We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more


Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 13 Middle and Low
Richard Taruskin

A further step in the continental transformation—and stylistic “lowering”—of motet style was taken in Milan in the 1470s, when a custom was instituted within the Ambrosian rite of actually substituting votive motets addressed to Mary, more rarely to Christ or to local saints, for all of the Ordinary texts of the Mass (and in larger cycles, some of the Propers as well). Cycles of these motetti missales, or substitute motets for the Mass, were turned out in quantity. They are affectionately known by scholars as “loco Masses,” from the word meaning “in place of,” found in the rubrics that identify such pieces.

The most accomplished and widely disseminated cycles were those composed by the Flemish musicians employed at the court of the Sforzas (the brazenly self-styled “Usurpers” or “Governors-by-force”), a family of mercenary soldiers who in the middle of the century had suddenly risen from the peasantry to become by violent insurgency and advantageous marriage-making the ruling family of Milan. Among this clan of ruthless parvenus were some astute and enthusiastic patrons of the arts, notably the despotic Duke Galeazzo Maria Sforza, the temporal ruler of the city from 1466 until his assassination ten years later, and his brother, Cardinal Ascanio Maria Sforza (d. 1505), the city’s ecclesiastical dictator.

Galeazzo’s chief court-and-chapel composer was a very eminent and influential musician indeed, yet one whose current historical reputation does not adequately reflect his eminence and influence. Gaspar van Weerbeke, a Dutchman, was recruited, possibly from Busnoys’s choir at the court of Charles the Bold, to lead the Milanese ducal chapel in 1471. From 1474 to around 1480 he was the Maestro di Cappella at the Milan Cathedral, and then went on to Rome, where he rose eventually to the leadership of the papal choir. His motetti missales seem so decisively to reject the lofty tone and the architectural genres of the Franco-Burgundian tradition that his style is often described as having been influenced by Italian popular (hence oral, undocumented) styles and genres. That may be one reason for his comparative neglect by historians and revivers of early music in performance, who have understandably tended to find most of interest in the loftiest and the lowest, and to take the stylistic middle for granted.

There is no real evidence to warrant the assumption that the music of the motetti missales is truly “popular” in style, but plenty of evidence that its style is, in the Tinctoris sense, “low.” There is also evidence that the liturgical practice of substituting votive motets for Mass sections—and indirectly, then, the musical style of the result—was dictated by Duke Galeazzo himself, the grandson of an illiterate farmer, and may have reflected his plebeian personal tastes. The leading Italian member of the choir, later to make a great name for himself as a theorist, was Franchino Gafori (known from his treatises as Gaffurius), who inherited Weerbeke’s position around 1490 and had three enormous choirbooks inscribed with the court chapel repertory for use at the cathedral (the so-called Milan libroni, the “big books”), thus insuring the survival of the motetti missales into our day. In a treatise written in the early 1480s, that is, shortly after the fact, Gafori refers to Weerbeke’s motet cycles as the motteti ducales, the “ducal motets.”4

The Milanese Go Lower Still

fig. 13-2 Milan Cathedral (Il duomo).

The Milanese Go Lower Still

fig. 13-3 The second Agnus Dei (starting in the middle of the third system) from Josquin des Prez’s Missa L’homme armé super voces musicales as printed in Missae Josquin (Venice: Ottaviano Petrucci, 1502). The three parts are to be realized from the single notated line as a triple mensuration canon.

What kind of motets are ducal motets? For one thing, their texts are mostly not canonical liturgical texts. Rather, they tend to be informal composites or pastiches of individual verses drawn from the Bible, from various liturgical items, or from rhymed Latin versus, sometimes specially composed. For another, the music generally avoids all suggestion of the “tenor cantus firmus” style. Instead, it tends to resemble the style and some of the constructive methods of the tenor tacet sections that relieved and contrasted with the cantus-firmus bearing sections in cyclic Masses, especially those of Busnoys.

In such pieces, the absence of a foundational tenor had been compensated by the use of pervading points of imitation, in which the voices were treated as functionally equivalent, each providing the “authority” for the next. The beginning of Gaspar’s airy-textured Mater, Patris Filia (“O Mother, daughter of the Father”), a motet loco Agnus Dei from one of his Mass substitution-cycles (Ex. 13-7), seems a clear application of this “tenorless” technique to a full four-part complement. The text, composed of three rhyming verses of votive supplication to the Virgin, reflects the threefold prayer of the Agnus Dei text. The inconsistent rhymes, scansion patterns, and syllable-counts in the verses meanwhile betray the origin of the text in an “extraliturgical” pastiche of stock Marian epithets.

Mater, Patris filia,

mulier laetitiae,

stella maris eximia,

audi nostra suspiria.

Regina poli curiae,

Mater misericordiae,

sis reis porta veniae.

Maria, propter filium

confer nobis remedium.

Bone fili, prece matris

dona tuis regna Patris.

O Mother, daughter of the Father,

O woman of gladness,

O peerless star of the sea,

Hear our sighs.

O Queen of the remotest regions,

O Mother of mercy,

Fling open, please, the gates of forgiveness.

O Mary, for Thy son’s sake

Grant us Thy aid.

Good daughter, grant a mother’s prayer

To us Thy people under Thy Father’s rule.

The Milanese Go Lower Still

ex. 13-7 Gaspar van Weerbeke, Mater, Patris Filia, mm. 1-11

Nowhere else have we seen a sacred composition in which the text is set as straightforwardly, line by line, as here. Every line begins with a fresh texture and comes to a full cadence. The first line, as already noted, begins with a full, four-part, regular, but very short-breathed point of imitation, succeeded by a cadential phrase after only ten measures (Ex. 13-7). The next couple of lines are set in what would have been fairly strict homorhythm but for the somewhat more active and decorative altus. Following that there are three short-breathed duos in a row, each of which comes to a full cadence, to bring the first verse to a close. A semblance of continuity is maintained by the retention of a common voice to link successive duos (the common presence of the superius links the first and second; the common presence of the altus links the second and third).

Part of another, somewhat shorter and very lively motet loco Agnus from a different cycle of replacement motets (Ex. 13-8) shows a few more favorite textures and devices, from what might be called “paired imitation” at the beginning (the same little duo twice repeated, superius imitating altus, and tenor imitating bassus), rapid homorhythmic “pattersong” (“claustrum Mariae…”), and, finally, the sudden switch from duple to triple subdivisions of the beat, producing a high-energy, dancelike payoff (often called the “proportion” because of its strict common-pulse relationship to the previous tempo).

The Milanese Go Lower StillThe Milanese Go Lower StillThe Milanese Go Lower Still

ex. 13-8 Gaspar van Weerbeke, Quem terra pontus aethera, mm. 1-23


(4) Franchinus Gaffurius, Tractatus practicabilium proportionum (ca. 1482), published as Book IV of Practica musice (Milan, 1496).

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 13 Middle and Low." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 27 Oct. 2016. <http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-013004.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 13 Middle and Low. In Oxford University Press, Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 27 Oct. 2016, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-013004.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 13 Middle and Low." In Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 27 Oct. 2016, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-013004.xml