Steve C Smith and Peter Phillips
There were at least 31 Mass-settings based on the L'homme armé melody in the Renaissance period. The two by Josquin des Prés were written about half-way through the spectrum, between those of Dufay and Ockeghem on the one hand and the two each by Morales and Palestrina on the other. It is especially valuable to hear the Josquin settings together, since it is assumed that while writing the earlier of them, Super voces musicales, he conceived new compositional challenges which he confronted in Sexti toni. There is an extra merit in having a performance of Super voces musicales on disc, since I believe that, on account of its length and the tessitura of its voice parts, a concert performance of it complete would be virtually impossible.
The earliest reliable source of the L'homme armé melody is a late 15th century manuscript in Naples, which contains six anonymous Masses based on the song. The text may be translated 'Fear the armed man; word has gone out that everyone should arm himself with a haubregon (1) of iron', which may refer to a crusade against the Turks (see Lewis Lockwood in the New Grove). This Neapolitan version of L'homme armé poses two unsolved problems: whether it was originally a monophonic song or the tenor of a lost three-voice chanson; and whether it originally had any more verses, as the refrain structure rather suggests. Apart from the composers already mentioned, there were Mass-settings founded on L'homme armé by Busnois (who was said, by Pietro Aaron in 1523, to have been the original composer of the song), Regis, Tinctoris, Obrecht, Brumel, Mouton, de Silva, Carver and several others. The series was finally closed in the 17th century by Carissimi, who crowned the tradition with a 12-voice work.
At first hearing the two Josquin L'homme armé Masses are worlds apart. One might guess, quite simply, that Super voces musicales was a medieval composition, and Sexti toni a mature Renaissance one. In fact the manuscript evidence is that they were probably both from Josquin's so-called middle period which ended about the year 1500, though it is assumed that Super voces musicales was written first. They were both printed by Petrucci in 1502.
The title Super voces musicales indicates that the L'homme armé melody is quoted in turn on every note of the hexachord. This ascent starts on C in the Kyrie, proceeds to D in the Gloria, to E in the Credo, F in the Sanctus (given again, complete, in both Hosannas), G in the first Agnus Dei (incomplete) and A in the third Agnus (by which time it has at last become too high for the 'tenors' to sing and has been transferred to the top part). The only sections to be completely free of the tune are 'pleni sunt caeli' (Gloria), the Benedictus and the second Agnus Dei, of which the two latter are mensuration canons for two and three voices respectively. The second Agnus is made particularly complicated in that the top part is given the canon in triple time against the different duples of the two parts beneath it. The second halves of the Gloria and Credo (beginning at 'Qui tollis' and 'Et incarnatus est') are based on the melody in strict retrograde, with the Credo containing one more statement of the melody, the right way round, from 'Confiteor' in a syncopated rhythm. It is because the mathematical framework in this Mass is more apparent than in Sexti toni that it sounds the more old-fashioned of the two. Also untypical of late Renaissance music is Josquin's decision to write here for four voice-parts which continuously overlap each other: the top part low, the bottom part high and the two in the middle of roughly complimentary ranges. But there can be no doubt that he knew exactly what he was doing, for the characteristically dense texture of this Mass is just as expressive, though in a different way from the rather widely-spread writing in Sexti toni.
Josquin's Mass Sexti toni (in the sixth mode) is so called because he has transposed the melody to make F its final (as opposed to the more normal G), giving it a major key tonality. This element of transposition is one of the features borrowed from Super voces musicales, though there, as we have seen, it was turned into a constructional principle. The idea of stating the melody in retrograde has also been transferred from the other Mass, though instead of giving the direct and retrograde forms in consecutive statements as he did before, here in the third Agnus Dei Josquin states them both at the same time. These form the lowest parts in a movement where the number of voice-parts has been increased from four to six, and the upper voices are in two paired canons at the unison. While this shows exceptional compositional virtuosity, the actual sound in this final Agnus is most unfamiliar, suggesting, if anything, the methods of such modern minimalist composers as Philip Glass.
The remainder of the setting seems more relaxed, though in fact Josquin can be heard constantly to be trying out new speeds, new rhythms and new scorings for the L'homme armé tune, now complete, now with a few notes used as the basis for an ostinato pattern or a canon. The wide overall range of the four voice-parts brings to the writing the kind of sonority which is associated with Palestrina, and Josquin constantly used this to imaginative effect, nowhere more memorably than at 'Et resurrexit' in the Credo. For showing all these different aspects of his extraordinary technique, this Mass must rank as one of the most accomplished productions of a composer long held to be the greatest writer of his time.
© 1989 Peter Phillips
(1) Haubregon: a sleeveless coat of mail