There is no composer in the history of Western music whose significance equals that of Josquin about whom so little is known. While the archival data concerning his biography fix the day and year of his death (August 27, 1521), recent research has shown that the generally accepted time of his birth, ca. 1440, can no longer be considered secure. It even seems plausible now that 'Des Prez' was a nickname, his family name being 'Lebloitte.' His whereabouts are documented for a few periods of his life only. The archival text often referred to as the first document to trace him as a singer in the Cathedral of Milan in 1459, concerns possibly another musician with the same first name. It seems however certain that Josquin passed several years in the service of the Sforza's, until 1477 in Milan, and as a companion of Cardinal Ascanio when the latter was exiled from the city. Two notarial acts testify to Josquin's presence in Aix-en-Provence in 1477, where he was a singer in the service of Rend of Anjou, the titular King of Sicily. The composer's presence in Rome is documented from ca. 1489 until 1495. In 1503-04, he was employed as chapelmaster at the Este Court in Ferrara. He spent the last years of his life in Condé-sur-l'Escaut, where he held the post of Provost of the Collegiate Church of Notre-Dame.
The aspect of Josquin's art that fostered such a furor among his contemporaries was its remarkable expressivity: to a far greater extent than anyone before him Josquin attempted to convey the meanings of the words he set. For this reason his most powerful and audacious music is not to be found in his twenty-odd Masses, in which the text remains fixed, but rather in his 100 or so motets, whose texts he could select himself.
It was undoubtedly brilliant strokes of this sort that moved Martin Luther to exclaim of Josquin: "He is the master of the notes. They must do as he wills; as for the other composers, they have to do as the notes will. " But there was another aspect to Josquin's personality. When the Duke Hercules d'Este I of Ferrara sought a composer for his court, his secretary recommended Heinrich Isaac over Josquin, because Isaac "is able to get on better with his colleagues and composes new pieces quicker. It is true, Josquin composes better, but he does it only when it suits him and not when it is requested. More than this, Josquin asks 200 ducats while Isaac is pleased with 120." The Duke rejected this advice and hired Josquin, who emerges as the Beethoven of his time, a man who knew his own worth and wrote what and for whom he pleased. The age of the individual was at hand.