Review Summary: Part IX: Master of the notes
The simple summary is this: Josquin des Prez's final mass, the Missa Pange lingua
, feels like a culmination, and a conscious one at that. Written around 1515 and published after the composer's death in 1521, the mass dates from Josquin's residency at Condé-sur-l'Escaut, a commune in northern France where he spent the final 17 years of his life as a church provost. His output from this time in his life was even more sparing than it was in his prime, a strong statement given other musicians' comments on how he composed "when it suits him" instead of on commission. Josquin's mercurial, independent nature, clearly well-documented in his youth, seems to have influenced the move to relative isolation in his later years, allowing him to focus on composing for pleasure rather than altering his musical language to suit the tastes of his patrons.
The Missa Pange lingua
takes its title and musical cues from the hymn "Pange lingua gloriosi corporis mysterium" (English: "Sing, my tongue, the mystery of the glorious body"), written by the great theologian Thomas Aquinas around 1264 for the Feast of Corpus Christi (a Catholic celebration of the Eucharist). Josquin's mass specifically draws from a Roman plainchant melody, as opposed to a popular Spanish melody that inspired a great deal of other Pange lingua
settings around the same time. As with his other paraphrase masses, Josquin's treatment of the melody is peppered with small changes; where the Pange lingua
mass differs is in how much it consistently preserves the melodic contour of the original melody, despite the changes made. The half-step motion at the beginning of each section is always the same, the soaring ascension afterwards always happens - the rhythms change, the voices performing those motions change, but the central idea is always very clearly there. Having a strong foundational concept allows the musical embellishments to occur in less distracting ways, familiarity and difference co-existing in a palatable-yet-still-progressive combination.
To an extent, the acclaim of Josquin's Pange lingua
mass can be attributed to the melody he chose to use, for its status as an indubitable earworm was such that it was used frequently in compositions written centuries after its publication. But melodies don't exist in vacuums. What turns the music into something transcendent is Josquin's mastery of dynamism, already discussed in the previous review of this series and further confirmed here. Beyond contrasts in volume, Josquin plays around with articulation in the voices, the differences between florid, smooth legatoi
lines and short staccato
bursts that combine into longer segments. The Sanctus movement exhibits some strong articulation contrasts between the regular "Sanctus" text (smooth) and the two "Hosanna" sections (short, lots of heavy "h" syllables that turn "aahs" into "haahs"). "Text painting" is a term that is used to describe some of Josquin's masses, and it's difficult to say if such a term is appropriate to these pieces (seeing as the text is always constant, even if the melodies change), but Josquin certainly has a heightened text awareness compared to most composer of his day, and it shows in how he experiments with these articulations.
Above all, what likely helps give the Missa Pange lingua
its renown is its status as epitaph, if you will. This is the work of a a 60-year-old man entering his twilight years, and even if masses by nature are not cheery things full of light-hearted musical banter, the solemnity of the Agnus Dei movement in particular is crushing. How much of this is coincidence and how much is Josquin confronting his impending mortality, we have no clue and likely never will. But it does seem telling that the composer's final piece is one based on a hymn that describes Christ as "Everlasting", even in death, and is centered around a tradition that intentionally connects Christ's spirit with tangible objects around us. We know that Josquin was very aware of the size of his impact, both artistically and commercially (many pieces were incorrectly attributed posthumously to Josquin as a way of cashing in on his name, so many that a German music printer quoted, "now that Josquin is dead, he is putting out more works than when he was alive"). If his intent really was some sort of subliminal message about his legacy also being in a way, "Everlasting", then more power to him. 500 years later, it's difficult to argue otherwise.
The Tallis Scholars (1986): https://open.spotify.com/album/7MybFTlK93WNF2YDVkqtgn?si=A8R7e_1yQa-HJ6qLJK7RoA