Chapter 6

Chapter 6: Music of Franco-Flemish Composers, 1450-1520

Composer Biographies

Josquin Desprez

Born: 1470

Died: August 27, 1521, Condé-sur-l'Escaut, France

French/Franco-Flemish composer. Generally acknowledged as the greatest composer of the High Renaissance.

Martin Luther, who was knowledgeable about music, said of Josquin Desprez, "He alone is the master of the notes, they have to do as he bids them." Indeed, Josquin was acknowledged by nearly all his contemporaries as the greatest composer of his time. If so, he stands as the first among many great musicians, for the composers of what we often call the Netherlands school created one of the richest periods in Western musical history. His contemporaries—including Antoine Brumel (c. 1460–c. 1515), Pierre de la Rue (c. 1460–1518) and Loyset Compère (c. 1445–1518)—and the previous generation—led by Johannes Ockeghem (c. 1410–1497)—created a style of music that can rightly be compared to the art of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo.

As for Josquin himself, we know surprisingly little of his early life. We know that in the 1470s he began service in the court of Cardinal Ascanio Sforza and that by 1489 he was a member of the papal choir in Rome. But we know nothing of his early training, or even when he came to Italy (it was believed that he came in 1459 as a choirboy in the Milan cathedral, but it seems that this was a case of mistaken identity). Later in his life, he served Duke Ercole d'Este in Ferrara, and possibly King Louis XII of France. The final years of his life were spent in the town of Condé-sur-l'Escaut in northern France (possibly his birthplace). The rest of his biography is still subject to scholarly speculation.

What we do know is what Josquin's contemporaries knew: that he created wonderful music. What stands out most in this music is his care for the words. This is seen in part by the way he uses imitation to allow each voice to present the text before the texture becomes too dense to be clear. He also made use of homophonic textures to give the text added clarity. Some of his works, especially his masses, use the older cantus firmus technique where a borrowed melody creates a huge scaffolding upon which other melodies are constructed. Some of these pieces display a high level of technical complexity. At the same time, he could create pieces of marvelous simplicity and elegance, as he did so often in his motets and chansons.


  • Sacred works, including 18 masses (Missa La sol fa re mi, L'homme armé masses, Missa Pange lingua) and more than 100 motets
  • Secular Works, including nearly 70 French chansons and settings of German, Spanish, and Italian texts

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Musical Examples

Click on the songs to listen:

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  • A General Biography
    A biography from The Grove Concise Dictionary of Music. Includes the only known portrait of the composer.
  • A General Biography with a List of Recordings
    A brief biography of the composer along with a list of recordings of his sacred music from ClassicalNet.
  • A Manuscript of Josquin's Music
    The opening pages from Josquin's Missa de beata virgine from the Library of Congress exhibit Rome Reborn: The Vatican Library and Renaissance Culture. Notice the elaborate capital letter "K" that begins the Kyrie. Inside the letter is a drawing of the Virgin Mary and the infant Jesus.
  • Josquin and DNA
    A short piece by John Lienhard from the radio program Engines of Our Ingenuity reflecting on creativity, error, and the process of life. Another brief essay on the question of genius also appears on the same site.
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