Josquin served as maestro di cappella in Ferrara for almost exactly a year from late April 1503 to mid-April 1504. Little evidence concerning his activity in Ferrara survives, but in February 1504 Ercole’s ambassador in Venice sent a work by an unidentified composer to be examined by Josquin ‘to see if it is praiseworthy’. Not long after Josquin’s arrival in Ferrara, an outbreak of plague in July 1503 caused the removal of the Este court to the coastal retreat of Comacchio. Perhaps it was the plague that prompted Josquin to depart in April 1504. His place was filled in September by Jacob Obrecht, who accepted a salary of 100 ducats, half the amount paid to Josquin. Ercole died on 25 January 1505, and the unfortunate Obrecht, who had been dismissed by the new duke, Alfonso, succumbed to the plague in Ferrara in July of the same year.
It is clear from Artiganova’s advice quoted above that Josquin was expected to compose new music – probably motets and masses – for the aging Ercole, who was known for his strong religious devotion. According to Teofilo Folengo (Opus … macaronicum, 1521), one of the composer’s most famous motets, Miserere mei, Deus, a complete setting of the penitential Psalm l, was written ‘at the earnest entreaty of the Duke of Ferrara’. Ercole was probably influenced in his choice of text by his correspondence with Girolamo Savonarola, whose meditation on Psalm l (which seems to have influenced Josquin’s setting) was printed in Ferrara in 1498 shortly after he was burnt at the stake in Florence (see Macey, 1983, 1998). Other motets that probably date from this period are Virgo salutiferi, set to a poem by the Ferrarese court poet Ercole Strozzi, and perhaps the six-part O virgo prudentissima, on a poem by Poliziano (see Brown, 1986). Josquin’s Missa ‘Hercules dux Ferrariae’ may also have been composed at this time, though it has features that have caused it to be dated earlier.