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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 12 Emblems and Dynasties
Richard Taruskin

Leading composers of two “Tinctoris generations” of continental musicians—both that of the theorist’s own contemporaries and the younger, up-and-coming genera-tion—wrote Caput Masses in imitation (or rather, in emulation) of the one we have been examining, thereby casting themselves into a sort of three-generation dynasty. That these Masses were in fact responses to the older Mass and not two independently conceived Masses on the same cantus firmus tune is proved by the nature of the cantus firmus itself. It is a very little-used chant (neither from the Mass nor from the regular Office, but from a special service attended only by the clergy) that occurs only in English chant books. Ockeghem and Obrecht, the composers of the subsequent Caput Masses, would have been unlikely to encounter the tune anywhere else but in the tenor of the first Caput Mass, which circulated widely in continental manuscripts (in one of them under a spurious attribution to Du Fay that was long believed by scholars). Even more conclusively, the melody shows up in Ockeghem’s and Obrecht’s tenors in the precisely the same modified and rhythmicized form we have already observed in the first Caput Mass.

Ockeghem’s Mass, because of its heavy dependence on a model, is presumed to be a relatively early work (possibly from the 1450s), but Ockeghem’s works are not easy to date, since many of them are found only in manuscripts—like the magnificent Chigi Codex illustrated in Fig. 12-4—that postdate his death. That illustration, it so happens, shows the Kyrie from Ockeghem’s Caput Mass, transcribed in Ex. 12-6, with which it may be compared. Of all the sections of Ockeghem’s Mass the Kyrie is the freest in its relationship to the model, and therefore the most interesting and instructive one to describe.

Patterns of EmulationPatterns of Emulation

ex. 12-6 Johannes Ockeghem, Missa Caput, first Kyrie, mm. 1-8

The reasons for the freedom had to do with a necessary compression. The anonymous English Caput Kyrie, as English (but not continental) Kyries still tended to do in the fifteenth century, carried a full set of prosulas (included in Ex. 12-4a). To accommodate them, a very spacious musical treatment was necessary. Ockeghem, having only eighteen canonical words to set (3 × Kyrie eleison; 3 × Christe eleison; 3 × Kyrie eleison), streamlined his setting by pruning away the lengthy internal repetitions in the cantus firmus melody (bracketed in Ex. 12-4b), and then laying out the abridged cantus firmus to prop the whole Kyrie in a single cursus, divided into three parts in accordance with the liturgical form, observing both the mensuration contrast of the original Caput Mass (perfect time followed by imperfect) and the “da capo” resumption of perfect time that was implied in the older Mass but is now made explicit.

That single cursus can be easily viewed in Fig. 12-4, which shows an “opening,” the visual unit formed by two facing pages in a choirbook—the back or verso of one leaf (folio) and the front or recto of the next—on which the four voice parts are entered for the group around the lectern to read from, as Ockeghem’s own choir is shown doing in Fig. 12-2. The lower left area of the choirbook opening is the one normally occupied by the cantus-firmus-bearing voice: the tenor, by original definition. That placement puts the superius and tenor—the “structural pair” as they were regarded by composers and theorists—on one side of the opening, and the two compositionally “nonessential” contratenors, the altus and the bassus, on the other.

In Fig. 12-4 the positions of the bassus and the tenor seem to have been switched. In fact only their names have been transposed, in deference to the newer meaning of the term “tenor,” then just coming into use, which designated a range rather than a function. And here we come to the nub of the distinction, drawn but not defined above, between an imitation and an emulation.

An imitation is simply a reproduction, a copy, a match—or, as often remarked, a compliment. An emulation is both an homage and an attempt to surpass. The dynasties of composers and of compositions that so distinguished the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were dynasties of emulation. Works of “high” style became models for other works that aspired to highness in a spirit at once of submission to a tradition and mastery of it, and in a spirit at once of honoring and vying with one’s elders. A composition regarded as especially masterly will come to possess auctoritas—authority. It sets a standard of excellence, but at the same time it becomes the thing to beat. A true emulation will honor the model by conforming to it, but it will also distinguish itself from the model in some conspicuously clever way.

The original Caput Mass set such a standard and inspired such emulation, and Ockeghem’s way of distinguishing himself was to transpose the tenor down an octave so that it became the effective bass—no doubt originally sung by the composer himself, leading his choir not only with claps on the back but with his famously deep voice. That is what the little rubric says next to the “bass-playing-tenor” (in Latin, bassus tenorizans) in Fig. 12-4: Alterum caput descendendo tenorem per diapason et sic per totam missam, “Another head [appears] by lowering the tenor an octave, and thus for the entire Mass.” It will not be missed that the “head” (caput) has now become the “foot” of the texture. That sort of playful cleverness was part of the emulation game; and yet (as is emphatically the case here) that playfulness, at its best, gave rise to music of high seriousness and eloquence.

Any practicing fifteenth-century musician would have been impressed with Ockeghem’s sheer audacity in transposing this particular cantus firmus melody down an octave, to the foot of the texture. For it begins with the one note—B natural—that normally cannot function as a bass, since the diatonic pitch set can offer no perfect fifth above it with which it can resonate. To put it in more modern, avowedly somewhat anachronistic terms, it cannot function under normal conditions as a harmonic root. So Ockeghem creates abnormal conditions.

He goes ahead and writes an F above the cantus firmus B anyway, which forces alteration of the F to F♯ causa necessitatis (“by necessity”), producing what we would call a B-minor triad. But the F♯ is immediately contradicted by the superius’s F-natural against the second cantus firmus note, D, producing what we would call a D-minor triad. This harmonic succession, by virtue of a root progression by thirds and a melodic cross relation, is still weird to the ear after half a millennium. Immediately reiterated and confirmed in the Gloria, it becomes a kind of signature for this Mass.

Nor is F/F♯ the only “cross relation” to be found in the work’s harmonic texture. Within the first subsection of the Kyrie there is an equally teasing interplay of B-natural and B-flat (occasionally called for by specific notational sign). By harnessing the old devices of music ficta to new and especially pungent effect—an effect implicit in the cantus firmus that he has taken over from an earlier composer, but one that the earlier composer had not exploited—Ockeghem announces his emulatory designs on the Caput tradition and proclaims himself a worthy heir to his distinguished predecessor.

Who might this distinguished predecessor have been? Why should an anonymous English Mass have attracted such determined emulation? The likelihood, of course, is that in Ockeghem’s day the Mass was not anonymous. Ockeghem probably knew for a fact something about which we now can only hazard guesses. The gargoylish manuscript illuminations in Fig. 12-4 (p. 458) give a fascinatingly oblique hint as to what he knew and we don’t, namely the earlier author’s identity.

They show dragons—dragons galore. In the bottom panel at left there is a huge dragon fighting with a centaur. At right there are two more dragons, one of which sports a grotesquely elongated neck that draws extra attention to its strangely maned head. A fourth dragon, in the lower right margin, is reduced to just a head emerging from a hellish cauldron.

Dragons’ heads—what do they mean? Any fifteenth-century astrologer or navigator would have known. The Dragon’s Head (Caput Draconis, now called Alpha Draconis), the topmost star of the constellation Draco, was the ancient polestar. The actual term “Caput Draconis” mysteriously appears at the head of the first appearance of the cantus firmus of the original Caput Mass in its most recently discovered source, a Dutch manuscript now in Italy, unknown to scholars until 1968. This manuscript, or one with a similar label on the cantus firmus, must have served the scribe who copied (or more to the point, the artist who decorated) the Vatican manuscript as his exemplar or copy-text. That scribe or artist seems to have interpreted the phrase “dragon’s head” literally.

Patterns of Emulation

fig. 12-6 An old sidereal map of the constellation Draco. Andrea Cellarius, Harmonia Macrocosmica (Amsterdam, 1708), plate 24: Hemisphaerium stellatum boreale antiquum (The Ancient Constellations of the Northern Hemisphere).

Or maybe not: the big dragon at bottom left is fighting with a centaur, and Centaurus, containing Alpha Centauri, the closest star to earth and one of the brightest in the sky, is another major constellation. For those in the know, what better way could there be than this—a visual pun linking the cantus firmus of this magnificent Mass with a bright heavenly orb—for evoking the great figure known to his contemporaries as “an astrologian, a mathematician, a musitian, and what not”? On the basis of the astrological reference, scholarly suspicion has begun to fall on none other than John Dunstable (who, as it happens, did habitually use the term “Tenor secundus” for what later composers called “Contratenor bassus”) as the author of the original Caput Mass.2


(2) Michael Long, “Celestial Motion and Musical Structure in the Late Middle Ages,” unpublished paper (1995), by kind courtesy of the author.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 12 Emblems and Dynasties." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 28 Jan. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-012007.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 28 Jan. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-012007.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 28 Jan. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-012007.xml