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  Nesciens Mater

Choral Works of Jean Mouton - The Gentlemen of St John's - Graham Walker


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Jean Mouton belonged to one of the most extraordinary generations of composers the Western world has ever produced. The most famous of his contemporaries was Josquin des Prez, but they also included Jacob Hobrecht, Henricus Ysaac, Pierre de la Rue (all born within a few years of Mouton and Josquin), slightly older musicians such as Alexander Agricola, Loyset Compère and Johannes Martini, and slightly younger ones like Antoine Brumel and Antoine de Févin. It would be as idle to try to rank them as to debate the precedence of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven; all were superb composers with an important influence on their successors. But to ears attuned to the important shifts in musical style that occurred between the late-medieval sound-world of Guillaume Du Fay (c.1397–1474) and the early-modern sound-world of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (c.1525–94), Mouton’s music will stand out from that of his contemporaries as the most ‘advanced’—more even than Josquin, and much more than the others, Mouton paved the way for the classic vocal polyphony of the sixteenth century.


Jean de Holluigue, called ‘Mouton’, was probably born in Samer (not far from Boulogne) in the mid-to-late 1450s. Our knowledge of his early life is incomplete: he was a singer and teacher at Nesle near Péronne in 1477–83, at St Omer in 1494–95, at Cambrai Cathedral briefly in 1498, at Amiens in 1500 (all these within 120 km of Samer), and then moved to the other end of France, to Grenoble in 1501–2. He may have gone directly into the service of Anne of Brittany, queen of France, when he left Grenoble abruptly in 1502; he was certainly a member of her private chapel by 1509. After Anne’s death in 1514 Mouton became a member of the official royal chapel, serving first Louis XII and then (from 1515) François I until about 1520. He spent his last years as a canon of the royal church in St Quentin (once again not far from Samer), dying there on 30 October 1522.


During the time of his connection with the royal court he functioned as a kind of ‘composer laureate’, writing many motets to commemorate important events such as the birth of the royal princess Renée in 1510 (Non nobis, Domine), Queen Anne’s death in 1514 (Quis dabit oculis), or François I’s victory of Marignano in 1515 (Exalta regina Galliae). As the most highly regarded composer attached to the most prestigious musical institution in Europe, Mouton achieved a reputation almost equal to Josquin’s. He was the favourite composer of the music-loving Pope Leo X, and one of his motets (Quaeramus cum pastoribus) was known even in frontier missions in Guatemala. The same work was recopied for the Sistine Chapel choir about 100 years after the composer’s death.


Mouton is most important as a composer of motets. This genre makes up about two-thirds of his total number of works, and it was in these pieces that he made his most original and influential contribution to the music of his time. The five motets heard on this recording illustrate some of the many approaches he took to the genre, though far from all of them.  But there is enough to give a clear picture of Mouton’s importance to his contemporaries and to make the case that his music ought to be better known in our time.


No work could fulfil that task better than Nesciens Mater [1], the first work on the present disc. Mouton was the first master of eight-part composition, a technique that gave rise a couple of generations later to the double-chorus compositions of Gabrieli and Palestrina. The way had been pointed in some rather tentative works by Mouton’s colleague Johannes Prioris, master of the French royal chapel, but Mouton’s own essays immediately surpassed his models. Nesciens Mater is the chef-d’œuvre of them all. In the first place, the motet is a quadruple canon: only four voices are written out, each giving rise to a canonic part a fifth above and two bars later. Mouton did not take an easy way out of the problem he had set himself by leaving plenty of rests in his parts so that he could work with fewer than eight parts most of the time—instead, all eight voices are singing nearly all the time. What is more, the tenor canon is based on the plainchant melody corresponding to the words. The counterpoint is brilliant, but it is not the technical virtuosity that makes this an impressive motet. Rather, it is the sheer beauty of the music, the clarity with which the elegant melodies and gorgeous harmonies are expressed.


If Nesciens Mater is among Mouton’s most mature works, the extremely long Missus est Gabriel angelus / Vera fides geniti [2] is one of his very earliest. No other of his motets reflects so clearly the influence of Antoine Busnoys and Johannes Regis, composers a generation older. At the same time it is a pathbreaking work, perhaps the earliest surviving motet to set an extended passage from one of the gospels: Luke 1: 26b–38a, the entire gospel lesson for the votive Mass of the Blessed Virgin. Mouton wrote several gospel motets during his time at the French court, and Josquin’s one or two settings of gospel lessons also date from the last period of his life, but the real popularity of this type of motet came in the mid sixteenth century. Mouton’s symbolically apt combination of the gospel text (telling the story of the Annunciation) with the long-note cantus firmus drawn from the second stanza (stating the Atonement and Mary’s perpetual virginity) of the Marian hymn Virgo Dei genitrix shows the influence of Regis’ five-part tenor motets. The melodic designs, the momentary use of canon, the partial imitations and the asymmetrically changing textures, however, all recall the style of Busnoys. Especially notable is the nervous rhythmic texture of the first large section of the motet, written in note-values half the usual length. Such a notation appears only in one other motet, an anonymous work from Busnoys’s circle in the 1470s; Missus est Gabriel is probably the product of Mouton’s time in Nesle around 1480.


Sancti Dei omnes [12] can hardly be much later: it has too much in common not only with Missus est Gabriel but especially with Josquin’s masterpiece Ave Maria … virgo serena, a work composed by the early 1480s. But despite its early date, Sancti Dei omnes announces a revolution. Missus est Gabriel shows a marvellous variety of scoring and texture and great sensitivity to its text, but (perhaps in response to the narrative character of that text) its incidents simply succeed one another, without interacting to create a larger sense of form. Sancti Dei omnes, by contrast, is organized so as to give structure to time itself while it is being sung. In the first place, it is framed by an eight-bar refrain (sung with a brief cadential extension at the beginning and a longer extension at the very end) stated five times, clearly dividing the motet into four major sections. Each of those is in turn divided into larger and smaller subsections by changes in texture and by repetitions, including the kind of ‘pair-imitation’ (brief duos repeated in the complementary pair of voices) so characteristic of Josquin’s Ave Maria. The passage of time is no longer articulated sequentially but hierarchically, relating the notes into motifs, phrases, and larger and larger assemblages until the whole work is encompassed—an approach to composition that culminated three centuries later in the high Classical style of Haydn and Mozart.


All the music in this recording comes from manuscripts originating at the papal court in the early sixteenth century: Missus est Gabriel and Sancti Dei omnes are sung in the versions copied into a Sistine Chapel choirbook around 1510, while the other motets come from a manuscript copied at the papal court as a wedding present for the younger Lorenzo de’ Medici, duke of Urbino, in 1518; the mass Dictes moy toutes voz pensees was copied a year or two later for the Cappella Giulia, the choir of St Peter’s Basilica. The Sistine Chapel copy of Sancti Dei omnes has some interesting variants to the words at one strategic point. The second half of the motet is based on the words and music of a plainchant litany, which prays towards the end for the preservation of churchmen and the speakers’ friends and relations. When the work was copied for the Sistine Chapel choir, the list of ecclesiastics was modified to include ‘the cardinals’, obviously an important constituent of the papal court but not listed in any other source of Sancti Dei omnes; and further, a few years later, two other categories not so prominent at court—‘abbots’ and ‘canons’—were erased and replaced by Cantores, ‘the singers’, as heard here.


The two remaining motets in this recording, Salva nos, Domine and In omni tribulatione, are both relatively late works from Mouton’s time at the French royal court, like Nesciens Mater. Although both are quite brief, they well illustrate two very different sides of Mouton’s style. The words of Salva nos [11] are taken from a plainchant antiphon, whose melody forms the basis of a canon for two voices, while four more voices are added in free counterpoint. As in Nesciens Mater, the texture is full and continuous from the beginning, and the emphasis is on elegance of melody and richness of harmony rather than projection of the words. In the version sung here is the canon is sung following at a fifth above rather than a fourth below the leading voice.  Although this results in some awkward voice-crossing in the soprano parts, several sources give this instruction, and it is certainly one of the ways Salva nos was performed in Mouton’s own time. In omni tribulatione [10], based on a ritual prayer, is freely composed for four voices. Although it has no refrain, it is otherwise a microcosm of the techniques pioneered in Sancti Dei omnes. The asperities evident in Mouton’s early works and in his music for more voices are entirely absent, and we can already hear the voluptuous purity of the ‘Palestrina’ style.


Fifteen masses survive by Mouton, and we know of at least two lost masses. In works such as the Missa ‘Quem dicunt homines’ he was one of the earliest composers to practise the technique called ‘parody’, basing his music on the whole contrapuntal fabric of a polyphonic model (in the case mentioned this was a motet by the younger composer Jean Richafort). This became the normal mode of mass composition in the rest of the sixteenth century. But although he was innovative in this respect, in others Mouton’s masses show a remarkable degree of similarity to one another; none of his contemporaries came close to his stylistic homogeneity in this genre. It is probable that most of the masses we possess were composed at the French court, chiefly during the decade 1505–15, though the one heard here probably dates from 1502–5.


The Missa ‘Dictes moy toutes voz pensees’ [4–9] is based on a rondeau [3] by Mouton’s older contemporary Loyset Compère. The song is a fairly early work by Compère, probably composed in the late 1470s. It is a rather unusual model, lacking either a strongly-profiled tenor or frequent points of imitation. Mouton drew mostly on the tenor part, whose strong opening gesture of an upward skip of a minor third falling back by step can often be heard at the beginning of sections of the mass, and whose striking close with its descending sequence often underpins the ends of sections. The distinctive opening of the top voice, a rising and falling fourth with a characteristic rhythm, is also clearly audible at the beginning of many sections; Mouton was often playful about reversing the discantus and tenor openings, presenting them together but with the tenor subject entering first and at a higher pitch than that of the upper voice. His treatment of the middle portion of the chanson is particularly interesting: Compère wrote a florid line for the tenor whose chief characteristic is a rising scale, often using dotted rhythms or short note-values, and accompanied this with an even more emphatically surging bass-line and a simpler discantus that descends slowly by step. Mouton presents only the tenor from these portions of the song, giving them almost exactly as they originally appeared, but what actually is the pre-existing material on which the composition is based sounds as if it were simply an accompaniment to his new countersubjects, which are more clearly defined and are emphasized by imitation and repetition.

The whole mass has a simple and relaxed elegance, calmly and expansively working out the musical implications of the model chanson. The Agnus Dei provides a strong and fitting climax. The first of its three subsections emphasizes the song’s top voice more than its tenor, and is the only portion of the mass where that voice’s broad descending scales from the mid-section of the chanson are developed. The second Agnus is a lovely trio for divisi basses (incidentally, this and the divisi writing in the top part at the end of the ‘Christe eleison’ prove that Mouton had in mind such a performance as is heard here, with more than one singer on a part). The third and final Agnus expands the texture to five voices, the middle one of which presents the tenor part of Compère’s song in its entirety, exactly as it stood in the version Mouton was using, for the only time in the mass. At ‘Dona nobis pacem’ the accompanying voices toss around a simple motif that has first been heard, at half the speed, as the principal subject of the second half of the ‘Christe’—an eloquent way of bringing the end of the mass back to its beginning while tying together the appeals ‘Christ have mercy’ and ‘Grant us peace.’


Jeffrey Dean


Recorded in the Chapel of St John's College, Cambridge, 14-16 July 2000

Cover picture: Annunciation scene from Lady Margaret Beaufort's Book of Hours, by kind permission of the Master and Fellows of St John's College, Cambridge

Musical editions: University of Chicago Press (1,10,11), Opera Omnia (3-9), Jeffrey Dean (2,12)



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