Missa L’homme armé sexti toni

Minimalist sound worlds à la Philip Glass.

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

Through-composed imitation, varied textures, and easy-going canons—Missa L’homme armé sexti toni is like a fantasia on the theme of the armed man.

L’homme armé sexti toni (“in the sixth mode”) is so called because Josquin has transposed the melody to make its final note F (as opposed to the more normal G), giving it a major-key tonality. Considered the more “modern” of the two settings, it has gained its reputation for good reasons. Where Super voces musicales quotes the famous melody unaltered in the same voice most of the time, in Sexti toni we find it broken into often unrecognizable fragments, dispersed among all four voices. Where Super voces musicales maintains a solid, four-voice texture much of the time, Sexti toni is filled with duets, its vocal texture kept light and informal through the use of sequences and imitation. Where Super voces musicales has canons which impress by their learning, Sexti toni’s canons give the impression of being easy-going, especially the sublime 6-voice Agnus Dei III. This setting is like a fantasia on the theme of the armed man; the other more like a through-composed exercise on a given theme.

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Sexti toni in a manuscript from the 1520s (© Austrian National Library)

A number of composers before Josquin had worked on how to quote the “L’homme armé” melody in slightly hidden ways: Dufay had given it backwards, Busnoys had inverted it, the Naples settings and Obrecht had used it in retrograde-inversion. However, Josquin seems to have been the first to notice that parts of the armed man melody could be quoted in its original form and in retrograde at the same time (assuming note-lengths, rests, and ficta–that is accidentals—between the phrases were a bit malleable). This is what the lowest two voices of his third Agnus are doing: in the first half of the piece the tenor sings the whole of the verse in long notes. At the same time (more or less) the bass sings the whole of the refrain in long notes in retrograde. At the half-way point they cross over: the tenor now sings the whole of the verse in retrograde to the end, and the bass sings the whole of the refrain in its original form to the end. As a result, the music that they have created before the halfway point is exactly repeated in the second half, but backwards. So, the first bar is the same as the last bar, the second the same as the second-last, and so on. While this shows exceptional compositional virtuosity, the actual sound in this final Agnus Dei is most unfamiliar, suggesting, if anything, the methods of such modern minimalist composers as Philip Glass.

© 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.