Josquin Desprez (ca.1450-1521) 

Absalon Fili Mi


The motet Absalon, fili mi is a stunningly beautiful example of Franco-Flemish polyphony. Ascribed to Josquin des Prez (ca. 1450-1521), the work may also have been composed by Pierre de La Rue (ca. 1452-1518). The earliest known manuscript was copied sometime between 1509 and 1523 by Petrus Alamire (ca. 1470- ca. 1534) who was a scribe known to have worked closely with La Rue. This source mentions no composer at all, but the work does exhibit aspects of La Rues style which are not found in Josquin. For instance, the low register of the bassus is characteristic of La Rues work. The first attribution to Josquin appears in a German collection ca. 1540 - long after his death and far from his homeland which calls the veracity of the attribution into question. Also, this source attributes a few other works to Josquin that were probably not written by him. Thus, we cannot be entirely certain who wrote this work.1

Table 1: Text Translation
Latin English Scriptural Source
Absalon, fili mi
quis det ut moriar pro te
fili mi, Absalon?
Absalom, my son
Would that I had died instead of you,
My son, Absalom?
2 Samuel 18:33
Non viam ultra Let me live no longer, Job 7:16
sed descendam in infernum plorans. but descend into hell, weeping. Genesis 37:35

Equally uncertain is the occasion for which this work was written. As illustrated above, the text is derived from three different Biblical passages, each dealing with the mourning of a father for his son. In 2 Samuel 18:33, Kind David mourns the death of his son Absalom, in Job 7:16, Job mourns the loss of his son, and in Genesis 37:35, Jacob mourns the death of Joseph. Some musicologists believe this piece was written in reference to the 1497 killing of Juan Borja, Duke of GandÌa and eldest son of Pope Alexander VI. Others have argued that perhaps the motet references the 1506 death of Emperor Maximilian Is son Philip the Fair. Other possibilities include the deaths of Prince Arthur (son of Henry VII) and Prince Henry (son of Henry (VIII), both of whom died in infancy in the early sixteenth century.2


1 Mark Evan Bonds, A History of Music in Western Culture (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2003), 127.

2 Ibid.