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Redefining the motto in the fifteenth-century sine nomine Mass

  • Alexis Luko


During the early years of the cyclic sine nomine Mass, before the invention of the cantus firmus Mass, the motto or head motive served as the principal means of unification. The motto has typically been characterised as a relatively uncomplicated single-voice or multi-voice unifying motive presented in the first few measures of each movement of a Mass Ordinary. This article challenges and expands common perceptions of the motto and proposes new vocabulary to aid in identifying mottos and associated repetition and variation techniques. Musical examples from the sine nomine Mass repertory dating between c.1420 and c.1466 (including the anonymous Missa Fa-ut and works by John Benet, Johannes Reson, Johannes Lymburgia, Barbingant and Jo. Bassere) reveal commonalities in motto construction and variation. These works employ multiple mottos, which, besides acting as initial gestures at the openings of movements, also serve to punctuate most subsections and are even found articulating certain words and phrases incorporated within the general contrapuntal fabric. By means of complex procedures of repetition and variation, composers applied a richer and more multifaceted approach to motto construction than previously recognised – a finding that has important ramifications for a deeper understanding of compositional approaches to repetition in cyclic Mass Ordinary settings of the early Renaissance period.



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1 Manfred Bukofzer, ‘Caput: A Liturgico-Musical Study’, in idem, Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Music (New York, 1950), 219.

2 Bologna Q15 features a number of continental composers (including Dufay, Binchois, Ciconia, Brassart, Benet, Hugo de Lantins, Arnold de Lantins, Johannes Franchois, Lymburgia, Hubertus de Salinas, Guillaume LeGrant and Loqueville), while Turin's repertory is entirely anonymous. For the most recent study on Bologna Q15, see Margaret Bent, Bologna Q15: The Making and Remaking of a Musical Manuscript, Introductory Study and Facsimile Edition, 2 vols. (Lucca, 2008). See also: Guillaume De Van, ‘Inventory of Manuscript Bologna, Liceo Musicale, Q15 (olim 37)’, Musica Disciplina, 2 (1948), 231–57; Margaret Bent, ‘A Contemporary Perception of Early Fifteenth-Century Style: Bologna Q15 as a Document of Scribal Editorial Initiative’, Musica Disciplina, 41 (1987), 183–201. Charles Hamm has characterised Bologna Q15 as a manuscript that ‘preserves by far the largest collection of paired movements and partial, composite and complete Masses from this time’ in: ‘The Reson Mass’, Journal of the American Musicological Society, 18 (1965), 5–21, at 5. On Turin J.II.9, see Richard H. Hoppin, ‘The Cypriot-French Repertory of the Manuscript Torino, Bibliotheca Nazionale, J.II.9’, Musica Disciplina, 11 (1957), 79–125; Ursula Günther and Ludwig Finscher, eds., The Cypriot-French Repertory of the Manuscript Torino J.II.9 (Neuhausen-Stuttgart, 1995).

3 There are thirty-five Mass pairs in Bologna Q15 and seven Mass pairs in Turin. On Mass-pair unification in Bologna Q15, Hamm states: ‘Eight of the pairs are unified by common head-motive in the two sections’ (‘The Reson Mass’, 6). On Mass-pair unification in Turin, Hamm writes: ‘None of the seven [Gloria–Credo Mass pairs] is unified by common tenor or parody technique, [and] only the first has a common head-motive’ (ibid., 9). For discussions on Mass pairs in Bologna Q15, see Gossett, Philip, ‘Techniques of Unification in Early Cyclic Masses and Mass Pairs’, Journal of the American Musicological Society, 19 (1966), 205231 . Gossett is critical of how we decide exactly what constitutes a Mass pair or cycle. His scholarship is particularly applicable to those Mass pairs and Masses that appear in early manuscripts such as Bologna Q15, where movements are grouped within their respective sections. On Sanctus–Agnus Mass pairs of English origin, see Wright, Peter, ‘Early 15th-Century Pairings of the Sanctus and Agnus Dei and the Case of the Composer Bloym, The Journal of Musicology, 22 (2005), 604643 . For a discussion of stylistic unification of Mass pairs by Lantins using techniques of imitation and chromaticism, see Reinhard Strohm, The Rise of European Music: 1380–1500 (Cambridge, 1993), 173–6. Other English and continental manuscripts in which Gloria–Credo and Sanctus–Agnus movements are intentionally composed as units include Old Hall, Oxford 213, Bologna 2216, Aosta, Trent 87 and Trent 92. See Bukofzer, ‘Caput’, 217–26.

4 Bukofzer, ‘Caput’, 221. For a discussion that problematises notions of unity in the cyclic Mass, see Strohm, The Rise of European Music, 170–2. Strohm suggests that the ‘cyclic Mass was fostered by pragmatic, rather than aesthetic, considerations’ (ibid., 171 and 229). Also see Andrew Kirkman, ‘Innovation, Stylistic Patterns and the Writing of History: The Case of Bedyngham's Mass Dueil Angoisseux’, in I codici musicali trentini: nuove scoperte e nuovi orientamenti della ricerca, ed. Danilo Curti, Marco Gozzi and Peter Wright (Trent, 1996), 149–75. For other research on the early history of the Mass that argues for connections between the isorhythmic motet and cyclic cantus firmus Mass, see Thomas Brothers, ‘Vestiges of the Isorhythmic Tradition in Mass and Motet, ca.1450–1475’, Journal of the American Musicological Society, 44 (1991), 1–56. For the historical reception of the cyclic Mass, see Andrew Kirkman, ‘The Invention of the Cyclic Mass’, Journal of the American Musicological Society, 54 (2001), 1–47. Also see Kirkman, The Cultural Life of the Early Polyphonic Mass: Medieval Context to Modern Revival (Cambridge, 2010). Though historiography exposes certain ‘baggage’ linked to the word ‘movement’ and its obvious associations with the symphony, for the sake of clarity I choose to use this term, nonetheless, as my analyses require a clear differentiation between the openings of Mass ‘movements’ and Mass ‘subsections’.

5 Other Mass subgenres in which the motto may be found are the cantus firmus Mass, the paraphrase Mass, imitation Mass (or cantus firmus Mass with ancillary borrowings) and parody/ad imitationem Mass. Sparks claims that the motto and cantus prius factus were seldom combined. See Edgar H. Sparks, Cantus Firmus in Mass and Motet: 1420–1520 (Berkeley, 1963), 121. Dufay was one of the first composers to use both a cantus firmus and a motto in his Missa Se la face ay pale and Missa Ave regina caelorum. My definition of the sine nomine Mass includes those works that allude to snippets of chanson or plainchant. In his pioneering work on fifteenth-century allusion, Christopher Reynolds has, for instance, discovered many chanson allusions in Masses of San Pietro B80 and has shown how a single Mass can include several allusions to numerous chansons. Conveyed in voices other than the tenor, unlike the cantus firmus, allusion does not function as a structural backbone to a Mass. Reynolds, ‘Counterpoint of Allusion in Fifteenth-Century Masses’, Journal of the American Musicological Society, 45 (1992), 228–60. Also see Reynolds, Papal Patronage and the Music of St. Peter's 1380–1513 (Berkeley, 1995); Kirkman, ‘The Case of Bedyngham's Mass Dueil Angoisseux’, 149–75; Robert Mitchell, ‘The Paleography and Repertory of Trent Codices 89 and 91, Together with Analyses and Editions of Six Mass Cycles by Franco-Flemish Composers from Trent 89’, Ph.D. diss., University of Exeter (1989).

6 When Sparks found similar musical material at the beginning of interior sections of movements of Dufay's Missa Ave regina caelorum, he wondered if they should be ‘considered as an extension of the device of the head motive – that is, as secondary head motives’. Sparks, Cantus Firmus in Mass and Motet, 127. Hamm noticed that the Reson Mass employed an extended motive at the beginning of interior subsections and he referred to this as a ‘motive relationship’. Hamm, ‘The Reson Mass’, 17.

7 As we shall see below, motto variation is typical in the sine nomine Mass and, therefore, the ‘variable head motives’ that Adelyn Peck Leverett identifies in Trent 89 and 91 should not necessarily be seen as stylistically connected to the Austro-German school of low-contratenor Mass composition. Adelyn Peck Leverett, ‘A Paleographical and Repertorial Study of the Manuscript Trento, Castello Del Buonconsiglio, 91 (1378)’, 2 vols., Ph.D. diss., Princeton University (1990), 1:186–8. For an in-depth investigation into head motives in Lymburgia's Missa sine nomine, see Jerry Haller Etheridge, ‘The works of Johannes Lymburgia’, 2 vols., Ph.D. diss., Indiana University (1972), 1:182–6. Fabrice Fitch has concluded from his investigation of head motives in the Missa Mimi, Missa Au travail suis and the Missa Quinti toni that these works are ‘distinguished from Ockeghem's other Masses by a certain literal-mindedness in the treatment of the motto’. See Fabrice Fitch, Johannes Ockeghem: Masses and Models (Paris, 1997), 191.

8 These statements are synthesised from numerous sources including the following: Bukofzer, ‘Caput’, 217–310; Gustave Reese, Music in the Renaissance (New York, 1959) and Sparks, Cantus Firmus, passim; Gossett, ‘Techniques’, 211–20; Hamm, ‘The Reson Mass’, 16f.; Howard Mayer Brown, Music in the Renaissance (Upper Saddle River, NJ, 1999), 15 and 57; Allan Atlas, Renaissance Music: Music in Western Europe, 1400–1600 (New York, 1998), 118–19; Leeman L. Perkins, Music in the Age of the Renaissance (New York, 1999), 352–90.

9 Benet Missa sine nomine, no. 1: Bol Q15: fols. 24v–25r (S); Bol Q15: fols. 25v–16r; (A) Tr 92: fols. 165v–167v (G). For transcriptions, see Gareth Curtis, ‘Introduction’, in Fifteenth-Century Liturgical Music IV: Early Masses and Mass-Pairs (London, 2001), ix; the Benet Mass on pp. 3–13. Earlier editions: Trienter Codices V, ed. Rudolf Ficker, Denkmäler der Tonkunst in Österreich 61 (Vienna, 1924), 85–7 (Gloria); Early English Harmony from the 10th to the 15th Century: Transcriptions and Notes, vol. 2, ed. Dom Anselm Hughes (London, 1913), 120–6 (Sanctus and Agnus Dei). Reson Mass: Bol 2216: fols. 5v–7r, 19v–23r. Modern editions: Hamm, ‘The Reson Mass’, 5–21; Johannes Reson: Missa Sine nomine, transcr. and ed., Žarko Cvejić, Renaissance Church Music 29 (Moretonhampstead, 2006). Bedingham Mass: OxfB: C87 (Sanctus); Tr 88: fols. 46v–47r; 47v–54r; Tr 93: fols. 30v–36r; 319r–320r. Modern editions: Rebecca Lynn Gerber, ‘The Manuscript Trent, Castello Del Buonconsiglio, 88: A Study of Fifteenth-Century Manuscript Transmission and Repertory’, 2 vols., Ph.D. diss., University of California, Santa Barbara (1985), 2:10–59. Lymburgia, Missa sine nomine: Bol Q15: gathering 14, fols. 138v–143r. Modern edition: Etheridge, ‘The works of Johannes Lymburgia’, 182–6. Modern editions of all Trent 89 Masses can be found in Louis Edward Gottlieb, ‘The Cyclic Masses of Trent Codex 89’, Ph.D. diss., University of California, Berkeley (1958); alternative editions of the Barbingant and Bassere Mass are located in Mitchell, ‘The Paleography and Repertory of Trent Codices 89 and 91’, 725–67, 768–819. Barbingant's Missa sine nomine is found in Trent 89: fols. 306v–315r (704–8); the Missa Fa-ut is in Trent 89: 199v–206v (643–47) and Bassere's Missa sine nomine is in Trent 89: fols. 294v–303r (698–702).

10 A condition to this rule will be discussed below in the internal motto subsection.

11 On flexibility in motivic repetition, see Rob C. Wegman's analyses of Obrecht's Masses in Born for the Muses: The Life and Masses of Jacob Obrecht (Oxford and New York, 1994), passim. The predilection for varied repetition in this music can be better understood, if we view the motto through the lens of the fifteenth-century aesthetic of varietas. As discussed by Tinctoris in Rule 8, Book III of his Liber de arte contrapuncti (1477), it is in the Mass that a composer is to strive for the highest level of varietas. See Alexis Luko, ‘Tinctoris on varietas’, Early Music History, 27 (2008), 99–136. On varied repetition as it relates to the tradition of allusion, quotation and emulation in the fifteenth century, Christopher Reynolds notes that ‘musical paraphrases, though harder to identify, are thought to have been the normal practice for students emulating established masters’. Reynolds, ‘The Counterpoint of Allusion in Fifteenth-Century Masses’, 228.

12 Sectional divisions within movements are dictated by double bar-lines or mensuration changes that appear in the manuscript. Voices are always labelled top to bottom, with labels a, b and c referring to superius, tenor and contratenor respectively.

13 The idea of using small note heads for unrepeated material is borrowed from Peter N. Schubert, ‘Hidden Forms in Palestrina's First Book of Four-Voice Motets’, Journal of the American Musicological Society, 60 (2007), 483–556.

14 When identifying the ur-form, there are no judgements made about the heard primacy of the motto.

15 Jessie Ann Owens defines a ‘module’ as ‘a contrapuntal relationship that can be repeated’ in Composers at Work: The Craft of Musical Composition 1450–1600 (New York and Oxford, 1997), 251; and ‘The Milan Partbooks: Evidence of Cipriano de Rore's Compositional Process’, Journal of the American Musicological Society, 37 (1984), 270–98. On ‘contrapuntal blocks’ in Renaissance music, see Peter N. Schubert, ‘A Lesson From Lassus: Form in the Duos of 1577’, Music Theory Spectrum, 17 (1995), 1–26. On the ‘module’ as a two-voice combination see, idem, ‘Hidden Forms in Palestrina's First Book of Motets’, 484 and Modal Counterpoint, Renaissance Style (New York and Oxford, 1999), 216f. The modules in mid-century sine nomine Masses are comparable to the modules developed by later generations of composers. More explicit connections between mottos of the fifteenth century and modules in music of the sixteenth century will be the topic of a forthcoming study. See Chapter 6 of my dissertation, ‘Unification and Varietas in the Sine nomine Mass’ for connections between motto modules and imitative modules in the music of Josquin, Crecquillon, Clemens, Lassus, Willaert, Palestrina and Rore.

16 The third subsection of the Kyrie, Sanctus and Agnus (Kyrie III, Sanctus III and Agnus III) all have a tripartite structure. Each begins on an F chord and ends on C and all three have a common motto, which is also found at the beginning of the first subsection of the Agnus. Paraphrased from Hamm, ‘The Reson Mass’, 20.

17 In this Mass, Hamm ruled out any possibility of a cantus firmus, stating that although the ‘first 5–6 notes of the tenor of each movement agree … [,] the melodic correspondence goes no further’. Thus, according to him, it is ‘not even possible that it is an irrational treatment of cantus firmus’. Charles Hamm, ‘Another Barbingant Mass’, in Essays in Musicology: In Honor of Dragan Plamenac on his 70th Birthday, ed. Gustave Reese and Robert J. Snow (Pittsburgh, 1969), 83–90. Robert Mitchell argues that Barbingant's Missa sine nomine is actually an early example of a parody mass and is based on Caron's bergerette S'il est ainsi. Mitchell, ‘The Paleography and Repertory of Trent Codices 89 and 91’, 185–96. Mitchell finds no connections between the mottos in Barbingant's Mass and the chanson S'il est ainsi (p. 187).

18 In a classic study of liturgics, Joseph Jungmann described the Mass as a ‘holy drama, a play performed before the eyes of the participants’. Joseph A. Jungmann, The Mass of the Roman Rite: Its Origins and Development (Missa sollemnia), 2 vols., trans. Francis A. Brunner (New York, 1955), 1:107. Viewed within its spiritual context, musical repetition might be linked to ritual evocation of the Trinity, the Last Supper, the Passion etc. Jungmann discusses gestures that are documented for the Mass throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance and outlines the rich history of genuflection, the signing of the cross, kissing the altar, hand movements, the bowing of the head, the ringing of the altar bell, associated with the Sanctus, the Elevation of the Host, etc. For a fascinating new study on the Mass and its cultural, social and spiritual meaning in Medieval and Renaissance society, see Kirkman, The Cultural Life of the Early Polyphonic Mass (Cambridge, 2010). The connection between genuflection, gesture and the motto will be the focus of a forthcoming study.

19 Quoted in Robert Joseph Snow, ‘The Manuscript Strahov D.G.IV.47’, Ph.D. diss., University of Illinois (1968), 88. For other discussions regarding the Missa Fa-ut's remarkable large-scale design, see Gottlieb, ‘The Cyclic Masses of Trent Codex 89’, 141–5; Kirkman, ‘Innovation, Stylistic Patterns’, 162–4; Mitchell, ‘The Paleography and Repertory of Trent Codices 89 and 91’, 86–88, 178.

20 Reynolds, Papal Patronage and the Music of St. Peter's, 252.

21 Ibid.

22 For an inventory of sine nomine Masses, see my dissertation, ‘Unification and Varietas in the Sine nomine Mass’, 395–8.

23 The proliferation of initial sine nomine Mass mottos in the Kyrie and Gloria may be linked to the contiguous placement of these items in the liturgy.

24 Julie Cumming, ‘From Variety to Repetition: The Birth of Imitative Polyphony’, Yearbook of the Alamire Foundation, 6 (2008), 21–44; eadem, ‘Petrucci's Motet Prints: Crucible of the New Style’, paper given at the Annual Meeting of the American Musicological Society, Washington DC, 27 October 2005.

This study was partially funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. I am indebted to Julie Cumming, Peter Schubert, Christian Leitmeir, James Borders and the anonymous reviewers of Plainsong and Medieval Music for their invaluable suggestions on earlier drafts. This article draws from Chapters 4, 5 and 6 of my dissertation, ‘Unification and Varietas in the Sine nomine Mass from Dufay to Tinctoris’, Ph.D. diss., McGill University (2007). A shorter version of this paper was presented in 2005 at the New York State–St Lawrence AMS Chapter Meeting in Toronto and the Medieval-Renaissance Music Conference in Tours.


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