Week 10 in Review

This week in blogging:

As musicologists congregated in Philly for the AMS convention, we faithfully continued working our way through the pages of the OHWM. As consolation for not being able to attend the meeting, we were able to listen to four versions of the famous Missa L’Homme Armé settings by the headlining composers of the 15th c. And in a pedagogically inspired moment, Zach cataloged and exemplified the various fallacies Taruskin has introduced, so that we can be sure to keep our thinking straight.

Other Reading Notes:

The reading summary is a little different this week: it is a gathering of quotes from the text that summarize the main points. There were many more choice passages I could have included, but this will have to stand as a brief flash of what was a very rich chapter.

Internationalism: “Even after impregnation by the English, the basic technique of music remained French; but once the northerners began invading the south, it became impossible to tell by style where a piece of written continental music had been composed. Europe, musically, seemed one.” (I, 453)

Ockeghem, by the end of his life, was “surely the most socially exalted musician in Europe,” (I, 455) and Busnoys is “perhaps the earliest major composer from whom autograph manuscripts survive”. (I, 456) These two composers threw encomia (or were they gauntlets?) to one another, each praising the other through song.

The cyclic mass was “the emblem of the century’s musical attainments, for it was a genre of unprecedented altitude.” (I, 459) This genre, a unified setting of the mass ordinary based on a cantus firmus, was originally written for special mass days (royal weddings and coronations), and its raison d’être offers a functional shift: “the use of a symbolic or emblematic tenor uniting its various sections renders the Ordinary ‘proper’ to an occasion. The common cantus firmus acts like a trope, a symbolic commentary on the service.” (I, 461) Over the course of the 15th century, “the rigidly conceived, highly structured style of the isorhythmic motet—the ‘high style’ or stylus gravis of the fourteenth century—passed from the motet into the domain of the cyclic Mass, which was potentially a kind of isorhythmic motet writ large, with five or so discrete sections replacing the multiple color-talea cursus of old.” (I, 461)

The anonymous (Dunstable?) Missa Caput represented a new four-part texture that soon became standard. Coupled with the standardization of vocal ranges [which developed over the next few generations] it represented the beginnings of four-part harmony. Tonal harmony was yet to come, however. “Over the two centuries between 1450 and 1650…, a gradual conceptual change took place in the wake of a new perceptual reality [what RT calls the ‘practiced habits of “hearing”‘]. Roughly speaking, it was the change from ‘modal’ to ‘tonal’ thinking.” (I, 471)

Emulations of the Missa Caput by successive composers (such as Ockeghem) bespeak a common 15th century practice; one that warrants an extended RT description. On the difference between an imitation and emulation: “An imitation is simply a reproduction, a copy, a match—or, as often remarked, a compliment. An emulation is both an homage and an attempt to surpass. The dynasties of composers and of compositions that so distinguished the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were dynasties of emulation. Works of ‘high’ style became models for other works that aspired to the highness in a spirit at once of submission to a tradition and mastery of it, and in a spirit at once of honoring and vying with one’s elders. A composition regarded as especially masterly will come to possess auctoritas—authority. It sets a standard of excellence, but at the same time it becomes the thing to beat. A true emulation will honor the model by conforming to it, but it will also distinguish itself from the model in some conspicuously clever way.” ( I, 474-475)

The supreme emblem of the day was in setting the Missa L’homme armé. “Practically every composer mentioned by Tinctoris, including Tinctoris himself, wrote at least one Missa L’Homme Armé, as did their pupils and their pupils’ pupils. The principle of emulation, thus applied on such a massive scale, produced the very summit of fifteenth-century musical art and artifice.” (I, 484)


  1. Zach Wallmark says:

    Great review format – thanks, Mark!

  2. Does RT address why “L’homme arme” became the standard piece for composers to set their status by?

    I remember my Early Music History teacher saying we really weren’t sure why this one piece in particular became so popular. I imagine it was a case of one composer setting the piece into a mass and then others emulating him until a snowball effect occurred, but I certainly don’t know for sure.

    1. Zach Wallmark says:

      He DOES address this question, actually. The song “L’Homme Arme” was a favorite of the Burgundian king Charles the Bold. Charles identified himself with the “man of arms” because his father had founded a knightly organization to launch a crusade against the Turks, and he inherited this private army (and a rambunctiously aggressive – or “bold” – attitude). “L’Homme Arme” masses were sacred works, of course – they were sung to accompany the Mass ceremony. However, they were also obeisant to secular political authority.

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