Josquin's Biography


Richard Sherr


‘Things are seldom what they seem’, wrote W. S. Gilbert, a remark which, we have learned to our chagrin, applies perfectly to the biography of Josquin des Prez. It all depends on names and what they seem to mean. What’s in a name? Or rather, what’s in a first name without a last name or with two last names or three? The biography of Josquin des Prez stands and occasionally falls on names and the annoying habit the creators of the historical and musical records of the 15th and 16th centuries had of referring to individuals only by their first names, or by the first names with a generic place of origin (‘de francia’, etc.). That a composer named Josquin (first name) des Prez (last name) existed is of course undeniable. This person and his music are the subject of this volume. But can we say anything about this composer besides that he composed (or did not compose) this that or the other piece of music? Can the composer who exists in musical sources (manuscripts, prints, treatises) be related to someone in the historical record (archival documents, literary texts)? Making such relationships is not always a direct or easy task (nor is it necessarily destined to be successful) and always requires a certain number of compromises and accepted assumptions. With regard to Josquin des Prez, the reasoning goes something like this. First we agree to agree that:


1. There was only one composer known by the full name ‘Josquin des Prez’, the first and last names rendered in various ways in French, Italian, and Latin. Attributions in musical sources or theoretical treatises to this full name represent the conscious attempt on the part of the attributer to refer to this one person (whether they were right or wrong in their attributions is irrelevant in this context). References in the historical record formed by financial, beneficial and legal documents as well as diplomatic and private correspondence to a composer called ‘Josquin des Prez’ refer to this individual.


2. Since most composers of the late 15th century actually made their living first by being singers, second by being clerics, (reversing this order once they retired) references to the historical record to a singer and/or cleric called ‘Josquin des Prez’ refer to the same person as the composer.


3. References to a composer, singer and/or cleric called simply ‘Josquin’ (without a last name) in musical sources or the historical record may or may not refer to Josquin des Prez, depending on our understanding of the context of the reference. These references unfortunately constitute the majority of the data.


Using these criteria, the basic outline of Josquin’s biography was established by the time of Osthoff’s monograph in 1962. The foundations of that outline were:


1) That the ‘Joschino de Picardia’ or ‘Joschino cantore’ who was in the court chapel of Duke Galeazzo Maria Sforza of Milan in the 1470s up until the duke’s assassination in 1476, and who made a trip to St Antoine de Vienne in 1479 is Josquin des Prez.


2) That the ‘Judocus de Francia’ who was a ‘biscantor’ in the cathedral of Milan in 1459 and in the 1460s (‘Judocus’ is a Latin rendering of ‘Josse’, the name from which ‘Josquin’ [‘little Josse’] is derived) is the same person as the ‘Joschino de Picardia’ of the ducal chapel and therefore is Josquin des Prez. This is strongly suggested by the pay records of the cathedral and the court (shortly after ‘Judocus’ disappears in one, ‘Joschino’ turns up in the other). ‘Picardia’ suggested a geographical origin in the north of France near Cambrai and Condé, reinforcing the ‘de francia’ of the cathedral records. Since ‘biscantor’ meant the singer’s voice had changed, this suggested a birth date of ca. 1440.


3) That the ‘Jo. de Pratis’ who is listed in the roster of the papal chapel in Rome in September 1486 and who is recorded with absences until October 1487 is Josquin des Prez. This assumes that the abbreviation ‘Jo.’ stands for ‘Jodocus’, an alternative of ‘Judocus’; ‘Pratis’ is a Latin rendering of ‘Prez’.


4) That the ‘Judo. des pres’ who is listed in the roster of the papal chapel from June 1489 until March 1494 when the lists break off is Josquin des Prez. In these entries ‘Judo.’ stands for ‘Judocus’.


5) That the ‘Joschino cantore’ who was hired by Ercole d’Este, duke of Ferrara, to lead his singers in 1503 and who served in Ferrara until April 1504 is Josquin des Prez. Although a last name is in fact never given in the Ferrarese records, the statements in some of those documents that this ‘Joschino’ was a famous composer, makes it fairly certain that Josquin des Prez is meant.


6) That the ‘Sire Josse des Prez’ who was the provost of the collegiate church of Notre Dame in Condé-sur-Escaut in May 1508 and who was reported to have died in Condé in August 1521 is Josquin des Prez. There can be no doubt that this refers to the composer.


In the years since Osthoff’s monograph, up until 1996, various refinements were made to this picture, but none of them disturbed it in any major way. It was discovered that Josquin des Prez was a singer in the chapel of René of Anjou in Aix-en-Provence in 1477-78. Herbert Kellman showed that Josquin had visited Condé in 1483, became provost of Condé in 1504 immediately upon leaving Ferrara, and that the composer was resident in Condé until his death, which Kellman could substantiate as having taken place in 1521. Jeremy Noble provided information about Josquin’s ecclesiastical benefices received when he was in Rome. That Josquin is called a cleric of Cambrai in those documents along with Kellman’s findings substantiated the ‘Picardy’ often given as the composer’s place of origin, although the exact place of birth could not be pinned down, and also seemed to reinforce the connection of the Milanese ‘Joschino di Picardia" and Josquin des Prez. Lewis Lockwood clarified the dates of Josquin’s service in Ferrara and showed that the connection with Ferrara began as early as 1501. More or less plausible suggestions posited connections with the French court in the 1480s and early 16th century as well as with Cardinal Ascanio Sforza in the 1480s and 90s. Various other ‘Josquins’ were shown not to be the composer.


This chronology fit nicely with what was perceived to be the development of Josquin’s musical style. In particular, service in Milan in the 1470s meant that Josquin was a participant, along with Loyset Compère and Gaspar van Weerbecke, in creating the particular ‘Milanese style’ evident in the motetti missales, a genre to which Josquin appears to have contributed several hefty examples. This Milanese style has direct implications for the style shift that occurred in the late 15th century resulting in the prevailing technique of syntactic imitation in all music, for which Josquin has long been given credit. A long stay in Milan seemed to fit the musical record perfectly and all discussions of Josquin’s music have started with the assumption of early works written for Milan.


Yet doubts remained. Some scholars have been uncomfortable with the disparity, caused by the old chronology, between a birth date ca. 1440 and the sources of Josquin’s music, the earliest of which can be dated in the late 1480s or early 1490s, since it implies that the most famous composer of the late 15th century did not have any music in circulation until he was in his 50s (and was therefore old by the standards of the day). Was he a late starter? Did he keep his music out of circulation for a long time? If he did, where did his reputation come from? This certainly does not match the source/employment situations of his contemporaries. Obrecht was born in 1457. When he was 23, he had assumed a position of responsibility as master of the choirboys in Bergen op Zoom and had begun his career as itinerant succentor/master of the choirboys (but never simple singer), moving among the important collegiate churches and cathedrals of the Netherlands . By the time he was 30, his music had a wide enough circulation that he was invited to Ferrara by Ercole d’Este, who certainly could not have heard of him if his music had not been in circulation. He was in fact, as Rob C. Wegman points out, more famous than Josquin in the 1480s. If the chronology were correct, we must assume that Josquin, at the same age (20 to 30) was a singer in the cathedral of Milan with no reputation to speak of and no music in circulation. He would in fact be the only major composer of the period who, after his formative choirboy years, went on to spend years as a simple member of a cathedral choir instead of becoming a master of the choirboys or succentor or (the more likely route) joining the choir of a princely chapel. But all of these objections could be explained away without too much effort (we don’t know in detail the careers of all musicans of the time, Josquin might have restricted the transmission of his works, we do not have all the musical sources that were extant, etc.) and the doubts remained simple doubts and the standard chronology stood.


In the middle 1990s, however, the view of Josquin’s career before he joined the papal chapel began to change quickly and radically. Pamela F. Starr showed that all scholars had erred in thinking that the ‘Jo. de Pratis’ in the papal chapel lists of 1486 and 1487 was Josquin when in fact he was the composer Johannes Stockhem alias de Prato (‘Johannes’ is in fact the standard resolution of the abbreviation ‘Jo.’), meaning that the ‘Judo. des pres’ who is added to the chapel lists beginning in June 1489 represented in fact the first reference to the composer Josquin des Prez in the papal chapel. This produced a lacuna of about two years in the established biographical picture, but did not alter it all that much. But then came the explosion. In 1996, David Fallows expressed his doubts about the Milanese Josquin in print. In the same year, Adalbert Roth and the team of Lora Matthews and Paul Merkeley independently produced evidence showing that the ‘Joschino’ who was a singer in Milan is given the last name ‘de Kessalia’ (not ‘des Prez’) in ecclesiastical documents. In 1997, Matthews and Merkeley produced even more astounding archival evidence showing that Josquin des Prez indeed had another last name, but that it was Lebloitte, not de Kessalia, that his connections with Condé went back at least to 1466, that his father’s name was Gossard (while Josquin de Kessalia’s father’s name was Honodius), that ‘Josquin des Prez’ (first and last names) was in Milan in 1484 and a member of the household of Cardinal Ascanio Sforza and the possessor of a benefice in the diocese of Bourges. They showed further that Josquin was back in Milan in 1489 and called a ducal singer, before resigning his Bourges benefice and moving to the papal chapel in Rome.

Even with all the new findings, as late as August 1998, it was still possible to argue that the evidence did not clinch the case against the early Milanese Josquin although it raised grave doubts. But in August 1998, Matthews and Markeley closed the book on the early Milanese Josquin by discovering uncontrovertible evidence that the Joschino di Picardia/de Kessalia who was without question the singer in the duomo and the singer in the ducal chapel, died in 1498. We now must accept that there were two Josquins from Picardy, both clerics of the diocese of Cambrai, who were singers; one of them, Josquin de Kessalia, born ca. 1440, was in Milan, serving in the cathedral choir and the ducal chapel in 1459-1480, and may have stayed there until 1498. The other is the composer Josquin des Prez, now much more likely to have been born ca. 1450, who makes his first appearance in the historical record as a singer in the court of René of Anjou in Aix-en -Provence in 1477, and maddeningly overlaps with the Milanese Josquin in the 1480s. Things have not been what they seemed at all.


A number of biographical questions remain, of course.


1. We have lost Josquin’s early career. Will we find it again? When exactly was he born? Where was he in the years for which we have no documentation? Does the benefice in Bourges argue for a connection with the French royal chapel at the beginning of his career? Does the Bourges benefice have any bearing on the somewhat curious decision of the chapter of the cathedral of Bourges in 1508 to write letters and then send someone to ‘Picardy’ in order to find and convince ‘Dominus Josquin’ to become their master of the choirboys? Does it mean that "Dominus Josquin" is in fact Josquin des Prez?


2. When exactly did Josquin’s relationship with Ascanio Sforza begin and did he return to the cardinal’s household when he joined the papal chapel in 1489? Is the composer called ‘Josquin d’Ascanio’ really Josquin des Prez?


3. Where was Josquin in the years between 1494 when the papal records stop and 1501 when he is being contacted in France by Ferrarese agents? Was the by-then famous composer really the ‘Juschino nostro servitore’ in the Ascanio Sforza’s employ in 1498-99?

4. Finally, there is what I like to call the ‘evil twin theory’. Was the Milanese singer whose first name was ‘Josquin’ also a composer? At the moment there is no hard evidence of this (and most singers were not composers). But the possibility remains that we may yet uncover a doppelmeister situation, hence creating even more confusion regarding the authenticity of some of the works ascribed to ‘Josquin’ in musical sources, particularly the ones that are generally labeled ‘early’.