By Jesse Rodin
No figure in Western music poses a greater challenge to the writing of history than Josquin des Prez (ca. 1450–1521). That’s because there is no composer of comparative fame — musicians regularly speak Josquin’s name in the same breath as Bach, Beethoven, or Brahms — about whom so very little is known. By “very little” I’m not referring to second-order stuff, like how often he composed, what his favorite dessert was, or whom he took to bed. No, with this composer we face much more basic questions: What pieces did he write? Where was he when? Who was Josquin?
The problem is one of documentation. Most of the biographical information we have about late-medieval musicians comes from pay records, account registers, and official church documents, few of which have survived. As a result, piecing together a 15th-century composer’s biography often means connecting a series of all too disparate dots, with the help of inference, conjecture, and — let’s face it — wild guesses. In the case of Josquin this picture is unusually cloudy, not least because his name was relatively common in French-speaking lands. At 500 years distance, it’s all too easy to confuse Josquin des Prez with other contemporary Josquins, among them several musicians.
By around 1500, “our” Josquin was the most famous composer in Europe and very much in the right place at the right time. Thanks to the novel technology of printing, polyphonic music was about to reach a wider audience than ever before. One might reasonably surmise that this circumstance would solve our problem. After all, we know his music traveled more widely than any composer who’d ever lived, and we still have lots of it. We know it endured longer than ever before (his works continued to be performed regularly until at least the early 17th century). And we know he was idolized by 16th-century musicians and music-lovers; this period witnessed a proliferation of anecdotes as colorful as they are rich in biographical detail. But if it’s the historical Josquin we’re after, this documentary treasure trove is deceptive. Ought we really to believe a piece is by Josquin if it first turns up in a publication printed decades after his death by someone who stood to gain financially by unleashing a new “Josquin” work to the public? And can we trust a story about Josquin’s biography — say, a tall tale about how difficult he was to work with — written by someone who couldn’t possibly have known him? Documents of this kind are invaluable as testimony to Josquin’s posthumous reception, but offer little help in accessing the historical figure.
There are several possible ways out of this conundrum. We could play one of scholarship’s dirtiest tricks: tell a fleshed-out story that conveniently neglects the tenuous assumptions that underpin it. Or we could pronounce, in a postmodern vein as anti-intellectual as it is passé, that authorship no longer matters (“who cares who wrote it?”), or that seeking information about the historical Josquin amounts to “fetishizing” him. Josquin scholarship has at times fallen into these traps, but we need not do so. We have a third option: to treat gaps in our knowledge as an opportunity to confront methodological, historiographical, and epistemological problems with uncommon candor. This means acknowledging with unprecedented openness the uncertainties that swirl around this composer while also bringing to bear the full force of our intellectual capacities in order to negotiate the line between what we know and what we don’t.
Today marks the 491st anniversary of Josquin’s death. We might take advantage of this moment to commune with the bedrock of material we do have — above all, the music that made him famous (chiefly Latin-texted sacred pieces and French chansons). Even if we confine ourselves to the works we can be all but certain he composed, Josquin continues to astonish. His compositions combine unprecedented technical wizardry with an eloquent and often deeply moving melodic style. For such eloquence one need look no further than Pater noster–Ave Maria, a six-voice setting that Josquin specified in his will should be sung outside his house for all church processions in perpetuity. Those processions have long since been forgotten. Josquin’s house no longer stands. But we can still experience the way he lingers over the last line (“Ora pro nobis peccatoribus / ut cum electis te videamus”), obsessively repeating a falling-third gesture — a Josquin trademark — with a quiet intensity no listener is likely to forget.
Jesse Rodin is Assistant Professor of Music at Stanford University. He has published widely on music of the Renaissance and his latest book is Josquin’s Rome: Hearing and Composing in the Sistine Chapel. In 2010 Rodin received the Noah Greenberg Award in recognition of his work combining scholarship and performance. Rodin directs the Josquin Research Project, a digital humanities team developing tools for accessing and analyzing Renaissance music.
Image credit: a facsimile copy of the famous woodcut from Petrus Opmeer’s Opvs chronographicvm orbis vniversi a mvndi exordio vsqve ad annvm M.DC.XI. (Antwerp, 1611). Source: Wikimedia Commons.