Missa L’homme armé super voces musicales

A demonstration of Josquin's combinatorial prowess and a true miracle to his contemporaries

There were at least 31 mass settings based on the “L’homme armé” melody in the Renaissance period by composers including Dufay, Ockeghem, Busnois (who was said, by Pietro Aaron in 1523, to have been the original composer of the song), Regis, Tinctoris, Obrecht, Brumel, Mouton, Palestrina, Cristóbal de Morales, and many others. The series was finally closed in the seventeenth century by Giacomo Carissimi, who crowned the tradition with a twelve-voice work.


The “L’homme armé” melody

The earliest reliable source of the “L’homme armé” melody is a late–fifteenth century manuscript in Naples, which contains six anonymous masses based on the song alongside the song itself. The text, which possibly refers to a crusade against the Turks, may be translated:

“Fear the armed man. Word has gone out that everyone should arm himself with a haubregon of iron [a sleeveless coat of mail].”

At first hearing, one might guess that Josquin’s Missa L’homme armé super voces musicales was a medieval composition and worlds apart from his second setting based on the tune, Missa L’homme armé sexti toni, which seems like a mature Renaissance work. In fact, the manuscript evidence is that they were probably both from Josquin’s so-called middle period, which ended around the year 1500, though it is assumed that Super voces musicales was written first. They were both printed in Ottaviano Petrucci’s Missarum Josquin in 1502.

The title Super voces musicales indicates that the “L’homme armé” melody is quoted in turn on every note of the hexachord. This ascent of the melody starts on C in the Kyrie, proceeds to D in the Gloria, to E in the Credo, F in the Sanctus (given again, complete, in both “Hosannas”), G in the first Agnus Dei (incomplete) and A in the third (by which time it has at last become too high for the tenors to sing and has been transferred to the top part). The only sections to be completely free of the tune are “Pleni sunt caeli” in the Sanctus, the Benedictus, and the second Agnus Dei.

Its mathematic complexity made Super voces musicales one of the most famous of Josquin’s mass settings in the 16th century.

The two latter sections are mensuration canons for two and three voices respectively: here the voice parts start the same melody at the same time but proceed at different speeds. It was this level of sophistication that made Super voces musicales by far the most famous of Josquin’s mass settings in the 16th century, even having the unique honor of an intarsiated version: the Agnus Dei II was inlaid in the choirstalls of San Sisto in Piacenza. And it was the complexity of this section that was most talked about, not least by Glarean. A composer could write the most beautiful series of chords to the most affecting words in the mass and have this ignored if he had also written a mensuration canon nearby. They thought differently then about how to access God.

Josquin_Super voces musicales_Agnus 2_Alamire_1520_A-Wn Cod 11778_CLEAR_CROPPED.jpg

The second Agnus from the Missa L’homme armé super voces musicales, a three-part mensuration canon (© Austrian National Library)

The second halves of the Gloria and Credo (beginning at “Qui tollis” and “Et incarnatus est”) are based on the melody in strict retrograde, with the Credo containing one more statement of the melody, the right way round, from “Confiteor” in a syncopated rhythm. It is because the mathematical framework in this mass is more apparent than in Sexti toni that it sounds the more old-fashioned of the two. Also untypical of late-Renaissance music is Josquin’s decision to write here for four voice parts which continuously overlap each other: the top part low, the bottom part high and the two in the middle of roughly complementary ranges. But there can be no doubt that he knew exactly what he was doing, for the characteristically dense texture of this mass is just as expressive, though in a different way, as the rather widely spread writing in Sexti toni.

© 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.