The First Universal Composer

Josquin des Prez: Proceedings of the International Festival Conference, Lincoln Center, June 21-25, 1971

edited by E.E. Lowinsky, in collaboration with Bonnie J. Blackburn
Oxford University Press, 728 pp., $52.00

Josquin Desprez: Missa La Sol Fa Re Mi and Motets, Chansons, and Instrumental Music

capella antiqua (München), conducted by Konrad Ruhland. two records, Philips 6775 005

With the publication of E.E. Lowinsky’s Josquin des Prez and the release of excellent recorded performances of the “Lamentations of David,” the stature of Josquin (c. 1440-1521) as the first universal composer can now be recognized by the general audience. That his contemporaries were aware of his greatness is attested by the large numbers of manuscript copies of his works found in libraries from Czechoslovakia to Portugal, Uppsala to Palermo, and by the preponderance of his works in the first volumes of music ever printed (seventeen of his Masses alone in three books: Venice, 1502, 1504, 1514). His popularity even survived the Schism, for he seems to have been a favorite composer of His Catholic Majesty, the Emperor Charles V, and definitely was one of Martin Luther.

In an often-quoted dialogue published in 1567, Ockeghem’s “rediscovery of music” is equated with Donatello’s of sculpture, while

Josquin, Ockeghem’s pupil, may be said to have been in music…as our Michelangelo was in architecture, painting, sculpture…; both one and the other have opened the eyes of all those who delight in those arts or are to delight in them in the future.1

The prediction continues to be fulfilled, because, as Professor Lowinsky writes,

Josquin’s chief significance in the history of music lies in his…evolution from a great contrapuntist to the first composer to put all of his musical gifts into the service of express[ing] human affections.

Hardly less remarkable than Josquin’s fame in his own age is the persistence of his reputation throughout the second half of the eighteenth century, when so many earlier composers, including J.S. Bach, suffered almost total eclipse. One of the new book’s essays examines—for the first time, surprisingly—the substantial body of Josquin transcriptions by Dr. Burney, the pioneer musicologist (and father of Fanny). Yet before Helmuth Osthoff’s two-volume monograph, 2 and prior to Lowinsky’s symposium and a very few recent recordings, only those people able to hear music from reading scores could understand why, with Monteverdi, Josquin is one of the giants of his art before Bach.

If Josquin’s compositions are known, his life is not. Though recent research opens up fascinating new probabilities, it does not greatly expand the exiguous number of conclusively established facts. The discovery, in 1956, that Josquin had been employed in the choir of the Duomo in Milan at an earlier period than had been assumed necessitated the revision of his birthdate to at least a decade earlier. Since this revelation, Professor Lowinsky and others have explored the vast Archivio di Stato in Milan, as well as the Archivio Segreto Vaticano, finding data which change the picture from that of Josquin the unknown and underpaid singer to that of the composer and musician whose talents were recognized and remunerated by benefices and sinecures.

In the biography as reconstructed by Lowinsky, a central figure emerges in the person of Ascanio Sforza, Josquin’s patron, whose musical discernment no longer need be questioned. Seeking clues to Josquin’s career in…

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