Inside the Music | Composers in Arms | Medieval Era | Classical
Du Fay’s Mass L’homme armé was one of the first of several dozen Masses of that name composed between the years 1450 and 1700. ‘L’homme armé’ (‘The Armed Man’) was a popular, probably satirical, tune which may have been aimed at the less-valiant members of the French army during the last stages of the Hundred Years’ War. Attracted by its tunefulness and its simple form, composers began writing Masses using it as a cantus firmus. The first of these may have been Ockeghem, around 1450, but others soon followed suit. In fact, a sort of rivalry ensued as composers sought to outdo each other in presenting the tune in new and ingenious ways. Two sections of Du Fay’s Mass illustrate this musical exhibitionism: in the Credo, at the words ‘Genitum non factum’ (‘Begotten not made’), Du Fay makes the four voices sing at four different speeds simultaneously, resulting in a complex and exciting sound. In the third Agnus Dei he begins by stating the tune (in the middle of the texture) at half speed and back-to-front, and shortly afterwards it appears at normal speed the right way round. Younger composers such as Busnoys and Josquin des Prez (c. 1440–1521) responded to these tricks in various ways, and still others joined in, creating ever more contrived and sometimes witty devices. The list includes most of the Renaissance’s most famous names, and some, like Josquin and Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525/6–94), found the subject so fascinating that they wrote not one, but two, Masses based on it.
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