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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 12 Emblems and Dynasties
Richard Taruskin

To return, in conclusion, to strictly historical and “dynastic” matters, it is absorbing to ponder the intricate relationships of homage that obtained among composers of cyclic Masses. Among the L’Homme Armé Masses that reproduce the moment from Busnoys’s Sanctus depicted in Ex. 12-15a is one by Du Fay, the oldest and most distinguished composer to have joined the game. The corresponding passage in his Mass occurs near the end of the Credo (Ex. 12-16), and it is especially close to Busnoys’s allowing for the speedy diminished note-values that one usually finds near the climaxes of large cyclic Mass sections.

Old and Young Alike Pay Tribute

ex. 12-16 Guillaume Du Fay, Missa L’Homme Armé, Credo, “Et exspecto”

The question, of course, is who was emulating whom? The discussion up to now would seem to favor Busnoys, and yet it might also seem commonsensical to assume that the younger composer imitated the older rather than the other way around—especially if the older composer were a composer of such unparalleled standing as the venerable Du Fay, by the 1460s definitely an aged man by contemporary standards. Common sense can seem especially persuasive in cases such as this, when there is little or no hard evidence against which to weigh it. (The earliest surviving source for both Masses is the same Sistine Chapel choirbook, which postdates the older composer’s death.)

And yet in this particular case some other factors might also carry weight. One is the nature of the emulatory chain. As Ex. 12-16 already suggests with its very energetic syncopations (even including some interpolations into the cantus firmus), Du Fay’s Mass is an especially—even an ostentatiously—elaborate composition. It is a true masterpiece, a demonstration of a great master’s skills—and a great master’s license, too; for Du Fay subjects the cantus-firmus tune to a great deal of embellishment almost amounting to paraphrase. The Mass also contains the single most complicated passage in all of fifteenth-century choral polyphony: a montage of four different mensurations, one for each voice, at the point in the Credo where the text, referring to God the Father, says “by [Him] all things are made” (per quem omnia facta sunt). The last three Latin words can also mean “all things are done,” and that is what Du Fay has his chorus do, all at the same time. Once again we see that what may seem to us like nothing more than a pun (“the lowest form of wit”) can be a serious symbol indeed, and the pretext for exalted creative play.

In any case, it contradicts the whole idea of emulation to imagine such a work as Du Fay’s Missa L’Homme Armé at the beginning of the line; with such a starting point, where could it possibly go? Potential corroboration for the assumption that Du Fay came relatively late in the emulation chain is found in the inventory of the composer’s property, drawn up after his death in 1474.8 It lists six manuscripts of music, which the composer had willed to Charles the Bold, for transfer after his death. If the Missa L’Homme Armé were among the items contained therein (and Charles, after all, may have been the Armed Man himself), that would make it a late work indeed, as the style of the music already suggests.

In all likelihood, then, the Missa L’Homme Armé was the second-latest of Du Fay’s cantus-firmus Masses. The cyclic Mass was a genre developed in the period of Du Fay’s maturity, and one to which he, consequently, contributed little. Only four such Masses of his survive. Two of the others are based on plainsongs; one of them incorporates the music of a motet that Du Fay wrote for his own funeral, so it is probably the last of the four. The remaining Mass, the earliest, is the most famous. It embodies an intricate structure, very similar in its layout to a gigantic isorhythmic motet, based on a cantus firmus derived from the tenor of one of Du Fay’s own chansons: Se la face ay pale (“If my face is pale, love’s to blame …”).

It has been suggested that this elegant love-song Mass was written for an aristocratic wedding, possibly during Du Fay’s period in service at the court of Savoy in the 1450s.9 That would put the Mass on Se la face ay pale in the same general category as the L’Homme Armé Masses: sacred music in honor of secular authority. Alternatively, and more in keeping with motet practice, Du Fay’s love-song Mass may have been intended, like Leonel’s Mass on Alma redemptoris mater, for a Marian votive service, the cantus firmus now symbolizing the worshiper’s love for the worshiped.

Either conjecture, if corroborated, would provide an explanation for the novel practice, of which Du Fay was a pioneer, of basing sacred music on secular tenors. Far from a blasphemy, it seems to have worked the other way, as a means of consecrating the secular. And thus, even if, as seems likely, Du Fay may have been a relatively late contributor to the L’Homme Armé tradition, he was among the founders of the larger tradition that made the L’Homme Armé cycles possible. Thus his dynastic authority lay behind that of Busnoys even as the authority of Busnoys’s “classic” L’Homme Armé Mass may have called forth Du Fay’s spectacular riposte in its turn. That is how artistic dynasties, as distinct from political ones, tend to work: they are elaborate cultural exchanges, not straightforward biological successions.

For one last, particularly revealing dynastic commentary, let us have a quick look at a later stage of the L’Homme Armé tradition. The composer who headed the next generation after Obrecht, and who was as commanding a presence among the musicians of his time as Obrecht had been—or Busnoys and Ockeghem before Obrecht, or Du Fay before Busnoys and Ockeghem, or Dunstable before Du Fay—was Josquin des Prez, to whom a whole chapter will shortly be devoted. It was Josquin’s special good fortune to have been the protagonist of one of the great historical turning points for European music, when the printing revolution finally hit, and utterly transformed, its literate wing.

The very first printed volume of music devoted to the works of a single composer was a book of Masses by Josquin, issued by the Venetian printer Ottaviano Petrucci in 1502. Of the five Masses it contained, two of them—the first and the last, the alpha and omega—were based on L’Homme Armé. There could be no greater testimony to Josquin’s stature than his laying claim in this way to the venerable tradition, and no greater testimony to the potency of that tradition than the way it was spotlighted by Petrucci in opening and closing this auspicious volume.

The opening work in the volume was called Josquin’s Missa L’Homme Armé super voces musicales. The voces musicales, as we may remember from chapter 3, were the six solmization syllables of the Guidonian hexachord: Ut-re-mi-fa-sol-la. The special unifying tour deforce of Josquin’s Mass was to begin it with the cantus firmus pitched on C (the “natural” ut) for the Kyrie, and have it ascend step-by-step throughout the Mass so that in the final Agnus Dei (scored for a climactically enlarged five-part chorus) it was pitched on A (the natural la), the highest note of the hexachord, and transferred by way of zenith to the superius voice. No question, then, that Josquin was still engaging in the process of emulation—the process that continually asked, “Can you top this?”

Yet even as he attempted to top all his predecessors in his manipulation of the age-old cantus firmus, he paid them signal tribute in his headmotive (Ex. 12-17). If you do not immediately recognize this theme—the opening music, so to speak, in Petrucci’s volume of the greatest Masses by the greatest composer of the day—go back to the beginning of this chapter and look again at its first musical example. Josquin’s headmotive is modeled on the phrase with which Busnoys had set the name of Ockeghem in In hydraulis (Ex. 12-1b), and Ockeghem had returned the compliment in Ut heremita solus (Ex. 12-1c).

Old and Young Alike Pay Tribute

ex. 12-17 Josquin des Prez, Missa L’Homme Armé super voces musicales, Kyrie

Josquin, who wrote a lament on Ockeghem’s death in which he referred to the older composer as his “bon père,” his good (musical) father, was very possibly Ockeghem’s pupil. Surely he knew Busnoys’s Missa L’Homme Armé (for no musical literatus of his generation did not), and its special place in the L’Homme Armé tradition. How better to assert his place in the dynasty of “high style” composers than by making this most conspicuous reference to their most directly relevant work? And how better inaugurate and legitimate the “future” of music as a literate tradition—the phase of printed music, which has lasted until our own time and is only lately showing any sign of waning—than by making showy obeisance to the glories of the immediate past? Josquin’s headmotive was thus a triple emblem: the emblematic unifier of his Mass, an emblem of heirship, and an emblem of the continuing vitality of the dynastic tradition.


(8) Craig Wright, “Dufay at Cambrai: Discoveries and Revisions,” JAMS XXVIII (1975): 217.

(9) Alejandro Planchart, “Fifteenth-Century Masses: Notes on Performance and Chronology,” Studi musicali X (1981): 17.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 12 Emblems and Dynasties." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 26 Sep. 2017. <http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-012013.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 12 Emblems and Dynasties. In Oxford University Press, Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 26 Sep. 2017, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-012013.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 12 Emblems and Dynasties." In Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 26 Sep. 2017, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-012013.xml