Josquin des Prez was arguably the first international superstar composer. In sacred and secular genres alike, he represents the first peak of Renaissance polyphonic style. The idea of the composer as a genius of artistic invention originated with him. Reformer Martin Luther lauded Josquin as a 'master of the notes: they must do as he wills; as for other composers, they have to do as the notes will'.
Thanks to developments in printing, his music was disseminated more widely than any composer before him, particularly in German-speaking lands. Such technological progress also led to a kind of 'Josquin industry'. It was fuelled both by the composer's own music and that of others claiming to be Josquin. In recent years, Josquin scholarship has largely been concerned with thinning out the 'canon' of his music, using stylistic analysis to determine false attributions. The body of work that remains is still considerable.
The details of Josquin's birth are unknown. The name 'des Prez' was, of several names and nicknames, the one the composer himself is said to have preferred. He entered the choir of Saint-Quentin, in French Flanders, around 1460 and is thought to have studied with the composer Johannes Ockeghem. The pair seem to have shared a close relationship, judging by the heartfelt lament Josquin composed in commemoration of the Ockeghem's death in 1497, the Nymphes des bois/Requiem aeternam.
Around 1477, Josquin was employed by René, Duke of Anjou, in Southern France. From there he traveled to Italy, initially to work for the powerful Sforza family in Milan. Between 1489-95, he served in Rome. His experiences in Italy, and particularly that of its lighter polyphonic traditions, left their mark on Josquin's style. This is evident in the motet cycle Vultum tuum deprecabuntur, written in Milan, and the five-voice tenor motet Illibata Dei virgo nutrix, which probably dates from his time at Rome. After the invasion of Italy by Louis XII, and the dissolution of the Sforza dynasty, Josquin seems to have entered the service of the French King. For Louis, he composed the instrumental fanfare Vive le Roy. In 1503 he moved briefly to the court of Ferrara, before returning to Flanders in 1504. There he remained until his death in 1521.
Josquin's prolific and itinerant career left its mark in his music through its consolidation of the polyphonic traditions of France, Italy and the Netherlands. He was thus a crucial figure in the development of the international late-Renaissance style exemplified by the composers Palestrina and Lassus. His music is also notable for its emotional intensity and melodic unity, and the use of recognizable motivic cells. For this reason, and for his unprecedented international fame, he was often described as the 'Beethoven of the Renaissance'. Indeed, certain similarities of temperament and achievement can be noted. According to some reports, Josquin was a driven man, expensive to hire and not at all easy to get along with. Still, this has little bearing on his significant achievements.