Inside the Music | Mass Cycles | Medieval Era | Classical
Written in the early 1360s, Machaut’s Mass cycle sets all the movements of the Ordinary, the dismissal (Ite missa est), and its response. Although not all the movements are based on chant (the Kyrie, Sanctus, Agnus Dei and the dismissal are based on their respective plainchant melodies, in isorhythm, whereas the Gloria and Credo are set to freely composed syllabic polyphony), the Mass uses four-part scoring and similar vocal ranges throughout.
Oddly, Machaut’s Mass did not noticeably influence many later composers, although they must certainly have been aware of it. Around the beginning of the fifteenth century the focus shifted to England, where Dunstaple and his contemporaries were composing Masses (mostly in three voices) based on a cantus firmus in the tenor. The most influential of these compositions was the anonymous Missa Caput. Based on a cantus firmus, but with the addition of a fourth, freely composed line below the tenor, it revolutionized Mass composition. It is structured by a masterful series of proportional relationships and it influenced later continental composers to do the same: it was used as a model by both Ockeghem and Jacob Obrecht (c. 1450–1505). For these features, and for its sonorous texture, it was justly famous in its day, and it is perhaps one of the most important pieces ever to have been composed.
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