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March 13, 2012 / C. J. Sperling

Josquin Desprez, First “New Media” Star

In his Music Salon, Bryan Townsend wrote a piece on Josquin Desprez which reminded me (again) of how little I know about the music of that time. Well, “there is so much great music, and only one life to get to know it all”, as a friend of mine often says. But a shame it is, nevertheless.

One sentence of the post kept spinning around in my brain: “He came at a time when the printing of music was just beginning and Josquin’s music was a favorite of the early printers.”

That’s us 500 years ago!

Josquin was born ca. 1450-1455, just when Gutenberg invented the internet movable type printing, and media distribution was not so much about physical items handwritten single copies anymore, but about cheaper (less individual, less beautiful, more accessible) digital files mass-printed editions. A loss in some aspects then and now, and a gain in others.

Desprez’s music was distributed by download sites early printers, the revenues from the sites’ ad displays sold copies going somewhere but not into his pockets. Marketers vs. composers: we all know who’ll make bigger profits in near all cases.

But Josquin Desprez was not only cash cow and victim of the early printers. They most likely made him famous, too:

“In particular the first print of Ottavio Petruccis, Odhecaton A (1501) which contained many of Josquin’s works, made Josquin instantly popular in whole Europe. From the years before 1500, however, only few manuscripts of his works are extant outside the papal chapel, where he served until 1494. (…) Additionally, for the years from ca. 1494 (… ) until his engagement at Ferrara in 1503, he is not detectable at any European court.” (Christian Berger: “Fortuna d’un gran tempo”, Musik und Politik in Europa um 1500, translation by CJS)

So it worked for Desprez the same way as it does for many bands today: give away music for free (Desprez: involuntarily, sheet music; current bands: consciously, audio and/or video recordings) to make yourself known. If you make a living from playing live, you’ll sell more tickets for your concerts; if you’re a composer, you’ll get commissions. (Prerequisite for this business model: your music has to convince the audiences…)

The Times They Are a-Changin’, over and over again. Although it is true that history doesn’t repeat literally, it’s also true that it obviously likes to repeat figuratively. Even in its major changes.

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