Josquin’s Secrets

“A certain famous man said that Josquin produced more motets after his death than during his life.” So joked the German music publisher Georg Forster in 1540, nineteen years after the death of Josquin des Prez, the most celebrated composer the world had known. He had lived and died admired and respected, then as now. But loved? With reservations then, and with greater but different reservations now. The course of his extraordinary career and reputation, in this the five-hundredth anniversary year of his death, needs some unpacking. Josquin died on August 27, 1521. Since then he has been called the first musical superstar, and his influence likened to that of Beethoven; and, like Beethoven, he became the standard by which every subsequent composer in his tradition was judged, directly influencing most of them. So why is he not the household name that Palestrina and Tallis are? (There are such households.) Having just presided over a nine-disc set of Josquin’s eighteen mass settings with the Tallis Scholars, and having studied and recorded his music all my working life, I will attempt to provide an answer to this riddle. His music is sufficiently difficult to sing that modern choirs do well to think twice about trying it. Josquin was a composer who never settled down to an easily identifiable style. Like Tallis, but unlike Palestrina, he was interested in experimenting with everything that came his way, inventing new sonorities and methods as he went. This has deprived him of the kind of easy brand-like recognition which helps modern audiences feel at ease with composers from the more (and even less) distant past. Concertgoers have heard his name, but they do not know anything by him, which puts him in the rather unglamorous company of composers such as Telemann, Corelli, Dunstable, and Hindemith.

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