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Laney’s List #15 

High in the wall of the Sistine Chapel is a choir loft called the cantoria. Built in 1471, it was off limits to anyone but singers in the papal choir for 350 years. In the absence of adult supervision, centuries of singers carved their names in the wall. A member in the 1490s named Josquin des Prez (translation: Josquin of Prez) was one of them. This is interesting because he’s also generally considered the greatest Renaissance composer, and this graffito is the only surviving thing written in his own hand.

The great artists of the Renaissance were most often Italian — Michelangelo, da Vinci, Caravaggio, Raphael, Donatello. But as often as not, the best composers of the Renaissance were Franco-Flemish, meaning they were from northern Europe and had trouble clearing their throats.

Like most northern composers of the period, Josquin — usually referred to by the one name, like Plato or Beyoncé, and pronounced zhoss-KAN — spent most of his career in Italy, where wealthy families were engaged in the most artistically productive pissing contest of all time, to which Josquin contributed many powerful and elegant streams.

He was acknowledged as the greatest composer of his generation within his own lifetime, which is rare but nice. Like Bach two centuries later, Josquin wrote both sacred and secular works and excelled at both. The sacred music is really stunning:


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But he could also let his hair down with secular songs. Here’s a frottola (the precursor to madrigal) about a cricket — short, funny, and kind of amazing:

El grillo, El grillo è buon cantore  |  The cricket is a good singer
che tiene longo verso                       |  and he sings for a long time
Dalle beve grillo canta.                    |  Give him a drink so he can go on singing
Ma non fa come gli altri uccelli     |  But he doesn’t do what the other birds do
come li han cantato un poco          |  Who after singing a little
van’ de fatto in altro loco                |  Just go elsewhere
sempre el grillo sta pur saldo        |  The cricket is always steadfast
Quando la maggior è [l’] caldo      |  When it is hottest
alhor canta sol per amore.             |  then he sings just for love


15. JOSQUIN frottola “El Grillo” (The Cricket) (1:30)

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1 Chopin | 2 Scarlatti | 3 Hildegard | 4 Bach | 5 Chopin | 6 Reich | 7 Delibes | 8 Ravel | 9 Ravel | 10 Boulanger | 11 Debussy | 12 Ginastera | 13 Mozart | 14 Reich | 15 Josquin | Full list YouTube playlist

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.