Josquin Desprez

Born: 1440

Died: 1521

Josquin Desprez

A biography

All other composers of the late 15th century are eclipsed by Josquin. Considering how famous he was, it’s strange that no one is sure when or where he was born, although we do know that during his lifetime he was always referred to by his first name, which itself is a pet name for Josse or Joseph; hence reference books always put him under ‘J’.

What little is certain about his early life suggests that he may have sung in the French Royal Chapel. In 1459 he moved to Italy and joined the private choir of the Duke Galeazzo Sforza in Milan before service in the Papal Chapel between 1487 and 1494. Why this life devoted to church music? In common with many others at this time, Josquin believed that artistic gifts were a divine loan to be repaid to God in the form of loyal service.

Unlike others, he was fond of the good things in life, liked hunting, fine food and wine and, most unusually, had a sense of fun and humour. This breaks into some of his music, a combination of the formal Italian and the boisterous Flemish; a musician who, in painting terms, could produce a Raphael Madonna with the same ease as a Bruegel peasant.

After 1502 Josquin’s connections were with the chapels and courts of Duke Hercules I at Ferrara, Louis XII, the Archduchess Margaret of Austria and the Emperor Maximilian I – you can see how in demand he was! – ending his life as Provost (religious overseer) of Notre Dame church in Condé-sur-l’Escaut in Hainault. The epitaph on his tomb is preserved in a manuscript at Lille, though both the tomb itself and his church were destroyed during the French Revolution.

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