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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 12 Emblems and Dynasties
Richard Taruskin
“Pervading Imitation”“Pervading Imitation”

ex. 12-13 Antoine Busnoys, Missa L’Homme Armé, Gloria, “Tu solus altissimus”

With its vivaciously lilting, hemiola-infested rhythms and its fanciful little patches of voice-exchange on the “horn call” motif, Busnoys’s “Tu solus” (Ex. 12-13) really crowns the Gloria. Not only its inherent qualities but also its placement testify to Busnoys’s “art of shapeliness” and justify the high regard in which his work was held, as well as the dynastic influence it exerted on his contemporaries and juniors. And yet if we are to take a properly “historical” view of this Mass, it is on the relatively inconspicuous tenor tacet sections that we must train our lens. They represent a new principle of composing—exceptional in Busnoys’s time, but standard practice a hundred years later and for centuries thereafter.

In the absence of a prefabricated tenor to guide his fashioning hand, the composer proceeds instead in short spurts of chace or caccia-like writing. The superius, at the beginning of the Christe eleison (Ex. 12-14), guides the altus strictly for the duration of the first phrase. But the imitation remains strict only as far as the cadence, when it gives way to a conventional close. Then the bassus, entering, guides the superius strictly as far as the next cadence. Finally, all three voices come together for the third phrase: the altus, rejoining the texture, imitates the “headmotive” of the preceding duo, still functioning as a (would-be) guide. But the other voices pile in for a”free” discant, significantly the shortest of the sections because it is the one least guided. It culminates in another conventional close, this one borrowed from the chanson style: the altus plays the part of the tenor, and the bassus that of the “octave-leaping” contratenor. The Agnus Dei II follows the same format, but less strictly. Its duos begin with brief voice exchanges, then proceed in free discant. The final section begins with a duo for the outer pair that proceeds in a sequential fashion reminiscent of Obrecht as we have come to know him (but Busnoys was the earlier composer and provided the model for Obrecht, who was possibly his pupil).

“Pervading Imitation”“Pervading Imitation”

ex. 12-14 Antoine Busnoys, Missa L’Homme Armé, Christe

These modest three-part compositions, to which we may add the “Pleni sunt coeli” and the “Benedictus” subsections of the Sanctus, were epoch-makers. Out of earlier techniques of canon and voice-exchange the composer has worked out a manner of writing that replaces the cantus firmus (whether held out in the tenor or paraphrased in the superius) with a series of “points of imitation,” as they have become known after centuries of standardization. Each point corresponds to a discrete portion of the text, the parsing of the words thus acquiring a far more direct role in the shaping of the music than in the sections of the Mass that are built over the cantus firmus—and each point comes to a full cadential close before proceeding to the next. Beginning with the generation of Obrecht, every composer of Masses and motets practiced the “pervading imitation” style when not using a cantus firmus. They all learned it, directly or indirectly, from Busnoys.

In the case of some composers, notably Obrecht, the learning-and-modeling process was exceptionally direct, testifying to the force of Busnoys’s unsurpassed authority. Obrecht studied Busnoys’s Missa L’Homme Armé with the same assiduousness he applied to the study of Ockeghem’s Caput Mass and the anonymous English Mass before it. Obrecht’s Missa L’Homme Armé appropriates Busnoys’s tenor note for note; and there is another Mass, attributed by some specialists to Obrecht as well, that appropriates only the rhythms of Busnoys’s tenor, not the familiar tune. (In this way the borrowing becomes not only more hidden but also more specifically an homage to Busnoys.) In such a case the lines of dynastic composerly fealty seem even stronger and more long-lasting than the lines of dynastic political fealty that spawned the original tradition of emulation.

There is a Missa L’Homme Armé by Faugues that quotes the headmotive of Busnoys’s Mass in its Sanctus, just the way Obrecht had quoted the headmotive of the English Caput Mass in his Gloria. (At the same time, of course, Faugues made sure to surpass his model by casting the cantus firmus as a canon for two voices throughout his Mass.) Finally, there is a striking moment in Busnoys’s Sanctus where the superius and altus suddenly drop out, leaving the tenor exposed over an energetic motive in the bassus (Ex. 12-15a). That motive was taken over by a whole slew of followers in their L’Homme Armé Masses, most impressively of all, in the true emulatory spirit, by Philippe Basiron, a pupil of Faugues, in his Agnus Dei (Ex. 12-15b).

“Pervading Imitation”

ex. 12-15a Antoine Busnoys, Missa L’Homme Armé, Sanctus, mm. 26-29

“Pervading Imitation”

ex. 12-15b Philippe Basiron, Missa L’Homme Armé, Agnus I, mm. 8-23

Among the reasons why Busnoys’s Missa L’Homme Armé became the archetype of its genre was one that lay beneath the surface, in the realm of ideal, esoteric, even occult structure. Like the ordering principles governing the isorhythmic motets surveyed in chapter 8, it is unavailable to detection by the listening ear but can be easily grasped and relished by the rational mind. This aspect of the Mass, in other words, belonged to the level not of “music” as we understand the term, but of Musica, as understood in the enduring tradition of Boethius, first described in chapter 3.

When the durations of every subsection of the Mass are measured against the initial tempus or counting unit established in the first Kyrie, a breathtaking array of “Pythagorean” proportions is revealed (Fig. 12-9). It resembles the one illustrated in Ex. 12-1a, from Busnoys’s motet In hydraulis; but it is more hidden, farther-reaching, and far more complete. To pick one example: as shown in Fig. 12-9, the four written subsections of the Sanctus contain 36, 27, 18, and 24 tempora respectively. The ratio 36:27:18:24 reduces (when divided by three) to 12:9:6:8—exactly the proportions of the anvil-weights in the old story of Pythagoras and the blacksmith’s shop, an array that yields all the Pythagorean consonances (see Ex. 1-9): the octave (12:6 = 2:1), the fifth (9:6 = 3:2), the fourth (8:6 = 4:3), and even the “tone” or major second, the difference between the fourth and the fifth (9:8).

“Pervading Imitation”

fig. 12-9 Durational proportions in Antoine Busnoys’s Missa L’Homme Armé.

The concluding Agnus Dei has three subsections in the durational proportion 36:27:18, which when factored by nine reduces to 4:3:2, an array that precisely and economically sums up the perfect consonances, just like the final octave/fifth/fourth harmony of this or any fifteenth-century Mass or motet. The subsections of the Kyrie have lengths can be represented as the ratio 18:16:18, reducing by a factor of two to 9:8:9, expressing the tone. Also striking is the fact that the opening sections of each of the five “movements” in the Mass collectively make an array that reduces to 1:3:3:2:2, expressing the most basic consonances, the octave and the fifth; while the concluding sections of each “movement” have identical durations (18 tempora), thus collectively expressing absolute unity.

Right smack in the middle of things, a prime number occurs in the durational plan that seems to skew it. But that number is 31, symbolizing the Order of the Golden Fleece. So far from skewing the plan, the existence of 31 as a durational unit provides further evidence that Busnoys attached symbolic significance to durations and planned them out in advance, just as a composer of ceremonial motets might formerly have done.

It is worth reiterating that this impressive numerological edifice cannot be heard in performance, nor can it have been meant to be heard. It is not even possible to sing the Mass with the ideal tempo proportions that would realize the ground plan accurately, for that would put the sections in diminution beyond the likely abilities of even the most agile singers. And that is precisely the point. Musica (as opposed to music) was not for the ear but for the mind. A shape that expressed unity on the level of Musica as well as on that of music was unified at a level transcending the human, hence serving the mediating purposes of sacred music ideally, in every sense of the word.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 12 Emblems and Dynasties." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 16 Sep. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-012011.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 16 Sep. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-012011.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 16 Sep. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-012011.xml