Missa Di dadi

Can a Renaissance mass be composed by the throw of dice?

The possibility clearly excited Josquin, who prefaced the tenor part in several of the movements of his Missa Di dadi with a pair of dice, each pair giving a different total score. And he certainly knew how to play, living in a place where gambling was so commonplace it was even thought appropriate to refer to it in a mass setting.

Milan under the Sforzas in the late fifteenth century was well known to be a hothouse of gambling.

Milan under the Sforzas in the late fifteenth century was well known to be a hothouse of gambling, with the ducal family taking a leading role. Since there is good evidence that Josquin worked there throughout the 1480s, it seems very possible that he joined in with the fashion, at court and in private. This would certainly explain the (not entirely necessary) presence of the dice in the notational scheme of this mass, as a friendly nod to his singers, and to please the duke—but did he even throw dice to establish his composition plan?

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Gambling men in a 15th-century edition of Boccaccio’s Decamerone (© Wikimedia Commons)

At first sight these dice are nothing more than indicators to the tenors as to how to distribute the notes of the chanson, on which the mass is based, into their part—Josquin having chosen as his cantus firmus the tenor part of Robert Morton’s N’aray je jamais mieulx. For example, the Kyrie is preceded by a pair of dice showing two and one, which tells the singers that the note-lengths of the chanson need to be doubled in order to fit with the other three voice parts. In the Gloria, the dice read four and one, requiring the notes of the chanson to be quadrupled in length. In the Credo, the dice indicate six to one. In the Sanctus it is five to one. So far, so good.

But there are problems. In the Credo the proportion has to be twelve to one, not six, or the notes don’t fit. In the Sanctus, the five to one stipulation does not work across all the notes of the original, only the longer ones. And there are suddenly no dice featured at all after “Pleni sunt caeli” in the Sanctus. Fortunately the printer, Ottaviano Petrucci, anticipating trouble, wrote out a resolution of the tenor parts. Nonetheless, even though the dice are thus rendered redundant, Petrucci still thought it important to include them in the final print. This only further underlines the question: why are they there?

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Missa Di dadi in Ottaviano Petrucci’s Missarum Josquin of 1514 (© Austrian National Library)

There have been many theories. Some explanations have turned to the first line of the Morton chanson, “Shall I never have better than I have?”, in the hope of finding a clue, though whether this title implies a religious meaning, or is purely secular, is a moot point. Is it no more than the conventional lover’s complaint? Is it the greedy gambler’s gripe? Or is it the languishing soul’s plea for redemption? This last possibility has been taken up by several writers who suggest that the lack of dice after the “Pleni sunt caeli” supports the evidence that in the medieval church there was a change in mood at that point, with the following “Hosanna” and Benedictus serving as a frame for the elevation of the host (the ritual display of the consecrated bread and wine). Since this was the most dramatic and significant moment of the mass it comes as no surprise to find that composers might give it special musical treatment.

There is one further detail. In the sections where the dice are present Josquin only quotes the first six bars of Morton’s tenor. When we get to the “Hosanna” (and also in the Agnus Dei) he quotes the whole of Morton’s chanson tenor—a total of twenty-three bars—which explains why these movements are suddenly more substantial than the preceding ones. The Agnus Dei as a whole is by far the longest movement and a masterpiece of sustained writing. The culmination is in the third Agnus, where for the first time in the whole setting Josquin gives the complete tune to the basses, starting on D (where Morton had placed it an octave higher). All the previous tenor statements have started on G. There is a strong sense of homecoming as a result.

© Peter Phillips / Gimell Records

The Masses

The Masses

Jan van Eyck, The Ghent Altar (1432, detail) © artinflanders.be (photo: Hugo Maertens, Dominique Provost)

Josquin wrote 18 mass settings during his lifetime and created a unique compositional method and sound world for each of them. Discover the richness and diversity of the masses through The Tallis Scholars’ award-winning recordings and essays by their founder and artistic director, Peter Phillips.

Missa Une mousse de Biscaye

Probably one of the first mass settings Josquin ever wrote, Missa Une mousse de Biscaye perhaps shows the late-medieval origins of his musical language more clearly than any other of his masses.

Missa L’ami Baudichon

The early Missa L’ami Baudichon shows the young composer at the beginning of his career, exploring what he could do with the form.

Missa Ad fugam

Composing complex canons was a hallmark of excellence for every 15th-century composer. Josquin wrote two entirely canonic masses—Ad fugam, the earlier one, may be his most rigid and mathematically dense composition.

Missa Di dadi

Can a Renaissance mass be composed by the throw of dice? Missa Di dadi shows Josquin’s passion for mathematical shenanigans—and for gambling.

Missa D’ung aultre amer

Josquin’s shortest mass setting is based on a melody by his revered teacher Johannes Ockeghem and contains a moving musical tribute to the older composer.

Missa Gaudeamus

Missa Gaudeamus represents Renaissance artistry at its most intense. Based on a substantial chant melody, it deploys mathematics in a number of clever, but rewardingly audible ways.

Missa La sol fa re mi

True to its name, Missa La sol fa re mi is based entirely on the notes represented by these five solmization syllables on the medieval scale. By choosing a model so brief and versatile, Josquin opened up a completely new world of musical referencing.

Missa Hercules Dux Ferrariae

While he was working at the court of Ferrara, Italy, Josquin wrote an entire mass setting based on the name of his employer, Duke Ercole I.

Missa Faysant regretz

Building on the simplest four-note motif imaginable, Josquin creates some of his most densely argued and thrilling polyphony in the Missa Faysant regretz—a world of protean, swirling references and repetitions.

Missa Ave maris stella

Compact, smooth, concise—Missa Ave maris stella is the work of an assured and self-confident composer who has not only mastered the tools of his trade but redefines them for future generations.

Missa Fortuna desperata

The Wheel of Fortune is turning in Josquin’s mind-bending Missa Fortuna desperata, one of the first masses to be based on a polyphonic model rather than a simple melody.

Missa L’homme armé super voces musicales

Missa L’homme armé super voces musicales contains some of Josquin’s most complex compositional mathematics—a demonstration of his combinatorial prowess and a true miracle to his contemporaries.

Missa L’homme armé sexti toni

With its great variety of textures and easy-going yet sublime canons, Josquin’s second mass based on the popular “L’homme armé” melody feels like fantasia on the theme of the armed man, evoking minimalist sound worlds à la Philip Glass.

Missa Malheur me bat

In many of Josquin’s mass-settings the musical development culminates in the final movement—not unlike a Romantic symphony: the Agnus Dei of Missa Malheur me bat is a magnificent example and one of the greatest tours de force in the repertoire.

Missa Sine nomine

Josquin’s “nameless” mass is his second entirely canonic setting and shows the fruits of his experience in mathematical writing.

Missa De beata virgine

During his lifetime, this was the most frequently performed piece that Josquin had ever written—and it kept fascinating music scholars as far removed from Josquin’s time as the 18th century.

Missa Mater Patris

Missa Mater Patris exemplifies Josquin’s late-in-life, daring simplicity: gone is the dense polyphonic argument—instead we hear light, open textures delivered with a good deal of wit, even playfulness.

Missa Pange lingua

It is probably Josquin’s last mass setting—but it definitely is one of his best: the way Missa Pange lingua realizes a democratic conversation between all four voice parts had profound repercussions for later Renaissance music throughout Europe.