Josquin Masses: Di dadi – Une mousse de Biscaye

Josquin Masses: Di dadi – Une mousse de Biscaye
The Tallis Scholars, Peter Phillips
Gimell CDGIM 048. 71’13

The Tallis Scholars add to their list of ten CDs of Josquin Masses with this recording of two fascinating, if slightly curious examples. Neither of them are definitively acknowledged to be by Josquin. But if they are, as Peter Phillips argues in his programme note, they are likely to be early works, the Missa Di dadi perhaps being a precursor of the later Missa Pange lingua. And they are both fascinating pieces, not just for the music but for the background to their composition. As their titles suggest they involve gambling, the throw of the dice, and the seduction of a young lady from Biscay.

The Missa Di dadi (the ‘Mass of the Dice’) only survives in one source, Petrucci’s Missarum Josquin liber tertius of 1514. It uses as its cantus firmus the tenor line from Robert Morton’s rondeau N’aray je jamais mieulx. Each statement of the cantus firmus in the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo and Sanctus of the Mass is indicated by a picture of two dice. The numbers on the dice indicate the relative speed at which the tenor line should be sung. But they are also a bit of a treasure trove for musicologists who have come up with all sorts of theories to explain the dice, ranging from there being ‘a useless complication, invented only to amuse or confuse singers’ to various references to the Catholic church and to the gambling culture of 1480s Milan. There is even a suggestion that Josquin structured the Mass on the basis of throws of the dice, as in the plot line to a 1970s novel. You can find the performing score of the Missa di Dadi (edited by Timothy Symons) on the Gimell website here. The original score does not have word underlay fully completed, meaning some editorial work particularly acute in the tenor line.

With its relatively low tessitura, and tendency to cadence on open fifths or minor chords, it has a rather lugubrious feel to it. There is more-or-less continuous movement in the four parts, leading to an sense of musical integrity. The Hosanna and Agnus Dei are both extended pieces (the latter lasting for longer than the Gloria and Credo), as they use the whole of the N’aray je jamais mieulx melody rather than just the first six bars. This helps to build a cumulative sense of musical intensity as the Mass approaches its conclusion.

The Missa Une mousse de Biscaye is based on the melody of secular chanson. The word ‘mousse’ in the title is from the Castilian word for a ‘lass’, and the text is a conversation (each speaking their own language) between a French youth and a Basque girl, who responds enigmatically to his amorous approaches. ‘I kissed her at my ease; She, without quarreling, said to me: “Soft, soft, all in good time!“‘. Josquin’s rather higgelty-piggelty harmonic progressions are possibly a depiction of the dual language confusion of the youngsters. If it is indeed by Josquin (there are a number of un-stylistic elements when compared to his later works), the music suggests a very early work, perhaps from around 1474, and possibly his first Mass setting. The Credo is much longer than the other sections, and the Agnus Dei is an exact repeat of the Kyrie. The original melody is not treated as rigorously as in the Di dadi Mass, but appears in various forms in all four voices.

Whether or not Josquin actually composed these two Masses, they are fascinating pieces with interesting back-stories. Both are sung by eight singers, topped by mezzos, although only five of the eight appear in both Masses. The singing of both groups is outstanding, with a coherence of timbre and finesse of consort singing that makes this one of the finest I have heard from the Tallis Scholars, either live or in recordings.

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