Jean Mouton: Missa Faulte d’Argent

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Program: #22-24   Air Date: Jun 13, 2022

The incomparable Brabant Ensemble directed by Stephen Rice again brings us a world-premiere recording of works by the French composer whose life included work in the French court, the papacy, with the Medici, and his own home region.

NOTE: All of the music on this program is from The Brabant Ensemble directed by Stephen Rice. It is on the Hyperion label and is CD # CDA68385. For more information: http://www.brabantensemble.com/

Mouton: Missa Faulte d'argent & Motets

Those familiar with the repertoire recorded by The Brabant Ensemble will be aware that we have only rarely returned to a composer, if only because so much Renaissance music of high quality still remains unheard. A second helping of Mouton did seem called for, however, in commemoration of the quincentenary of his death on 30 October 1522. Mouton’s output is comparable in size to Josquin’s, at least in terms of sacred music, and in this recording (as well as our previous Mouton album, CDA67933) we aim to showcase its quality and variety: with the exception of one Mass movement, all the pieces here are first recordings.

Mouton’s career can briefly be summarized as follows. His childhood was probably spent in or around Samer in the Pas-de-Calais, where he must have been born by the late 1450s. The epithet ‘Mouton’ was one among many nicknames applied to church musicians, his toponym according to a now lost headstone in Saint-Quentin being ‘de Hollingue’, most likely referring to a village north of Samer. He was recorded as working in Nesle, some 150km southeast of his birthplace, in the late 1470s, and held other positions in northwest France until the end of the century, most notably as master of the choristers at Amiens Cathedral. Following a brief sojourn in the somewhat unlikely surroundings of Grenoble, Mouton found himself at the royal court in Paris from 1502, remaining there until his death twenty years later.

The two six-voice motets recorded here, Confitemini Domino and Benedicam Dominum, are in a sense ‘twins’, being found consecutively in the same manuscript in the Sistine Chapel library, and both featuring canonic cantus firmi with four free parts around the two canonic voices. Each canonic voice is notated only once, the entry of the ‘follower’ voice (comes) being indicated with a signum congruentiae above the place in the ‘leader’ (dux) where it should enter. To clarify the situation for the singer, each also has an inscription: ‘preibis parare viam meam’ in Confitemini Domino, indicating that, like John the Baptist to whom the words were originally addressed (Luke 1: 76), the comes should in fact enter slightly ahead of the dux—‘you shall go before to prepare my way’. This canon is at the fourth above; in Benedicam Dominum the order of entries is more conventional, the notated voice entering first, but the canonic interval is the more unusual tone above. Here the canonic inscription is in Italian: ‘Aspetta il tempo et sarai contento’ (‘Wait for the time and you will be happy’). Both pieces use a contrast between the four-voice texture without the canons (which as was standard for cantus firmi enter after some considerable time has elapsed: respectively twenty-one and thirty-four breves) and the full six parts, where the music is thicker (perforce) and more static due to the slow-moving nature of the canonic voices. Although both works are among Mouton’s shorter motets, each achieves an impressive build-up of both harmony and emotional impact, praising God in a solemn minor mode.

In Gaude virgo Katherina we find Mouton, as when setting other late-medieval rhymed texts, writing sparse textures with much duetting, and clearly demarcated subsections. The poetry, in honour of St Katherine of Alexandria, is in the standard form of pairs of three-line verses, rhymed AAB AAB: an almost identical text had earlier been set by the English composer John Dunstaple (c1390-1453: recorded by The Binchois Consort on Hyperion CDA68274), and there is an anonymous setting in the ‘Zeghere van Male’ partbooks, Cambrai MSS 125-8. The poem recounts episodes in the life of the saint, more or less all of which are apocryphal (as Andrew Kirkman notes in his liner essay to the recording referenced above, which contains a great deal more information on St Katherine). Mouton’s setting is notable for its smooth and measured sound, in the major mode: the secunda pars is perhaps more directly engaged with text expression, with a striking motif of a falling fifth at the moment where the deadly wheel rolled towards the saint shatters (‘Rotas fractas celitus’, track 3 1'01). The final stanza is heralded by a brief triple-time section (‘Esto nobis advocata’, 2'00), reverting to duple for the final line of text, followed by a simple Amen.

Illuminare, illuminare, Jerusalem is one of Mouton’s most characteristic motets, in the loosely imitative and texturally light style that typifies French writing of c1500-30. The opening text phrase is set very statically, as if to attract attention with a loud trumpet blast: ‘venit lux tua’ is then more pliable, after which the texture thins to a series of duets and trios leading into the first Alleluia. Another duet (‘Venite, exsultemus Domino’) links to the final phrase of the prima pars, ‘Quia ipse est Dominus Deus noster’, which is repeated for emphasis. The secunda pars is for the most part lighter in texture than the prima, beginning with an upper-voice duet, and introducing all four voices together only after twenty-three breves, at ‘cuius splendor’. Following another verse, ‘Omnes de Saba venient’, the final text phrase is repeated as in the prima pars.

The use of refrains is fairly common in Mouton’s music, perhaps the best-known instance being the litany Sancti Dei omnes. O quam fulges in aetheris is not precisely of this text type, being rather a poem in praise of the Virgin, but the poetic text incorporates considerable repetition, of a very regular nature, giving the piece a sense of litany-esque recitation. The overall musical sense is gentle and delicate throughout, with the second stanza (‘Quis poterit eructare’) being the most energetic, and reaching its highest pitch at ‘Tuam beatitudinem’ (track 8 0'29). The third stanza, ‘In summitate caelorum’, is entirely cast in triple time, bringing a lilting motion to the praise of Mary as star of the sea.

Laudate Deum in sanctis eius is an uncomplicatedly joyful work, in which both prima and secunda pars begin with the two highest voices, the prima continuing with less than full texture for most its length. Only the final phrase of the pars is consistently fully scored, and even this breaks into imitation at the introduction of the final words, ‘in conspectu sanctorum eius’. In the secunda pars high versus low-voice duetting is heard at ‘Deo nostro sit iocunda’, and the final triple-time iteration of this text is all the more striking for the contrast of its homophony with the agile and lissom writing that precedes it.

O salutaris hostia is by some distance the shortest piece here at just thirty-eight breves, setting a single verse only of Thomas Aquinas’s Eucharistic hymn Verbum supernum prodiens. In more modern usage a second verse, ‘Uni trinoque Domino’, is usually added, though sixteenth-century settings do not include this and it evidently was not Mouton’s intention that the music be repeated, since to do so would place a rest in the middle of a word (‘Nobis do…net in patria’). The texture is a little unusual in that the two highest voices are equal in range, and frequently cross. The superius sings a lightly paraphrased version of the plainsong melody, so that the altus functions in the manner of a descant at these times. The four lines of the text are quite clearly demarcated following the initial repeat of the first two words, and indeed all voices rest before the final ‘Da robur, fer auxilium’, which adds a sense of finality and a restrained climax to this prayerful miniature.

Music for the Mass Ordinary forms a large part of Mouton’s output, with fifteen extant complete cycles, plus two lost ones and a free-standing Credo, to set against just over a hundred motets, nine Magnificats, and twenty-five chansons. (As ever, there is some dispute over the correctness of attributions, a situation which the progressing collected edition led by Thomas MacCracken should clarify substantially.) Whereas in the motets Mouton employs a variety of scorings, extending the customary four-part texture to five, six, and occasionally eight voices, only one Mass setting, Missa Tu es Petrus, is for five voices rather than four (see CDA67933). Of the previously unrecorded Masses (still a majority) Missa Faulte d’argent stood out as particularly affecting musically, with its use of the plaintive chanson that Jean Richafort would later weave so effectively into his six-voice Requiem (recorded on Hyperion by Cinquecento, CDA67959).

The Faulte d’argent motif (c''–a'–c''–b' at the pitch of this recording) is heard from the second bar of the Kyrie, as the superius part enters for the first time. The tenor and bassus, as so often in this period, imitate the opening altus–superius duet precisely, but whereas Josquin des Prez or other contemporaries might well have left the lower-voice duet unaccompanied to create the characteristic ‘pair imitation’ texture, Mouton keeps the altus going and reintroduces the superius after a short break, so that the texture reaches its full four parts as early as bar 6. The tenor initially makes a fair impression of a cantus firmus voice, singing in long notes for the first half of Kyrie I, but subsequently adopts a similar rhythmic profile to the other voices. In the Christe, however, the tenor is absent (as a cantus firmus might also have been in the late fifteenth century), and in the Leiden manuscript which is the sole source of the work, its silence is explained with the biblical quotation ‘In tenebris stravi lectulum meum’ (‘I have made my bed in the darkness’—Job 17: 13). Reverting to a four-part texture, the second Kyrie has a somewhat more muscular character, with the four-note motif again clearly audible in the first superius lead, echoed a fourth below by the altus.

In the Gloria a rousing tutti opening gives way to a thinner texture at ‘Gratias agimus tibi’, followed by a brief triple-time ‘Domine Deus, rex caelestis’, reverting to duple for ‘Deus Pater omnipotens’ with which the opening section reaches its climax. The first duet section of the Mass (‘Domine Fili’), for tenor and bass, is rather more melismatic and discursive. While the rest of the movement is entirely in four parts, Mouton varies the texture between the chordal opening of ‘Qui tollis … miserere’, upper versus lower-voice duetting at ‘[Qui sedes] … miserere nobis’, and a stretto based on the Faulte d’argent motif for the final ‘in gloria Dei Patris’.

The Credo is cast in tripartite form, with a lower-voice trio setting the ‘Crucifixus … cuius regni non erit finis’ section. The emotional heart of the movement, ‘Et incarnatus est … Et homo factus est’, as so often uses block chords to emphasize the solemnity of the words; the earlier part of the Credo is necessarily brisk in its approach to the lengthy text, so that the section relating to Jesus Christ appears after only twenty-two breves. The Crucifixus section mentioned above is in fact two-voice (tenor and bassus) until the altus enters at ‘Et resurrexit’, with a quasi-ostinato treatment of the by now familiar four-note motif, which appears seven times, with a different text segment on each occasion. Despite the silence of the superius, this section is among the most energetic of the Mass.

Reverting to the full texture at ‘Et in Spiritum’, Mouton begins the Holy Spirit’s section of the Credo with lower against upper-voice duets, the four parts coming together at ‘qui ex Patre Filioque procedit’. As the text moves into the list of doctrinal affirmations with which it concludes, there is a short triple-time section, ‘Et unam sanctam …’, following which the energy builds to the climactic ‘et vitam venturi saeculi. Amen’.

The beginning of the Sanctus sees the bassus part enter at the top of its range, followed by altus and superius, all with the motif in the rhythm dotted semibreve–minim–semibreve–semibreve; the tenor enters last, with the same motif but in doubled note values, evoking the practice of cantus firmus writing as in the Kyrie. The following Pleni is another duet for tenor and bassus, leading into the triple-time Osanna, with considerable use of syncopation. The Benedictus is set for the three lower voices (not since the Christe has the superius been involved in a reduced-voice section, but this will change). The altus takes much of the melodic strain of the Benedictus, with the tenor and bassus generally held in the lower part of their respective ranges, though in the last ten breves or so the ‘in nomine’ phrase (again based on the Faulte d’argent motif) sees the bassus back up to its heights, and in thirds with the tenor.

As the final movement of nearly every Mass cycle, the Agnus Dei generally receives special attention from composers, and while Mouton was not given to increasing the number of voice parts at this point, he does treat the text in a more expansive way than in earlier movements. The first section extends to forty-three breves, with a fully worked-out round of imitations to begin, and a carefully crafted distinction between rising phrases at ‘qui tollis peccata mundi’ (see especially the superius at track 30 1'00) and falling at the concluding ‘miserere nobis’. The second supplication sees a return of the superius to reduced-voice writing, in duet with the altus, an entirely new texture in this Mass. This is again a fairly extended piece of writing at thirty-six breves, with considerable use of melisma and running semiminims. The same two voices begin the third and final section, which lasts no fewer than fifty-eight breves, reaching the tender ‘dona nobis pacem’ after thirty-five. Here the bassus drops out and the three upper voices sing in fauxbourdon texture (a series of first inversion chords, here modified by slight rhythmic differences between the voices). A final glimpse of eternity is given by what must be one of the sixteenth century’s most extended pedal points, as the superius reaches its last note fully seven breves before the tenor’s last ‘-cem’.

Stephen Rice © 2022

From Early Music Review: Proclaiming Jean Mouton as one of the finest Franco-Flemish composers in the musical era between Josquin and Palestrina – which he is – does not make him outstanding. It merely renders him equal with a substantial number of similarly fine composers from that era who have enriched the canon of sacred vocal music with their works. Thanks to advances in scholarship and in performance practices, we can now also appreciate the intense distinctiveness of each of these composers, and that same singularity in each of their compositions. This second recording of Mouton’s music by The Brabant Ensemble (following CDA67933; acclaim also for The Tallis Scholars with another Mass and motets on CDGIM 047) introduces yet more hitherto unmined riches from his oeuvre with only one brief item having been commercially recorded previously. These wonderful tracks simply roll out one after another, individually varied while combining to create a disc that is both enjoyable and at the same time rewarding, spiritually and aesthetically. Characteristics of Mouton’s personal style include judicious use of reduced scoring, often employing pairs of voices successively; passages showing the influence of faburden; and the dramatic use of dissonance, not just at cadences. All these are in the context of the finest melody and harmony imparting a sense of spaciousness and yet an uncanny knack to give the impression that more voices are singing than is actually the case: there was more than one point at which I needed to confirm that a particular work was indeed in four parts throughout and not what had begun to sound like five (at least!).

The seven motets that form the first half of this programme all exhibit the edifying and excellently wrought features mentioned above. Subsequently they all appear in the Mass, to such an extent that it emerges as one of the finest from this remarkable generation of supremely gifted – and presumably well-taught – composers. Settings of the Agnus from Josquin, culminating in those for five and (especially) four voices by Byrd composed during the early to mid 1590s, can rise to sublime levels, not only here in Mouton’s Mass, but also in so many of these Masses by so many of these composers. Meanwhile today we are blest with choirs who understand this music, not just reproducing the notes accurately, but doing so with comprehension and empathy, both for the meaning of the music and for the manner in which that music, and the knowledge of that music, can best be dispensed. The entire performance of the Missa Faulte d’argent, which forms the second half of this programme, epitomizes all that is currently best in the performing and recording of Renaissance choral music. Every note is clear. Every melodic line is audible and can be followed in each part without difficulty by the listener. Every harmonic interaction, be it in the weaving and occasional clashing of melodic lines or in homophonic passages, is perfectly weighted. Tempi and volumes are calibrated to respond sensitively to the text and to the sound made by the music itself, so that there is never bland perfection nor emotional exaggeration, and the music and its text can be expressed as rhetoric or narrative, to inform, edify and delight the listener. Mouton has done humanity an enormous favour by composing this Mass. The Brabant Ensemble has done Mouton an enormous favour by selecting this Mass, and by recording it so eloquently. And the great thing is: there is so much more of this quality of music, by composers of this quality, still waiting to be rediscovered, and so much that has already been rediscovered that is waiting to be performed and recorded. And this is besides all the works we know already by (randomly adding to names already dropped) the likes of Fevin, Phinot, Gombert, Manchicourt, Crecquillon, Clemens and a heavenly host of others. In conclusion, I should like to make a plea to The Brabant Ensemble to consider making a disc like this one, consisting of the music of Lheritier. His few commercially recorded sacred pieces are spread over several discs; these motets are superb; he was respected by Palestrina … Meanwhile we can be grateful for this second recording by The Brabant Ensemble of motets and a mass by Mouton – he has proved more than worthy of their (exceptional) further attention.

Richard Turbet

Benedicam Dominum
Confitemini Domino
Gaude virgo Katherina
Illuminare, illuminare, Jerusalem
Laudate Deum in sanctis eius
O quam fulges in aetheris
O salutaris hostia
Missa Faulte d’argent

Composer Info

Jean Mouton

CD Info

Hyperion CD # CDA68385,