The Age of Polyphony - III. Early mass cycles

As is widely known, the mass ordinary cycle had its origin with the generation of Machaut. Besides Machaut's famous four-voice setting, there are other anonymous cycles, mainly in three voices but with sections in four. In some cases, these appear to be cycles in name only, but at least in the case of Machaut's mass, there are motivic connections which serve to unite the sections. This sort of unity is rather far removed from the more extravagant schemes of the Franco-Flemish masters at their height, but does show an interest in linking smaller sections to form a larger whole, a whole which was to take on a symphonic quality within a hundred years. Although full mass cycles are unusual in the fourteenth century, individual sections of the mass ordinary were frequently set to music, sometimes in elaborate contrapuntal style. Despite conspicuous four-voice examples, the primary sacred idiom remained three-voice polyphony through the era of the young Dufay. The shift from an emphasis on three- to four-voice writing in Dufay's mass cycles can be seen as signaling the decisive shift to the mass cycle as the preeminent musical genre, especially accompanied as it was by important shifts in compositional technique.

Although it can be easy to jump ahead to the fully-formed cantus firmus mass of the late Dufay et al., the precedents for this compositional breakthrough are not so difficult to perceive. The individual mass sections of the fourteenth century were not only some of its most elaborate pieces, but were sometimes linked together by motivic connections, much as in Machaut's mass. While not full cycles, Gloria-Credo pairs and the like were fashionable, and linking mass ordinary sections by motivic similarity continued apace into the years of the young Dufay. Not only did Dufay himself write in this style, but it was a commonplace of his peers (Ciconia, Binchois, Brassart, the des Lantins, etc.). Dufay continued this manner of connecting movements in his early cycles, Missa Sancti Jacobi and especially Missa Resvellies vous. The former famously includes an integrated propers setting, something which was far from unique. Indeed, Dufay himself wrote the Missa Sancti Anthonii de Padua in similar fashion some decades later. That mass continues to show Dufay working in the older three-voice "cantilena" style even after the cantus firmus mass had become current. The cantilena style is essentially related to Dufay's hymn harmonizations, chant in the highest voice supported by lower voices. Part of the distinction is that it was not the same chant in each movement, as it would be in cantus firmus technique, but rather a chant appropriate to the movement at hand. It is increasingly conjectured that Dufay wrote a series of propers settings in this style for the entire liturgical year at Cambrai, an undertaking which would be repeated in subsequent generations by Isaac & Byrd. Although not as sophisticated (keeping in mind our c.1500 orientation for this series), the Missa Resvellies vous can be viewed as an early attempt at parody technique as eventually developed by La Rue et al.

Cantus firmus became the decisive technique for linking mass movements into cycles, and it was the English composers Power & Dunstaple who left the earliest examples in this style (still overwhelmingly in three parts). Power & Dunstaple make frequent use of isorhythm in their work, showing an explicit bridge to the earlier medieval style. The most important development may have been the use of longer melodies to condition the rhythmic & harmonic contours of entire movements, as opposed to the shorter isorhythmic patterns which had been in vogue, and which created a more pointillistic texture. The basis for this extended harmonic style lay with the continued prominence of descant writing in England. Since England was reluctant to embrace the more complicated French technique of the fourteenth century, it continued to elaborate descant style, happening upon what seems to be an obvious idea: using the preexisting melody in the upper or middle voices, rather than only in the lowest voice, as in early organum. This style became one basis for cantus firmus technique, although given the large & sudden outpouring of hymn harmonizations (clearly related to descant, with a chant in the highest voice) by Dufay et al. in Italy during the early 1400s, one must wonder whether it was widely practiced there and elsewhere. England may have been the only country which saw fit to write down what had been an essentially improvisatory practice. In any event, it was the necessity of using sequences of imperfect consonances in parallel descant which gave rise to textures in thirds known as the English Countenance, and it was the relative simplicity of these early works which apparently moved polyphony from the domain of soloists to that of the small choir.

Tinctoris is our primary witness to this phenomenon, and it is he who credits the English and especially Dunstaple. Tinctoris goes so far as to state flatly that no music from before c.1440 is worth hearing. Indeed, this is the time from which the full-fledged cantus firmus mass emerged, most emblematically in the anonymous four-voice Missa Caput. It clearly marks a more self-assured handling of the new style, and was to set off a chain-reaction of emulation and development. That this seminal mass is anonymous is certainly an impediment to our understanding, but it is believed to be English based on its troped Kyrie. If it is by Dunstaple, it marks a definite development of style over his known work. The Missa Caput is only one of several prominent cycles from this period, many anonymous, and as the elder statesman of continental music, Dufay was not to be outdone. His first cantus firmus mass, Missa Se la face ay pale retains some isorhythmic elements and does not possess the modernity of Missa Caput, but with his Missa l'homme armé, Missa Ecce ancilla Domini, and Missa Ave Regina cælorum, he progressively developed a style which must be considered the pinacle of its generation. Even Dufay's choice of cantus firmus tunes was mimicked, as the Missa l'homme armé & Missa Ecce ancilla Domini immediately became models (now called "timbres") for Dufay's secretary Regis, and of course for the great Ockeghem.

Exploration of texture continued apace in this subsequent generation, not only in the free contrapuntal invention of Ockeghem, but in the syncopated & far-ranging lines of Busnoys (who is often regarded as the first to have written a Missa l'homme armé, c.1460). From the perspective of the c.1500 generation, the expansion of vocal ranges in the mid-to-late-1400s may have been the most important development. Although four-voice composition was now clearly the standard for sacred polyphony (the chanson retained a three-voice emphasis), some three-voice cycles remained significant, even as late as the work of Obrecht. While Ockeghem's music is increasingly well-understood, that of many of his contemporaries remains obscure. Even a figure the stature of Busnoys, perhaps the most important in textural (as opposed to contrapuntal) innovation, needs more attention on recording to consummate what has become a fairly sizeable body of scholarly work. There is no doubt that an ability to hear this music is a key element for continued study, and we have at least been given that chance in the case of Regis, the less gifted Faugues, and even Tinctoris. Frye has become fairly popular. Caron and others remain totally obscure, not least of which because so many masses from the period are anonymous. This generation is essentially marked by its burgeoning ideas, ideas which — from the perspective of the present series — can be seen to set the stage for the subsequent elaborations of the Josquin generation. From imitation down the line, it is difficult to find later contrapuntal techniques which were not used already by the mid-to-late-1400s.

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Todd M. McComb