Polyphonic Puzzles of the Renaissance
Tosto che l’alba à 3 Gherardello da Firenze (ca. 1320-1362)
Ma fin est mon commencement à 3 Guillaume de Machaut (ca. 1300-1377)
Tout par compas à 3 Baude Cordier (fl. early 15th cent.)
L’Homme armé Anonymous
Missa L’homme armé Agnus III à 4 Guillaume Du Fay (ca. 1397-1474)
Fortuna Desperata à 3 Antoine Busnoys (ca. 1430-1492)
Missa Fortuna desperata – Agnus Dei à 4 Josquin des Prez (ca. 1450-1521)
Faulte d’argent à 5 Josquin
Prenez sur moi à 3 Johannes Ockeghem (ca. 1410-1497)
J’ayme bien mon amy à 4 Adrian Willaert (ca. 1490-1562)
En venant de Lyon à 4 Jean Mouton (ca. 1459-1522)
Missa cuiusvis toni – Kyrie I in four authentic modes Ockeghem
Eslongies suy à 2 Anonymous (Trent codices)
Missa L’homme armé super voces – Agnus II à 3 Josquin
Missa prolationum – Agnus Dei III à 4 Ockeghem
Missa L’Homme armé sexti toni – Agnus III à 6 Josquin
Martin Near, countertenor
Jason McStoots, Eric Rice & Steven Soph, tenors
Brian Church, baritone
Friday, October 31 at 8pm
First Lutheran Church of Boston, 299 Berkeley Street in the Back Bay
Saturday, November 1 at 7:30pm
West Parish Church, 129 Reservation Road in Andover, MA
Sunday, November 2 at 3pm
Parish of the Good Shepherd of Waban, 1671 Beacon Street in Newton, MA
Notes on the Program
Complex musical structures might seem antithetical to the ideals of the Renaissance, an era characterized by a renewed interest in the arts and culture of Antiquity. Everything we know about the music of Antiquity suggests that it was structurally simple. It was usually monophonic, with one voice declaiming poetry to the accompaniment of a lyre or another instrument. According to ancient writers, this simple texture was sufficient for ancient music to have an immediate and direct effect on the emotions of its listeners. Musicians of the Renaissance were aware of the effects that ancient music was supposed to have had, but they did not link these effects with monophony. To them, the polyphonic tradition in which they had been trained — a tradition that emerged in the same era as the complex architecture of the Gothic cathedral — seemed perfectly well suited to achieve the effects of ancient music. Moreover, the rise of literacy, perhaps the most sweeping cultural change of the era, contributed to a celebration of bookishness in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Musical literacy was rare, and those who possessed it understood that they were members of an intellectual elite. The system of mensural notation, which allowed unambiguous control of the rhythmic aspect of music, was undergoing its final refinements during the Renaissance, and composers reveled in the increasing precision with which they could control rhythm. Such control allowed composers to create complex polyphonic structures that were impossible in earlier times, and some of these structures were only perceivable through an intimate knowledge of and access to the musical notation itself. The word “puzzle” in our program’s title is meant to convey this idea: the music on the program emerges from intellectual constructions in which the various voices are made to “fit” one another despite significant constraints the composer placed on himself. Canon, the presentation by one voice of a melody taken up by other voices in strict imitation, is the most important compositional constraint represented on our program; the use of a cantus firmus, a preexistent melody presented in long note-values, is another.
Tosto che l’alba (Firenze)
Gherardello da Firenze was a cleric at the cathedral in Florence during the late fourteenth century, though most of his surviving music is secular. His Tosto che l’alba is an example of a caccia, a popular genre involving canon between two voices (which were nearly always sung from one part) as a way of depicting dialogue, often in the context of a hunting scene. The use of canon as a representation of physical situations was relatively common in late medieval polyphony, but it became a more prevalent compositional technique in the fifteenth century. Most cacce have an added tenor voice to fill out the texture, and they usually end with a ritornello in a contrasting meter, as here.
Ma fin est mon commencement (Machaut)
Guillaume de Machaut (ca. 1300–1377) was the most important poet and composer in fourteenth-century France, and Ma fin est mon commencement is one of his most admired compositions. The earliest surviving sources of the work present only one tenor part; one singer begins at the beginning and sings the part forwards, while the other begins at the end and sings the part backwards to create a retrograde canon. A cadence in the middle delineates the two sections of the work; the bass (contratenor) sings his part in reverse for the second section.
Effectively, then, the second section of the work is a complete retrograde of the first. The two sections are used in rondeau form (ABaAabAB, with capital letters representing repetition of text and music while lowercase letters represent the repetition of music with new text), and the work’s text is a discussion of its construction: the end of the piece is also its beginning.
Tout par compas (Cordier)
Baude Cordier (fl. ca. 1400) may well have taken his last name as a sobriquet to indicate that he was a harpist. He has been identified with one Baude Fresnel, but the identification has not been universally accepted, in part because the forward-looking way in which his music was notated does not correspond with the chronology of Fresnel’s life. Several of Cordier’s works were entered as supplemental pieces into the Chantilly codex, a source that is known for its complicated rhythms and notation. (There are pieces in the book that call for rhythmic proportions that were not seen again until the twentieth century.) But Cordier’s works in the book are notable as much for the way that they look on the page as for their rhythmic intricacies: Belle, bonne et sage is notated on staves drawn in the shape of a heart, and Tout par compas is notated on circular staves. Its two tenor voices, which are canonic throughout, are sung over an added tenor in the manner of a caccia, demonstrating the influence of Italian genres on French music in this period. The form, however, is that of the rondeau (ABaAabAB), necessitating much repetition of the canon.
L’homme armé/Missa L’homme armé – Agnus Dei III (Du Fay)
The use of a cantus firmus was an especially venerable method of structuring a composition. It evolved from the chant-based liturgical polyphony of the Middle Ages, but was adapted to Renaissance concepts of emulation, which were in turn rooted in rhetorical strategies of Antiquity. Newly composed secular melodies were employed as cantus firmi throughout the Renaissance, but none was more popular than L’homme armé, a bellicose song of obscure origins. Some scholars have explained the beginning of the tune’s use in mass composition in starkly Christian terms that cast the accoutrements of the Eucharist as the armaments of Christ; others point to the tune’s tripartite form and sweeping range as making it especially well suited to polyphonic elaborations. The mass based on the tune by Guillaume Du Fay (ca. 1397–1474), one of the most celebrated composers of the fifteenth century, was an early contribution to a tradition of such works that continued for two hundred years. The final section of the Agnus Dei is one of the most interesting. Regarding the cantus firmus in the tenor voice, a cryptic note in the manuscript reads, “May the crab go out full but return half.” Crabs walk sideways, allowing them to reverse direction quickly; Du Fay’s tenor is to be sung backwards using the full note values, and then forwards at half the note values, rendering the melody twice as fast — and suddenly recognizable. Our performance presents the original tune before the final Agnus Dei of Du Fay’s mass.
Fortuna Desperata (Busnoys?); Missa Fortuna Desperata, Agnus Dei (Josquin)
The three-voice Fortuna desperata was one of the most widely circulated Italian songs of the late fifteenth century. Its authorship is uncertain, although it is usually given to Antoine Busnoys (ca. 1430–1492). The work served as the model for a number of masses, including one by Josquin des Prez (ca. 1450–1521), the most celebrated composer of the High Renaissance. Josquin’s mass makes use of all three of the song’s parts at various times as cantus firmi. In the Agnus Dei, the song’s top voice is given to the bass, who sings it in inversion (upside down) in very long note values. In the final section of the Agnus, it is the tenor’s melody, uninverted, that is heard in the bass. This procedure has been interpreted as a symbolic representation of the turn of Fortune’s wheel; the presentation of the unaltered tenor at the end suggests a return to normalcy. That this should occur in the Agnus Dei, which was performed immediately before and in some cases during the distribution of the Eucharistic host, was likely very significant for any communicant who understood Josquin’s polyphony this way. The Eucharist, after all, is held to transform the fortunes of believers in this life and the next.
Faulte d’argent (Josquin)
Josquin’s Faulte d’argent is an erudite reworking of a chanson rustique, a popular melody associated with the peasants of the period. The original tune is set in canon at the fifth between the altus and second tenor, serving as a kind of scaffolding for the other three parts, which are elaborations of the original melody containing long, ornamental passages.
Prenez sur moi (Ockeghem)
Admired by his French patrons and fellow musicians alike, Johannes Ockeghem (ca. 1410–1497) was especially known for his canonic compositions. His Prenez sur moi is a stacked canon, meaning that each voice enters at a fixed interval (here a fourth above) from the previous voice. The implications of such an approach can be significant: the top and bottom voices form a canon at the seventh, an unprecedented interval for canon in this period. The piece as originally notated exists in only one part and lacks clefs. Singers derived their parts from a set of signs showing that each voice was to sing using different hexachords, a set of three overlapping, six-note scales, matched with syllables, that are the ancestors of modern solfège. This changes slightly the pattern of half and whole steps in each part, a fact that can be used to resolve the dissonances that can result from canon at imperfect intervals such as the seventh. In addition, it was possible to read the piece in three different modes by changing the hexachordal approach to the work. The first line of text hints at the canonic procedure underway, since the first voice sings “Take from me your example.” The text is that of a rondeau, but we have elected to perform only the A and B sections.
J’ayme bien mon amy (Willaert)
Adrian Willaert (ca. 1490-1562) was a South Netherlandish composer active primarily in Italy, and canon is important in much of his work. J’ayme bien mon amy is a double canon: the first and second voices produce the third and fourth, respectively; these sing the same melody a perfect fifth below their leading counterparts. Unlike Ockeghem’s Prenez sur moi, in which the composer subtly alters the pattern of half and whole steps in each voice to avoid dissonance, here the canon is exact. One momentarily crushing dissonance results from this procedure, because a pitch that must be altered to create a cadence in the top voice clashes with the tenor voice that follows it a fifth below. Such clashes are not uncommon in Franco-Flemish music of the period, particularly those involving exact canon.
En venant de Lyon (Mouton)
Jean Mouton (ca. 1459-1522) served the French royal court in the final phase of his career, and gave lessons in composition to Willaert during his tenure there. His En venant de Lyon is a stacked canon at the fourth, but unlike Ockeghem’s Prenez sur moi, the canon is for four voices rather than three and is exact throughout. The text refers to the stock characters of Robin and Marion from the Jeu de Robin et Marion, a thirteenth-century play framed as a pastourelle, a story about a knight seducing a shepherdess. The scene described here by a seemingly naïve narrator ends with an envoy or punchline that suddenly places Mouton himself in the story.
Missa Cuiusvis toni, Kyrie I (Ockeghem)
Ockeghem’s interest in alterations of the prevailing patterns of half and whole steps, which we heard briefly in his Prenez sur moi, led him to compose a mass that could be sung in any of the four authentic modes: Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, or Mixolydian. (These correspond to seven-note scales on the white notes of keyboard beginning on D, E, F, and G.) To accomplish this, the composer resorted once again to a cleffless notational scheme. By selecting the proper set of clefs, singers were able to perform the entire mass in any one of the four modes, though transposition to different pitch levels was often necessary. (The best set of clefs for a Phrygian version of the work, for example, has A as the final rather than E.) The first Kyrie of the mass is very short, offering a perfect sample from which to understand Ockeghem’s achievement. Rather than perform it with the transpositions implied by the clef combinations, we have transposed all the versions to the same pitch level. The listener is invited to compare the subtle changes in the pitches of each version. The first two are dominated by minor thirds and sound relatively dark; the last two are bright by contrast, dominated as they are by major thirds.
Eslongies suy (Anonymous)
While we tend to think of canon as involving successive entrances of voices moving at the same rate, it is also possible to have multiple singers enter simultaneously, reading the same voice part at different rates of speed. Du Fay composed an “augmentation canon” of this type relatively early in his career, and the procedure remained current in the middle of the century, when Eslongies suy was entered into a manuscript (No. 87) now at the city library in Trent. The singer of the lower voice derives his part by following a cryptic instruction: the short note values, i.e., minims and sembreves, are to be doubled, but the longest values, the breves, are to be quartered. As with previous examples, the text hints at a solution to the way the work is to be performed.
Agnus II, Missa L’homme armé super voces musicales (Josquin)
The mensural notation of the period could be read in a variety of meters, allowing a composer to create canons that functioned like Eslongies suy, but without making exceptions for certain note values. The second Agnus Dei of Josquin’s Missa L’homme armé super voces musicales is a notational tour de force: three voices are derived from one notated part. The middle voice reads the part as written in duple meter; the lowest voice reads the part twice as fast and sings it a fifth down; the upper voice reads the part in triple meter.
Agnus Dei III, Missa Prolationum (Ockeghem)
Josquin may well have been a student of Ockeghem’s, though no definitive evidence for this has yet come to light. The younger composer was certainly influenced by Ockeghem’s contrapuntal skill, which is abundantly evident in his Missa Prolationum. Each section of the work employs mensuration canon, and many are double canons, meaning that from two notated voices, four parts are sung, each in a contrasting mensuration or meter. In addition, Ockeghem systematically proceeded through ever-larger canonic intervals, including the imperfect ones: the first Kyrie, for example, involves double canon at the unison; the Christe employs canonic duos at the interval of a second; and the second Kyrie returns to double mensuration canons, this time at the third. The final Agnus Dei presents a double mensuration canon at the fifth above. The most striking aspect of Ockeghem’s achievement is the wholly satisfying result. The music does not sound forced or labored, but comes across to the listener as peacefully flowing work, almost as if it were freely composed.
Agnus Dei III, Missa L’homme armé sexti toni (Josquin)
The final work on our program combines nearly all of the techniques we have heard — cantus firmus, retrograde, and canon — to great effect. Josquin uses the famous L’homme armé melody as a cantus firmus, combining a forward and backward performance of portions of the tune in the two lowest voices. The two tenors and two sopranos sing exact canon at the unison all the way through the work. The time interval between the canonic voices is very short, which creates an ethereal, echo-like effect. The pronounced activity of the upper voices against the slow-moving cantus firmi produces a remarkably calm, assured texture that betrays none of the compositional constraints that helped produce it.
© Eric Rice 2009