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 12 Emblems and Dynasties
Richard Taruskin

The noblest and most copious dynasty of all was the long line of Masses based on a cantus firmus derived not from a church chant but from a secular (folk? popular?) song called L’Homme Armé (“The Man at Arms”). More than forty such Masses survive in whole or part, by authors of practically every Western European nationality (Flemish, French, Italian, Spanish, Scottish, German). The earliest was composed some time after 1454, and the latest, a colossal affair for three choirs plus organ, is somewhat doubtfully attributed to the Roman composer Giacomo Carissimi (1605-74). Practically every composer mentioned by Tinctoris, including Tinctoris himself, wrote at least one Missa L’Homme Armé, as did their pupils and their pupils’ pupils. The principle of emulation, thus applied on such a massive scale, produced the very summit of fifteenth-century musical art and artifice.

The later composers in the line, Italians who were both temporally and geographically remote from the origins of the tradition, probably thought of it as a “purely musical” tradition, and a rather academic one at that, involving nothing more than a test-piece to establish professional credentials. The circumstances attending the earliest L’Homme Armé Masses—circumstances probably well known to the composers of the “Tinctoris” generations—suggest that there was originally a lot more to it. These circumstances point to the court of Burgundy, and in particular to a knightly order founded there, as the site and source of this most famous of all emulatory traditions in music.

In 1453, Constantinople (now Istanbul in Turkey), the largest and most splendid city in all of Europe, the capital of the latter-day Roman (Byzantine) Empire and the seat of Greek Christendom, fell after a two-month siege before the gigantic cannons of the Ottoman Sultan, Muhammad II (“The Conqueror”). Muhammad made it the capital of his empire, which it remained until 1918, and it has been a Turkish and a Muslim city ever since its conquest. The European response to this stunning event was one of horror and professed resolve, but little action. (Indeed, the armies of Constantine XI, the last Byzantine emperor, were defeated largely because no European power sent aid.) In immediate—if ultimately futile—reaction to the calamity of Constantinople, Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy vowed to go on a Crusade against the Turks. On 17 February 1454 he convened at Lille in northern France a great meeting of his own knightly retinue, known as the Order of the Golden Fleece. At this meeting, known as the Banquet of the Oath of the Pheasant, the Knights of the Order were sworn to the defense of Constantinople. Descriptions of the proceedings by court chroniclers recount the lavish musical performances that enlivened the banquet. At the climax, right before the oath itself was sworn, a giant led in an elephant on whose back was a miniature castle, from which a woman dressed in mourning sang a lament for the fallen city—perhaps one of four such Constantinopolitan laments that Guillaume Du Fay is known to have written, of which one survives.

This gives us some idea of the manner in which ceremonial music was “consumed” by the court of Burgundy, and the sorts of occasions that the great musicians of the day were expected to dignify. A great deal of sacred music has been circumstantially associated with the Order of the Golden Fleece, including many of the early L’Homme Armé Masses, which date from the period when the Order had become at least nominally a crusading order and when Philip the Good’s famously belligerent son and eventual successor Charles the Bold had become active in it. Charles is already known to us as the patron of Antoine Bus-noys, who had entered his service shortly before Charles’s accession to the ducal throne in 1467.

The Man at Arms

fig. 12-7 Charles the Bold, duke of Burgundy, presiding over his Grand Council in 1474 (oil painting at the palace of Versailles, France).

The song L’Homme Armé was a special favorite of Charles, who identified himself with the titular “Man at Arms” (probably Christ himself if the connection with Crusades was there from the beginning).4 The song may even have been written for Charles. In any case, we know the song as a song, text and all, thanks to the chance survival of a manuscript containing a cycle of six anonymous L’Homme Armé Masses that bears a dedication to Charles and carries the original song up front like a blazon or motto (Fig. 12-8; Ex. 12-10). The song playfully incorporates a horn call—presented variously in three-note and four-note versions, dropping a fifth after an initial series of repeated notes or tattoo—that was possibly drawn from Burgundian town and castle life. A payment record from 1364 survives, detailing the purchase by Philip the Bold, the first Duke of Burgundy, of “a brass trumpet for the castle turret at Grignon, to be blown when the watchman sees men-at-arms.”5 A hundred years later that trumpet was still sounding in Burgundy, if the famous song is any indication.

The Man at Arms

fig. 12-8 L’Homme Armé tune as it is given in its single complete and texted source (Naples, Biblioteca Nazionale, MS VI E.40, fol. 58v).

The Man at Arms

ex. 12-10 Transcription of L’Homme Armé

The cycle of six Masses based on the tune as shown in Fig. 12-8 exactly fits the service requirements of the Sainte Chapelle at Dijon, the official chapel of the Order, where every week six polyphonic Masses and a Requiem were sung.6 The Masses (and the song as well) have a durational structure that is built on the prime number 31: the song is 31 tempora (breve-length measures) long and the subsections of the Mass are likely to be 31 or 62 (31 x 2) or 93 (31 x 3) measures long. Thirty-one was the prescribed number of men-at-arms in the Order and hence symbolized it. One of the Masses sounds the cantus firmus in canon between two tenors: its rubrics make elaborate veiled references to the titular “Man at Arms” and to another armed man “fashioned out of his very entrails”—as the second voice of a canon is fashioned out of the first, or as Charles the Bold had been fashioned out of the flesh of his father, the founder of the Order. Thus the circumstantial (“external”) evidence associating the song L’Homme Armé and the Mass tradition based on it with the Order of the Golden Fleece in its late crusading (or at least blustering) phase under Charles the Bold seems to have ample “internal” corroboration.

So if Charles the Bold was the instigator of the L’Homme Armé tradition, special interest and authority attach to the L’Homme Armé Mass by Charles’s own court composer. And indeed, Busnoys’s Missa L’Homme Armé seems to have been regarded as a special “classic”—by contemporary composers (who emulated it with particular zeal and fidelity), by contemporary theorists (who cited it more often than any other then-current Mass composition), and by scribes for other potentates (including Pope Sixtus, one of whose Sistine Chapel choirbooks is its earliest surviving source). This account will follow suit, for the Mass’s historical significance is matched by its exemplary style and form.

The word “exemplary” is used here in its strictest meaning (a meaning related to the strict meaning of the world “classic” as well): Busnoys’s Mass exemplifies the style and form of the fifteenth-century cantus firmus Mass at its most characteristic, most regular, and most fully developed, and may be taken as a type-work for the “high” style as Tinctoris understood it. One of its most telling features is the technique—the multiple techniques, actually—by which the Mass is unified in many musical dimensions, for that musical unification, as we know, served as a metaphor for the unity of the service and the congregation and was fundamentally bound up with the concept of “highness” as devotional exaltation.

The most obvious way in which the Mass is unified, of course, is in the use of the cantus firmus. Each of its five constituent sections sends the L’Homme Armé melody through the tenor part, in augmented note values, in a cursus that joins the various subsections in an overarching continuity. The opening Kyrie (Ex. 12-11) may fairly represent all its fellows, the more so because all five sections begin identically, with a headmotive consisting of a duo for the superius and altus, three tempora in length, in which the lower part anticipates the cantus firmus tune, adding yet another level of unity. The first three measures of the Kyrie, as shown in Ex. 12-11, could (but for the words) as easily have been the first three measures of the Gloria, the Credo, the Sanctus, or the Agnus Dei.

The Man at ArmsThe Man at Arms

ex. 12-11 Antoine Busnoys, Missa L’Homme Armé, first Kyrie, mm. 1-19

It may appear odd, from the breakdown in Table 12-1, that Busnoys never divides the cantus firmus up among the Mass subsections according to its own very clearly articulated three-part (ABA) form, even though two sections of the Ordinary (the Kyrie and the Agnus Dei) are themselves tripartite in textual structure. But that is because the composer had his own musical plan in mind, one that overrode the structure of the original tune and became standard for fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century Mass Ordinary settings. Table 12-1 sums up the apportionment of the cantus firmus in each section and subsection of the Mass. The treatment varies a bit according to the nature and the length of the various texts, but in all sections of the Mass, the cantus firmus is dramatically deployed in conjunction with the other voices to create a sense of climax, much in the tradition of the isorhythmic motet.

TABLE 12-1 Deployment of the Cantus Firmus in Busnoys, Missa L’Homme Armé




mm. 1-15


tenor tacet

Kyrie II

mm. 16-end

Et in terra

mm. 1-18

Qui tollis

mm. 18-end

Tu solus altissimus



mm. 1-15

Et incarnatus est

mm. 16-end


mm. 1-5, 12-27


mm. 1-19

Pleni sunt coeli

tenor tacet


mm. 20-end


tenor tacet


ut supra

Agnus I

mm. 1-15

Agnus II

tenor tacet

Agnus III

mm. 16-end

In the Kyrie and Agnus Dei, the single cursus of the cantus firmus is split right down the middle and alternates with a subsection in which “the tenor is silent” (tenor tacet) to quote the rubric in the choirbook from which such tenorless middle sections as the Christe eleison or the Agnus Dei II get their generic name. That alternation supplies the requisite “A-B-A-ness” to delineate the textual form. The sense of climax is achieved in every movement past the Kyrie by accompanying the cantus firmus, on its resumption, with voices notated in diminution. Speeding along against an unchanged tactus in the tenor, they reach a really dizzy pitch of virtuosity.

Following a custom already observed in the Caput Masses, Busnoys provides a cap to the entire Ordinary setting in the concluding Agnus Dei by manipulating the cantus firmus with a special “canon” or transformation rule. (“Gimmick” might actually be the best translation, flippant though it may seem.) The tenor appears to carry the tune in its usual form, but a jesting puzzle-rubric—Ubi thesis assint ceptra, ibi arsis et e contra (“Where [the armed man’s] scepter is raised, there go lower and vice versa”)—directs the singers to exchange roles with the basses, who sing the cantus firmus not only down an octave but also with all the intervals inverted. Ex. 12-12 shows the end of the Mass.

The Man at Arms

ex. 12-12 Antoine Busnoys, Missa L’Homme Armé, last Agnus Dei, mm. 14-22

In the lengthy Gloria and Credo, the cantus firmus gets a double cursus that in its accelerated repetition behaves more like the tenor of an isorhythmic motet than ever. The speed-up here is accomplished in two stages: first the accompanying voices go into diminution against the second half of the tenor tune, and then the tenor itself goes into diminution to join them. In the “Tu solus altissimus,” the climactic subsection of the Gloria (Ex. 12-13), the whole cantus firmus is sung more or less exactly as shown in Ex. 12-10 (ut jacet, “as it stands,” to use the contemporary jargon for “at the notated tempo”). All that differs is the amount of resting between phrases.


(4) See Craig Wright, The Maze and the Warrior: Symbols in Architecture, Theology, and Music (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), Chap. 7, “Sounds and Symbols of an Armed Man.”

(5) Nigel Wilkins, Music in the Time of Chaucer (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer), p. 128.

(6) See William F. Prizer, “Music and Ceremonial in the Low Countries: Philip the Fair and the Order of the Golden Fleece,” Early Music History V (1985): 113–53.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 12 Emblems and Dynasties." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 21 Oct. 2019. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-012010.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 21 Oct. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-012010.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 21 Oct. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-012010.xml