Josquin Des Prez: Missa Di Dadi & Missa Une Mousse De Biscaye (CD)

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The Tallis Scholars, Peter Philips

The Tallis Scholars, Peter Phillips (conductor)


Can great music be inspired by the throw of dice? The possibility clearly excited Josquin, who prefaced the tenor part in several of the movements of his Missa Di dadi with a pair of dice, each pair giving a different total score. And the scores show that he knew how gambling worked—they stop when one of the players has thrown a winning combination. Did he know this because he was living in a place where gambling was so commonplace it was even thought appropriate to refer to it in a Mass-setting?


He may have been. Milan under the Sforzas in the late fifteenth century was well known to have been a hot-house of gambling, with the ducal family taking a leading role. Since there is good evidence that Josquin worked there throughout the 1480s, it seems very possible that he joined in with the fashion, at court and in private. This would certainly explain the (not entirely necessary) presence of the dice in the notational scheme of this Mass, as a friendly nod to his singers, and to please the duke. Did he even throw dice to establish his composition plan?


At first sight these dice are nothing more than indicators to the tenors as to how to distribute the notes of the chanson, on which the Mass is based, into their part—Josquin having chosen as his cantus firmus the tenor part of Robert Morton’s chanson N’aray je jamais mieulx. For example the Kyrie is preceded by a pair of dice showing two and one, which tells the singers that the note-lengths of the chanson need to be doubled in order to fit with the other three voice-parts. In the Gloria the dice read four and one, requiring the notes of the chanson to be quadrupled in length. In the Credo the dice indicate six to one. In the Sanctus it is five to one. So far, so good. But there are problems. In the Credo the proportion has to be twelve to one, not six, or the notes don’t fit. In the Sanctus the five to one stipulation doesn’t work across all the notes of the original, only the longer ones. And there are suddenly no dice featured at all after the ‘pleni’. Fortunately the printer, Petrucci, anticipating trouble, wrote out a resolution of the tenor parts. Nonetheless, even though the dice are thus rendered redundant, Petrucci still thought it important to include them in the final print. This only further underlines the question, why are they there?


There have been many theories. André Pirro (in 1940) judged the conceit of the dice to be ‘a useless complication, invented only to amuse or confuse singers devoted to gaming’. More tolerant explanations have turned to the first line of the chanson, ‘Shall I never have better than I have?’, in the hope of finding a clue, though whether this title implies a religious meaning, or is purely secular, is a moot point. Is it no more than the conventional lover’s complaint? Is it the greedy gambler’s gripe? Or is it the languishing soul’s plea for redemption? This last possibility has been taken up by several writers who suggest that the lack of dice after the ‘pleni’ supports the evidence that in the medieval church there was a change in mood at that point, with the following Hosanna and Benedictus serving as a frame for the elevation of the host (the ritual display of the consecrated bread and wine). Since this was the most dramatic and significant moment of the Mass it comes as no surprise to find that composers might give it special musical treatment.


There is one further detail. In the sections where the dice are present Josquin only quotes the first six bars of Morton’s tenor. When we get to the Hosanna (and also in the Agnus Dei) he quotes the whole of Morton’s chanson tenor—a total of twenty-three bars—which explains why these movements are suddenly more substantial than the preceding ones. And in the very last statement of the Morton tenor, in the third Agnus, Josquin finally gives the melody to the basses and starts it on a D, as Morton had done, not G, which is the first note of every other statement in Josquin’s Mass. So not only is there a special reference to gaming in this music, alongside a special way of marking the elevation of the host, but there is also the more common compositional practice of building interest towards the final moments of the setting.


The authorship of both the Missa Di dadi and the Missa Une mousse de Biscaye has been questioned. If one is voting for Josquin—the evidence from the sources is inconclusive—the standard explanation is that they are both early works, by a composer who was trying out differing styles and methods. Knowing how experimental Josquin could be in his mature writing, and finding both these Masses very powerful to perform, I am inclined to support this theory. The Missa Di dadi is especially interesting, since it seems to be a dry run for the much more famous, and probably much later, Missa Pange lingua. If so, this could have been Josquin revisiting and reworking a student composition, or if the Missa Di dadi is actually the later work, then perhaps it could be another composer rehashing an established masterpiece. The dice, however, remind us of the prevailing scene in Milan, and Josquin’s presence there.


The Missa Une mousse de Biscaye is based on a secular tune with a French and Basque text. The French word ‘mousse’ in the title is derived from the Castilian word ‘moza’ meaning a lass; Biscay is a province in the north of Spain, part of the Basque Country, with Bilbao as its capital. The original is a dialogue between a young man, speaking in French, and a Basque girl, who replies to all his amorous proposals with the mystifying refrain ‘Soaz, soaz, ordonarequin’. The confusion in the lovers’ communications is held to explain the way the music wanders about tonally—beginning in F, quickly cadencing in G, returning to F but ending eventually in B flat.


The Mass is said to be Josquin’s earliest Mass-setting, dating from 1473-75. Inevitably for such an early work it is full of untypical details. For example the Agnus Dei is an exact repeat of the Kyrie—unique in Josquin. And the Credo is unusually long by comparison with the other movements. In addition there are some ungrammatical (by later standards) dissonances and resolutions, though nothing as extraordinary as those heard in the ‘Domine Deus, Rex caelestis’ section of the Missa Di dadi. The chanson melody in this Mass is treated quite loosely—appearing in all the voice-parts at different times and with a variety of extensions to the original. It is these extensions which give the writing its fantasia-like charm, especially in the Credo.


Both these Masses based on secular melodies seem to show Josquin as a young man exploring what he could do with the form. He would experiment further, and equally randomly, in other settings of the Mass. But here are two major variations on the timeless theme of how to set the Mass text, one with a particularly engaging history, and both yielding some superlative a cappella writing.


Peter Phillips


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Missa Di Dadi ‘The Dice Mass’


1-3. Kyrie
4-8. Gloria
9-10. Credo
11-15. Sanctus & Benedictus
16. Agnus Dei


Missa Une Mousse De Biscaye


19-21. Kyrie
22-24. Gloria
25-26. Credo
27-31. Sanctus & Benedictus
32. Agnus Dei

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