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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 13 Middle and Low
Richard Taruskin

These Marian antiphon settings sound a conspicuously personal note that we have not previously encountered in liturgical music. That is another aspect of “middling” tone; but it accords well with the votive aspects of Marian worship, the component of the Christian liturgy that in those days was most intensely “personal.” That, too, was something that could be thematized by a knowing composer, especially a knowing churchman-composer. The supreme case in point for a fifteenth-century motet is the third and most splendid setting Du Fay made of the Marian antiphon Ave Regina coelorum, copied into the choirbooks of Cambrai Cathedral in 1465. It is as impressive a motet as Du Fay or anyone ever composed, but it is impressive in an altogether different way from his earlier large-scale motet settings. Where the isorhythmic Nuper rosarum flores (Ex. 8-8) had impressed by its monumentality, Ave Regina coelorum impresses with an altogether unprecedented expressive intensity—unprecedented, that is, within the motet genre.

The personal and votive aspect of this motet are epitomized in a moving set of tropes that Du Fay interpolated into the canonical text of the antiphon, representing a prayer for his own salvation that he wanted sung at his deathbed, and that he wanted to go on being recited after his death in perpetuity, for which, a rich man, he provided an endowment in his will:

Ave regina coelorum,

Ave Domina angelorum,

Miserere tui

labentis Dufaÿ

Ne peccatorum

in ignem fervorum.

Salve radix, salve porta

Ex qua mundo lux est orta;

Miserere genitrix Domini

ut pateat porta coeli debili.

Gaude, virgo gloriosa,

Super omnes speciosa;

Miserere supplicanti Dufaÿ

sitque in conspectu tuo

mors ejus speciosa.

Vale, valde decora

Et pro nobis Christum exora

In excelsis ne damnemur,

miserere nobis

Et juva ut in mortis hora

Nostra sint corda decora.

Hail, O Queen of Heaven!

Hail, O Ruler of the Angels!

Have mercy on

Thy failing Du Fay,

throw him not into the

raging fire of sinners.

Hail, blessed root and gate,

From whom came light upon the world!

Have mercy, mother of God,

that the gate of heaven may be opened to the weak.

Rejoice, O glorious Virgin,

That surpassest all in beauty!

Have mercy on thy suppliant Du Fay,

that his death may find

favor in Thy sight.

Hail, O most lovely of beings,

And pray to Christ for us.

Let us not be damned on high

but have mercy on us,

and help us that in our last hour

our hearts may be upright.

The beginning of the motet, containing the opening canonical acclamation and the first of the votive interpolations, is shown in Ex. 13-3a. Again there is a teasing ambiguity between the old cantus-firmus style and the newer paraphrase technique. Both of the duos that together make up the introitus contain paraphrases of the Gregorian antiphon, first in the superius and then in the altus. When the tenor finally makes its dramatic entrance, it, too carries a chant paraphrase, albeit in longer note-values as befits a cantus firmus in the older tradition. But when the tenor intones the canonical chant, the other parts immediately switch over to the trope, so that a kind of old-fashioned polytextualism sets in.

Personal PrayerPersonal Prayer

ex. 13-3a Guillaume Du Fay, Ave Regina coelorum III, mm. 1-29

The most dramatic touch of all, of course, is the sudden introduction of the E-flat in the superius on “Miserere,” dramatizing in the most tangible way the shift from the impersonal diction of the liturgical chant to the personal voice of the composer. It is hard to ignore its affective significance in light of the text, which speaks of the composer’s frailty and his fears. And so we have an early instance, and in this unexpected context a shattering one, of major–minor contrast in what would become its traditional mood-defining role. The association of the Dorian interval-species with woe and Lydian/Mixolydian with joy was as old as the Marian antiphons themselves (as the contrast of Salve Regina and Regina coeli laetare in Ex. 3-12 sufficed to indicate). But forcing the Dorian interval species into Lydian pitch space, as Du Fay does here, was new and startling in a motet context (although, minus the “straightforward symbolism” of affect, we encountered it two chapters back in Ex. 11-25, Du Fay’s chanson Craindre vous veuil), and, in a newly “middling” way, expressive. Du Fay here speaks to Mary as human to human, seeking a human response (and getting it, at least, from his mortal listeners).

Was Du Fay aware, at such a poignant moment, of the inadvertent, irrelevant in-joke of having the added flat (which, to a fifteenth-century singer, meant “sing fa”) occur on the text syllable “Mi-”? No doubt he was as aware of it as any singer would be, and found the irony irresistible—so irresistible that he strove to make it relevant to the affective content of the motet. Ex. 13-3b shows the way in which Du Fay set the one other text line that contained his name: Miserere supplicanti Dufaÿ (“Have mercy on thy suppliant, Du Fay”). This time the tenor, which never partakes of the tropes, is silent. Superius and altus engage in a little canon, both entering with E-flat on “Mi-” as the superius had done before. Even the bassus gets into the act, with a flatted “Miserere” at the fifth, that is on A-flat, which takes it even farther into flat space, and even closer to an adumbration of an actual major–minor “tonal” contrast.

Personal Prayer

ex. 13-3b Guillaume Du Fay, Ave Regina coelorum III, “Miserere supplicanti Dufaÿ”

The flats persist until the cadence, where the superius evades occursus with the altus by means of a temporary escape to the third. That third, to remove any doubts caused by the previous infusion of flats, is designated major by specific sign—what we would call a “sharp” or “natural,” which to a fifteenth-century singer meant “sing mi.” And of course it comes on the “-fa-” of the name “Du Fay”! (And that is why the composer signaled his insistence on a three-syllable pronunciation of the name with the modified letter “ÿ.”) It was an inescapable pun for a composer who enjoyed signing his name, both in letters and in musical documents, with the rebus shown in Fig. 13-1. The note on the staff, a C, is “fa” in the “hard” hexachord specified by the composer’s first initial, G.

Personal Prayer

fig. 13-1 Du Fay’s rebus signature.

Personal Prayer

ex. 13-4 Guillaume Du Fay, Missa Ave Regina coelorum, Agnus II

This solmization-inversion, paltry musicians’ in-joke though it may be, nevertheless sparked the creation of one of the most affecting passages in the pre-Reformation sacred repertory. Nor is this the first time we have found the lowest form of wit producing, or helping to produce, the highest level of expression. Du Fay certainly recognized the pathos of what he had created and quoted it in the Mass he wrote to accompany his Ave regina coelorum motet at memorial services after his death (Ex. 13-4). Almost needless to say, the quotation comes in the second Agnus Dei, the only tenor tacet section of the Mass that includes the word “Miserere.” There is no analogue to the second pun on “Du-fa-ÿ” here; the harmonic shift, though suggested by the pun, is no longer dependent on it for its effect.

The effect of anguished mortality is heightened in the Mass through additional chromaticism: a specifically signed F-sharp right before a specifically signed B-flat in each of the two voices in imitation. The resulting diminished fourth was something that might have been introduced into the motet by daring singers exercising their rights, so to speak, when it came to musica ficta—especially if those singers knew Du Fay’s very late chanson Hélas mon deuil, a ce coup sui je mort (“Alas, my woe, at this blow I die”), where the same tortured interval is demanded for the very same expressive purpose (Ex. 13-5). No contrapuntal situation could demand such a rash of accidentals. It must answer to someone’s specific expressive intent.

Personal Prayer

ex. 13-5 Guillaume Du Fay Hélas mondeuil, mm. 1-8

Du Fay’s Agnus Dei represents a new relationship between a Mass setting and its “raw material”: it is not just a plainchant or a single line extracted from its polyphonic context that lies behind the Mass setting, but a preexistent polyphonic passage that is being cannibalized in its entirety. We are at the borderline between contrafactum—the fitting out of old songs with new texts for new purposes—and the kind of intricate polyphonic remodeling that in the next century would be called “parody.”

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 Jun. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-013002.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 Jun. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-013002.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 Jun. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-013002.xml