Music in Western Civilization by Wright/Simms
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Josquiz des Prez, Missa Pange lingua (Mass Speak My Tongue; c1515)


Did Mozart know that his Symphony No. 41 would be his last-presumably not; he was struck with a sudden illness and died within two weeks of its onset. And what about Beethoven and Mahler? Did they know that their ninth symphonies would be their last; presumably not because they each started a tenth. Thus it is likely that Josquin des Prez (c1450-1521) did not look upon his Missa Pange lingua as his sacred swan song, but so it proved to be. The surviving manuscripts and prints of Josquin's works suggest that this Missa Pange lingua, written about 1515, was his last Mass. And a fitting capstone of his career as a composer of liturgical music it was.

The title Pange lingua comes from the first words of the hymn on which this Mass is based. The hymn Pange lingua gloriosi corporis mysterium, saguinisque pretiosi (Speak my tongue of the glorious mystery of the precious body and blood [of Christ]) is attributed to the famous thirteenth-century Dominican philosopher Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas's hymn, with its exceptionally beautiful melody, was composed for Vespers on the feast of Corpus Christi (usually occurring in June) to honor, according to Catholic belief, the sacred nature of the body and blood of Christ, the Holy Sacrament, as it is called. Thus Josquin's polyphonic Mass might be liturgically appropriate not only on the feast of Corpus Christi but also at every Mass where Christological devotion was the primary intent.

example 1

Music Example 1: Hymn, Pange lingua

Like most hymns, Pange lingua is rather simple in style, consisting of six brief phrases. Again typical for the hymn, the range is limited, being no more than an octave (d'-d)-this is music the entire community had to sing. Most important, the melody is in the Phrygian mode, the plaintive half step wailing mode that had special appeal for Josquin (see his motet Miserere mei, Deus, Anthology, No. 59). Josquin took Aquinas's melody and made it serve as the structural backbone of the entire Mass. He gave the originally unrhythmic chant a rhythmic profile and slightly altered the intervals for both melodic and harmonic purposes, assigning successive phrases of it to all of the four voices. In thus paraphrasing the original chant and assigning it to all voices, he created a paraphrase Mass-indeed, Josquin's Missa Pange lingua is viewed by musicologists as the prototypical paraphrase Mass. At the same time, it is also representative of Josquin's late compositional style at its very best, as a brief perusal of the Kyrie will suggest.

Josquin begins with the first two phrases of the chant melody in paired imitation (tenor-bass, then soprano-alto), his stylistic hallmark, and in this way he plays out Kyrie I in sixteen compact measures. The Christe continues with the paraphrase, now engaging phrases three and four of the chant, with the dueting arranged bass-alto, tenor-soprano. The final Kyrie (Kyrie II), as we might anticipate, uses the last two phrases of the plainsong. But here we see for the first time the unique quality of Josquin's writing. From the pitches a-b-g (above the words "Rex effu[dit]") he constructs a three-note motive that he repeats again and again-the incessant quality of this procedure will become even more apparent in subsequent movements of this Mass-and by using this constant iteration he drives to a final cadence. Only when the soprano has reached its goal (the final e') will the bass bring a sense of release and closure to the movement by falling down in a succession of thirds-another typical "Josquinian" compositional gesture. This is great music. The Kyrie listed below should serve primarily as a hook to pull you toward a hearing of the complete Mass, several recordings of which are available on the Internet.