Missa Pange lingua

It is probably Josquin’s last mass setting—but it is definitely one of his best

With the Missa Pange lingua we finally come to a setting which has united rather than divided its commentators. Everyone agrees that it is a late work, quite possibly Josquin’s last mass, and in many ways his finest. It sums up some of the things he was striving to perfect in his earlier settings, while advancing his compositional language towards the methods of the mid-16th century. It was in this work that Josquin finally made the art of imitation, by which all the voices must be treated as being equal, of primary importance. The way in which he took a plainchant hymn (written by Thomas Aquinas for the feast of Corpus Christi) and divided its six short phrases so straightforwardly among all four voice-parts had profound repercussions for later Renaissance music throughout Europe.

After Pange lingua Josquin finally turned away from the genre and began to concentrate on smaller forms.

The preferred date of composition has been after 1514, which was the year of Petrucci’s last book of Josquin’s masses, where it doesn’t appear. However, given that by this time Josquin was living back in Condé-sur-l’Escaut, a long way from Fossombrone (where Petrucci was), it is quite possible that he wrote the mass earlier than 1514, which Petrucci didn’t know. The fact that it suddenly appears in seven sources throughout Europe around 1515, all originating a long way from where Josquin was, might suggest a considerably earlier date of composition. Nonetheless, apart possibly from Mater Patris, we are still referring to Josquin’s last mass, written when he was over 60. After Pange lingua he finally turned away from this genre and began to concentrate on smaller forms in more than four voices.

The sound-world of this setting is determined by the vocal ranges, which finally come closer to the modern practice of SATB (soprano, alto, tenor, and bass), especially if the music is transposed up a minor third, which it standardly has been in recent decades. The middle parts still constantly overlap, but although they both have the same lowest note, there is a crucial difference of a third in their top notes. This difference really does help to define this piece—in all the other masses, even the late ones, these parts peak on the same note or within a note of each other. The more open sonority this gives is detectable, especially in transposition.

The slow abandonment of the chant as a starting point for the middle movements is unique. Josquin was heading for wide open spaces as he concluded his mass career.

This openness of scoring is unhindered by strict canon or clever mathematics of any kind. Pange lingua is more like Malheur me bat than Sine nomine, with the model—here monophonic—subsumed into the prevailing texture with all the sophistication shown in Malheur me bat, and arguably quite a bit more. To be precise the first nine bars of the first Kyrie are based on the first phrase of the hymn. Its second phrase is used in the next section, phrases three and four appear in the Christe, and phrases five and six in the second Kyrie. After that only a few phrases of the hymn are heard in the Gloria, Credo and Sanctus, though the entire melody is quoted in Agnus III. This slow abandonment of the chant as a starting point for the middle movements is also unique. Josquin was heading for the wide open spaces as he concluded his mass career.

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Missa Pange lingua, here under its alternative title Missa De venerabili sacramento, in a manuscript from the 1520s (© Austrian National Library)

Apart from the long duets at “Pleni sunt caeli” and Agnus II (which both seem like canon at times but are not strict), the most arresting writing comes in the Benedictus, “Hosanna,” and Agnus III. The Benedictus is truly a bold conception, taking the now-customary method of conjoined duets a stage further, by having just two voices answering each other in the most fragile of conversations. This is the kind of simplicity that can inspire a composer who has tried it all. The “Hosanna” is also extraordinary, with its deliberate change from duple to triple time. In other “Hosannas” (Ave maris stella, Malheur me bat) he swopped between them quickly, or even had them both going at the same time; but here the sections are substantial and demarked.

The third Agnus Dei is one of those crowning glory movements, summing up what has gone before, though this time Josquin did his summing without canon. Here he simply quoted the hymn complete, the first time in the mass that he did that. It is heard first in long note values and then in a more or less free elaboration. Towards the end its last six notes are transformed into a peaceful motif that turns the closing passage into an insistent prayer.

© 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.