Josquin, 500 years ago the death of the "Michelangelo of music"

On 27 August 1521 Flemish composer Josquin Desprez died in Condé-sur-l'Escaut, in northern France. He served the popes for several years in the College of Choir Chaplains. The Vatican remembers him with a concert this autumn in the Sistine Chapel, sponsored by the Dicastery for Communication, the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel Choir.

When he died on 27 August 1521 in Condé-sur-L'Escaut, in the north of France close to the present border with Belgium, Josquin Desprez was about 70 years old, the provost of the collegiate church of Notre Dame, and above all the most famous musician of the time. In his long journey through the courts of France, Italy and the Papal States, he became known as "the Michelangelo of music", according to Maestro Walter Testolin, director of the "De labyrintho" ensemble, and one of the greatest connoisseurs of the Flemish composer's work.

"Josquin brings about a radical turning point in the history of music,” Maestro Testolin notes saying, “in his work there is a complete coexistence of the word with music, and this makes him the animator of the great revolution that will take place a couple of generations after his death in Italy, and that will see the birth of the madrigal. Opera came about from that music."

Josquin was born in Flanders around the middle of the 15th century, but was adopted by his uncles who lived in Condé-sur-L'Escaut. From 1489 to 1495 the musician was in the Pope's College of Choir Chaplains, today known as the Sistine Chapel Choir, first with Innocent VIII and then with Alexander VI Borgia, when he composed some of his most famous Masses for them. "Josquin became the most famous musician in all the west thanks to his genius," explains Maestro Marcos Pavan, director of the Sistine Chapel Choir, "because he was able to further develop the polyphonic style of his time, which until then had been somewhat intellectualistic, moving it a step forward and making it more attractive and attentive to the expression of feelings.”

Like other Sistine choir members, Josquin almost certainly wanted to leave his name engraved on the wall of the Sistine Chapel's small choir loft as seen in graffiti discovered after restorations at the end of the last century. "Most likely it is his signature," Monsignor Pavan tells us, "because for the choir members who were also composers, it was certainly a privilege to be able to participate in the Pontifical Chapel and therefore, in this way, they left a record of themselves in the Sistine Chapel."

Maestros Pavan and Testolin and the choirs they direct will be the protagonists of the celebratory concert for the 500th anniversary of Josquin's death. The performance will be recorded in the Sistine Chapel and broadcast this autumn. The initiative is a fruit of the collaboration between Vatican Media, Vatican Radio and Vatican News, the Sistine Chapel Choir, and the Vatican Museums.

The Brazilian director of the Sistine Chapel Choir explains that during Josquin’s years at the Vatican he created "many important works, such as the tract 'Domine, non secundum peccata nostra', with which we are participating in this celebratory concert, performed certainly for the first time in the choir loft of the Sistine Chapel at the Ash Wednesday celebration presided over by the Pope." The text reads, "Lord, may I not be judged according to my sins." And this reminds us of the Last Judgment painted by Michelangelo that we have in the Sistine Chapel."

Maestro Testolin emphasizes that when the Flemish composer was at the Pope’s service, he composed "some of his most important works: especially the Mass 'L'homme armé super voces musicales', perhaps his first totally humanistic Mass", which "will also give life to the new Josquin, because during his Roman years he will change radically and grow in a very remarkable way. He will become over a few years the prime European composer". In choosing the pieces to be performed in the celebratory concert, the maestro who hails from Vicenza, Italy, and his collaborators of the "De labyrinto" ensemble opted for four motets "that describe Josquin's path, but above all have a direct link with Rome".

After "Praeter rerum seriem", a motet for six voices written in the later years of his life in Condé, included in the program is "Illibata Dei virgo nutrix", composed in Rome. Here "Josquin authors himself: he places his name as an acrostic on the verses of the first part". Then, after the Gloria of the ‘Missa Gaudeamus’, "a Mass of extraordinary beauty written in Rome, we have chosen two motets that have a specific reference to the Sistine Chapel. One is the 'Factum est autem', which describes the scene of the Baptism of Christ taken from the Gospel of Luke: in the Sistine Chapel it is illustrated by Perugino's fresco. Then there is this very long motet, the 'Liber generationis Jesu Cristi', whose text is taken from the genealogy of Christ with which Matthew opens his Gospel". These are the names of Christ's ancestors and relatives, from Abraham to Joseph, "which Josquin set to music and which Michelangelo, a few years later, painted in the lunettes of the Sistine Chapel".