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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 13 Middle and Low
Richard Taruskin

These effects of whimsical, humanized religion seem to suggest the influence of the secular, vernacular genres of literate music—the official “low” style, according to Tinctoris. The vernacular genres, too, were undergoing significant change in the later fifteenth century, in stylistic terms aiming both higher and lower than before, and making many new points of contact across the generic and stylistic boundaries.

There was a new genre on the horizon, called the bergerette. Although its name (“shepherdess”) suggests a pastoral style, it originated in French court circles, and so it is not surprising that Ockeghem was its first eminent practitioner. It was a sort of high-toned synthesis of two earlier “fixed forms,” the rondeau and virelai. Its stanzaic structure was similar to the latter: a refrain enclosing a pair of shorter verses and a turnaround sung, when the poem was set to music, to the same music as the refrain, thus: A b b a A. Unlike the virelai, however, which could go on forever, the bergerette was a self-contained single strophe, in which the refrain and turnaround (the “A” sections) were ample five-line stanzas in their own right, comparable to rondeaux cinquaines.

An early classic of the genre was Ockeghem’s Ma bouche rit et ma pensée pleure (“My mouth laughs but my thoughts weep,” Ex. 13-10)—a classic by virtue of its wide dissemination (seventeen extant sources, a veritable record, indicating an original distribution in the hundreds) and its later emulation by younger composers, in one case as the tenor of a cantus-firmus Mass. The dates of its earliest sources suggest that Ockeghem’s chanson was composed by the beginning of the 1460s.

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ex. 13-10 Johannes Ockeghem, Ma bouche rit

The outstanding textural novelty here is the use of almost systematic imitation entirely confined to the superius and the tenor, the voices that make up the structural pair. The incipits of both musical sections are imitations at the octave at a time interval of two tempora. They could hardly be more conspicuous. Thereafter, the alerted ear will pick up the imitation at the fourth on the final melisma of the second line of the refrain, at the last line of the refrain (“Sans reconfort…”), and (more subtly) at the last line of the second musical section, the very end of the music as notated. This final one is less pronounced not only because it is shorter but also because it is covered up by the movement of the other voices. Elsewhere, Ockeghem is careful to lay bare the points of imitation by having the second entering voice rest while the first enunciates the motif that will be imitated.

This kind of superius–tenor imitation, in which the nonessential voice or voices do not participate, could be called “structural” (as opposed to “pervading”) imitation. We have already observed it in Gaspar’s substitution motet, Mater, Patris filia (Ex. 13-7). It became a standard practice in motets (especially Milanese motets) as well as chansons, and typifies the convergence of the middle and low genres—a convergence that, depending on the context, can be construed as the lowering of the middle or the raising of the low.

In the case of the bergerette, it is clearly a case of raising the low, for raising can be observed in other ways as well. We have already noted the textual enlargement. No less significant is the casting of the music in two absolutely self-contained sections, with the second (here, the residuum, “the rest”) actually labeled as such. That amounts to mimicry of the musical structure of the motet, or even of the two-part motet’s model, the individual cyclic Mass “movement.” In later bergerettes, including those of Busnoys, the residuum is often set off from the refrain by the use of a contrasting mensuration, again mimicking the motet or Mass section.

From the “tonal” point of view, too, Ockeghem’s Ma bouche rit is novel and exceptionally “high.” It is one of the earliest polyphonic compositions to incorporate a final “Phrygian” cadence, by way of a sighing tenor half step down to E, as an emblem of special melancholy or seriousness. At least as reflected in the surviving sources, on which alone we can base our knowledge of the past, Phrygian polyphony seems to have been a special predilection of Ockeghem, who bequeathed it as a standard resource to succeeding generations (and even Du Fay, possibly, who wrote a handful of Phrygian pieces at the very end of his career, probably after Ockeghem had already set the standard.) The earliest Phrygian Masses and motets, as well as the earliest Phrygian chansons (all bergerettes), were Ockeghem’s.

Josquin des Prez, who was reputed to be (or, at least, who cast himself as being) Ockeghem’s star pupil, made a great production of emulating Ockeghem’s Phrygian music, among many other emblematic things, in his Missa L’Homme Armé super voces musicales, already familiar to us as an Ockeghem tribute (see Ex. 12-17). The ground plan of that Mass required pitching the final of the cantus-firmus melody on each of the six notes of the natural hexachord in turn. E’s turn came in the Credo, and Josquin announces the arrival of the Phrygian mode by positively screaming out the Phrygian half-step progression at the outset (Ex. 13-11).

To acquire the versatility required to compose polyphony in any mode, one must study models. Josquin slyly tells us what model he studied for the Phrygian in the Agnus Dei II, a famous tour de force that, owing to the fascination it exerted on theorists in Josquin’s day and on textbook writers since, has become the most famous part of the Mass. Outwardly an emulation of the Missa Prolationum, this mind-boggling little piece exponentially outstrips Ockeghem’s example by “answering” the older master’s two-part mensuration canon (Ex. 12-7b) with one in three parts, immeasurably more difficult to devise. And the tempo relationship of the three simultaneous parts—1:2:3—has been a famous challenge to performers since the sixteenth century. Josquin’s single notated line is reproduced in Fig. 13-3 directly from Petrucci’s volume of Josquin Masses, while Ex. 13-12 gives a transcription.

Where have we seen the beginning of Fig. 13-3 before? Look again at Ma bouche rit (Ex. 13-10), this time paying attention to the part to which no attention was paid the first time around. The contratenor, the “nonessential” voice that keeps out of the “structural imitation” that monopolized our gaze, is the source (the cantus firmus, if you will) for Josquin’s amazing melodic line that reproduces itself in counterpoint at three different speeds and at two different pitch levels. It was probably a special joke to appropriate a lowly contratenor, a joke underscored for those who got it by the “laugh” embodied in the name of the parent song, springing unexpectedly to mind in the midst of Mass.

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ex. 13-11 Josquin des Prez, Missa L’Homme Armé super voces musicales, Credo, mm. 1-13

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fig. 13-4 Lorenzo de’Medici, “the Magnificent” (1449–1492), depicted among the artists whom he patronized by the Florentine painter Ottavio Vannini ca. a century after Lorenzo’s death.

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ex. 13-12 Josquin des Prez, Missa L’Homme Armé super voces musicales, Agnus II, realized in three parts

Josquin, trickster supreme, had a special fondness for contratenors, where one is least likely to look for anything special. The altus voice in his motet Christe, Fili Dei (“Christ, O Son of God”), a loco Agnus Dei substitute that comes at the end of a cycle of Milanese-styled motetti missales, carries a hidden message very much like the one in the Ockeghem-based Agnus Dei just considered. The motet is laid out in three well-defined sections corresponding to those of the Agnus Dei chant. The first two sections end with the Agnus Dei prayer itself (miserere nobis), and the motet is thus ostensibly addressed to Christ (the Lamb of God) himself. Section 1 is given in Ex. 13-13a.

The threefold invocation “Christe fili Dei” is set each time to the same music. It consists of what by now we might fairly expect, namely an imitative duo for superius and tenor, the “structural pair.” That is what arrests the immediate attention and occupies the mind’s foreground. Yet the very end of the text gives away the votive game: if Christ is to hear our prayers, they must be mediated by his sanctissima mater, his “most holy Mother, Mary,” ever our intercessor.

And now we notice the subliminal message that the altus has been insinuating all along; for it carries, throughout, a borrowed melody, and a very famous one—the superius of the rondeau J’ay pris amours (“I’ve taken love as my motto”), probably the most popular French chanson of the late fifteenth century (Ex. 13-14). The altus, then, crooning this love song in the midst of prayer, is in effect sending a secret love letter to the Virgin while the text ostensibly addresses her Son. In a much less formal way, Josquin is doing what Du Fay had done in his Missa Se la face ay pale. Where Du Fay’s Mass had displayed the borrowed secular tune as an emblem, Josquin allows it to infiltrate his texture as an inconspicuous “nonessential” voice.

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ex. 13-13a Josquin des Prez, Christe, Fili Dei (loco Agnus Dei in cycle Vultum Tuum deprecabuntur), mm. 1-11

The borrowed melody’s big moment comes at the end, where Mary is finally alluded to in the text, and the altus and bassus treat the final phrase of J’ay pris amours to a fully exposed point of imitation (Ex. 13-13b). This reference, one must assume, was meant to be heard and recognized, and to color retrospectively the whole motet. Josquin’s ostensibly secular song-paraphrase within the ostensibly sacred genre of the motet, though novel in method and effect, was not really a new idea. It was only the latest manifestation of what by the fifteenth century was already a fairly ancient practice—the fusing of the popularized sacred and the sacralized secular—whose tradition reaches back some four hundred years, all the way to the original Salve Regina chant, cast in the form of a canso, a courtly love song to the Virgin.

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ex. 13-13b Josquin des Prez, Christe, Fili Dei (loco Agnus Dei in cycle Vultum Tuum deprecabuntur), mm. 28-end

Thus it would be a mistake to regard this fusion of sacred and secular as an “essential” (meaning an exclusive) trait of the burgeoning “Renaissance.” Its significance is far more inclusive than that, suggesting that categories and oppositions we may be inclined to regard as hard and fast—sacred vs. secular, spiritual vs. temporal, high vs. low, literate vs. oral—were never quite as firm or constant as we might like to pretend. Unless policed (by churchmen, by schoolmen, by snobs, and by “theorists” of all kinds) they tend to merge and fecundate one another.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 13 Middle and Low." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 4 Dec. 2016. <http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-013006.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 4 Dec. 2016, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-013006.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 4 Dec. 2016, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-013006.xml