of monotony. It is above all his ability to infuse rationally controlled musical structures with the breath of individual fantasy that makes Josquin Desprez the supreme representative of the high Renaissance in music.
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