Missa Fortuna desperata

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

Missa Fortuna desperata is based on a secular three-voice chanson probably written by Antoine Busnoys. Before Josquin the normal procedure in basing a mass setting on a chanson was to take one of the original voice parts, often the tenor, and derive all the motifs to be used in the mass from it—a so-called paraphrase mass. In Fortuna desperata, however, Josquin went a stage further by plundering all three of the voice parts for quotable material, at a stroke tripling the stock of ideas he could draw on.

Missa Fortuna desperata was one of the first masses to parody a polyphonic model, a technique Josquin refined later in life.

Thus the art of parodying a polyphonic model was born, in which tradition Missa Fortuna desperata was one of the first. We can hear Josquin refining and developing these techniques in Missa Malheur me bat, which is reckoned to be a later work. These techniques are astonishingly complicated. Just about every bar of every movement in Fortuna desperata (and similarly in Malheur me bat) is underpinned by a quotation from the model in question, though there seems to be no logic to how Josquin decided which of the three voices he was going to home in on, or whether more than one is being used at any given moment (all three tend to appear at the beginning of the movements), or what speed the chosen melody is being quoted at.


The “Wheel of Fortune,” illustration from Christine de Pizan’s Epitre d’Othéa, c. 1455 (© Creative Commons)

In general, Josquin liked to construct his polyphonic lines out of quite short motifs, often quoted as sequences which become building blocks (the Sanctus of Missa Fortuna desperata gives a good example of this). More often than not his resourcefulness is not clearly audible: the best chance of hearing the chanson material is when he quotes its melodies in very long notes. This happens in the Credo, for example, where he takes the top part of the chanson and quotes it four times in the top part of the mass in ever diminishing speeds (in the ratio 8:4:3:2), giving the movement a powerful drive to its end since the last statement is going four times faster than the first.

Not that the listener will consciously grasp everything that is happening—but subconsciously the mind is enthralled.

All this wisdom in the art of composition in this mass culminates, not unlike a Romantic symphony, in the last movement. By intensifying the learning which underlies the Agnus Dei as well as intensifying the symbolism inherent in the borrowed themes, Josquin in his own style achieves a symphonic breadth of expression. The Agnus Dei of Fortuna desperata only has two invocations, as opposed to the more conventional three, though it is possible that a two-voice section, which would have come between the two four-part ones that exist, has got lost over time. Again, we are in the world of building-block motifs, here over a very long-note bass part, which at times explores the most sonorous depths of the voice. In the first Agnus these bass notes are formed from the original top part of the chanson, transposed down an octave and a fifth, augmented and inverted.

Josquin_Fortuna desperata_Alamire_1520_A-Wn Cod 11778_Agnus 2_CLEAR.jpg

The Agnus of Missa Fortuna desperate in a manuscript from the 1520s (© Austrian National Library)

The second Agnus follows the same pattern, only now the bass long notes are taken from the chanson’s tenor, here transposed down an octave but not inverted. It has been suggested that the inversion in the first Agnus was intended to represent a catastrophic turn of Fortune’s wheel, with the return to normality made possible through the good offices of the uninverted melody in the second Agnus. However one likes to view the very plausible symbolism inherent in this Agnus Dei, there can be no denying that by reviewing at the end the themes which have been circulating throughout the earlier movements Josquin brings his setting to a deeply satisfying conclusion. Not that the listener will consciously grasp everything that is happening—one needs a score for that, and even then it is hard to spot all the references. But subconsciously the mind is enthralled.

© 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.