Josquin des Prez: Missa Pange lingua, Kyrie and Credo


Historical Context:

Few musicians have enjoyed higher renown or exercise greater influence in the Renaissance period of history (c. 1400—1600) than Josquin de Prez (ca. 1450-1521). Contemporaries hailed Josqin as “the best of the composers of our time” and “the father” of musicians.” In 1538, Martin Luther proclaimed that “Josqin is the master of the notes. They must do as he wills; as for the other composers, they have to do as the notes will.” A generation after his death, humanist scholars compared him to Virgil and Michelangelo an artist without peer.

Josquin (known by his given name because “des Prez” was a nickname) wrote masses, motets and songs that were widely sung, praised and emulated in his lifetime and for decades after his death. His early life is largely undocumented, but he was probably born and trained in or near Saint Quentin in northern France, about halfway between Paris and Brussels. He served in the chapel of Rene, duke of Anjou, at Aix-en-Provence in the last 1470s. After Rene’s death in 1480, his singers transferred to the service of King Louis XI at Sainte Chapelle in Paris, and Josquin may have been among them.

Josquin spent much of his career in Italy, serving the Sforza family, rulers of Milan (ca. 1484—89), and in the Sistine Chapel in Rome (1489-95) or later. He may be have been in France at the court of King Louis XII from 1501 to 1503. He was appointed maestro di cappella to Duke Ercole I d’Este in Farrara in 1503 at the highest salary in the history of that chapel. A recruiter for the duke had recommended the Flemish composer Heinrich Issac instead, noting that although Josquin was a better composer, he demanded a higher salary and composed only when he wanted to and not when asked; the duke hired Josquin away, no doubt aware of the prestige to be gained by employing the best musician available. Josquin left a year, apparently to escape the plague. From 1504 until his death in 1521 he resided at Cone-sur-l’Escaut, where he was provost at the church of Notre Dame.

Cultural Context:03.jpg

Court chapels, groups of salaried musicians and clerics that were associated with a ruler rather than with a particular building, sprang up all over Europe in the late 14th and early 15th centuries. The first chapels were established by King Louis IX of France and King Edward I of England in the 13th century. After the mid-14th century, the fashion spread to other aristocrats and church leaders. Members of the chapel served as performers, composers, and scribes, furnishing music for church services.

These musicians also contributed to the court entertainment, composing secular songs as well as sacred music, and accompanied their ruler on journeys.

Most 15th and 16th century composers were trained as choir boys and hired as signers for churches or court chapels. In some cathedrals and chapels, choir schools taught not only singing but also music theory, grammar, mathematics and other subjects. Cities such as Cambrai, Bruges, Antwerp, Paris and Lyons were the centers most renowned for their musical training in the fifteenth century; later they were joined by Rome, Venice and other Italian cities. This helps to explain why the most prominent composers like Josquin came from Flanders, the Netherlands and northern France, while Italians became more prominent from the mid-16th century on. Because only male children were admitted into choirs, women did not have this educational opportunity or the chance to make careers in public churches and princely courts. Nuns and novices in convents did receive musical instruction, and a few distinguished themselves as composers.

Many rulers enthusiastically supported music and competed with each other for the best composers and performers. Like fine clothes and impressive pageantry, excellent music was both enjoyable in itself and valuable as a way to display wealth and power to audiences at home and abroad. The kings of France and England and the dukes of Burgundy and Savoy were especially notable patrons in the fifteenth century, but most striking was the breadth and depth of patronage in Italy. The Medici, the leading family in Florence, sponsored Franco-Flemish musicians such as Heinrich Issac and Jacques Arcadelt as well as native Italian painters and sculptors like Donatello, Botticelli, and Michelangelo. In the late 15th century, Josquin and the Leonardo di Vinci worked for members of the Sforza family, the rulers of Milan. Josquin also work for the court of Ferrara under the Este family and in Mantua for the Gonzaga family, thanks to Isabella d’Este who as a noblewoman had studied music seriously.


It is likely that this Mass, Josqin’s Missa Pange ligua was one of the last masses the Josqin composed and the he wrote sometime in the last 7 years of his life. The important music printer Ottaviano Petrucci did not print this mass in any of this collections of Josquin masses (published in 1502, 1505 and 1514.) It appears in manuscripts dating from late in Josquin’s lifetime and was published, but only in an anthology dated 1539, some 18years after Josquin’s death.

This Mass, like most written in the Renaissance period, is based on a pre-existing melody, in this case a hymn tune Pange lingua gloriosi (text by Thomas Aquinas) sung at the Second Vespers on the feast of Corpus Christi.
Pange linqua hymn

Josquin based all the movements of the mass on the hymn melody. Rather than placing hymn in a single voice he constructs it so that the hymn tune is heard in every voice. Josquin adapted the six phrases of the hymn melody as subjects for polyphonic imitation, making imitation the primary structural device rather than the layering of voices around a single voice that has the pre-existing tune. That technique, typically in the early part of the 14th century, put or fixed the borrow melody in one voice, typically the tenor voice, hence it was called a cantus firmus mass) cantus firmus. This procedure because it quotes the tune in all voices, is called a paraphrase mass. In this paraphrase, the borrowed melody is also considerably elaborated, not always quoted directly. The borrowed melody serves more as a source of motives for imitation than as a structural scaffolding and permeates all voices equally.

Josquin treats the melody systematically, distributing the six phrases of the hymn evenly; phrases 1 and 2 in the Kyrie, 3 and 4 in the Christe, 5 and 6 in the Kyrie II. Each phrase, except the sixth, is exposed in a set of imitations or imitative duets in which its opening contour and pitch qualities are preserved. When he comes to the sixth and last hymn phrase, Josquin abstracts its prominent falling third and with it launches a dramatic and energetic drive to the final cadence. Besides furnishing melodic material, the chant also sets the tonal framework of the Kyrie. The three cadences that end sections fall on the final tones of each pair of chant phrases: G, D and E. The imitations begin either on the initial pitches of the relevant chant phrases or on cognate tones a fifth away.

The hymn is treated somewhat more freely in the Credo, but the imitative treatment of phrase 1 at the beginning of each does unite the movements of the Mass with a kind of “motto” effect. Both the Gloria and the Credo resume the hymn tune midway through, a recurrence prompted by the length of their texts. In the Agnus Dei I Josquin treats phrases 1 and 2 in imitation. The third motive (m.17 “Miserere”) may echo the beginning of the phrase 5, and recalls the beginning of Kyrie II melodically. Agnus Dei II is a tightly regulated duet. After the opening motive, the chant recedes from the surface, but its second and third phrases may have inspired the descending-third motive of measure 48 and the rising fourth figure of measure 65 respectively. The tight distance between voices creates an excited effect as from measure 42 on the second voice echoes the first on the very next beat.

Manuscript Sources


Listening Example:
Score with Commentary