Peter Phillips & the Tallis Scholars, Part 3

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Program: #21-25   Air Date: Jun 14, 2021

This week, Peter Phillips returns with works by Jean Mouton, more John Taverner, and Josquin once again.

NOTE: All of the music on this program is performed by The Tallis Scholars directed by our guest Peter Phillips. For complete information:

I. John Taverner: Missa Corona spinea (Gimell CD CDGIM 046).

People talk about the virtuosity of Taverner’s Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas; they do not always add that his Missa Corona spinea goes a stage further. The difficulty in Gloria tibi Trinitas is shared out between the six voice-parts—its virtuosity is choral. In Corona spinea the difficulty is largely focused in the top part. Not only is it uncommonly high, it is also almost constantly present, including two spectacular ‘gimell’ sections, where the part is divided (or ‘twinned’). Clearly Taverner was writing for a team of trebles who were quite out of the ordinary and perhaps he had been commissioned to show them off, probably on a very grand occasion. Specially written coloratura soprano parts in opera tend to dominate an evening: it is no different here.

No one knows what that occasion was, though the commissioner might well have been Cardinal Wolsey. No one, not even Henry VIII, had a household chapel choir as fine as Wolsey’s, and Wolsey was effectively Taverner’s patron, having founded Cardinal College, Oxford, where Taverner was employed. Maybe Wolsey invited Henry and his queen, Catherine of Aragon, to visit his new foundation in Oxford—there is evidence of it in March 1527—where they attended the first performance of this most challenging Mass setting sung by the finest choir any of them would ever have heard. If this is what happened, it soon went wrong for Wolsey. The splendour of the event would have contributed to Henry’s burgeoning jealousy, hastening Wolsey’s fall from favour.

It is also not known why such a festal setting should have been dedicated to the Crown of Thorns; nor has the plainchant cantus firmus been identified. The chant itself has a particularly graceful overall shape, the second phrase being a development of the first, and the fourth a brief recapitulation. However, it seems unlikely that the grand occasion would have been a routine service to mark the Feast of the Crown of Thorns (which even then was not held to be an important one). The suggestion has been made (by Hugh Benham) that since Queen Catherine was known to be devoted to the cult of Christ’s passion, one of whose principal emblems was the Crown of Thorns, the Mass was written for her. Her emblem was the pomegranate, a fruit whose top resembles a crown, with the motto ‘Not for my crown’. If this is the connection it certainly suggests that the royal couple were present at the first performance.

The magnificence of Taverner’s conception can be heard in both the overall structure of the movements, and the detail within the vocal writing. Corona spinea is the longest of all Taverner’s settings of the Ordinary, more than a hundred modern bars longer than Gloria tibi Trinitas. The chant is sung complete in the tenor part ten times in all—three statements in the Gloria and Sanctus and two in the Credo and Agnus Dei. As a kind of musical scaffolding it tends only to be stated when all six voices of the full choir are singing, though it does occasionally appear in the reduced-voice sections, of which there are an unusual number in Corona spinea—every movement begins with one. A fine example of this is at the beginning of the Sanctus (track 5), where the tenors sing the chant in very long notes, over which a treble seems to improvise the most abstractedly patterned of lines, almost Arabic in its involutions. This is a section of rare originality, its filigree delicacies contrasting dramatically with the full-choir sound which surrounds it.

Similar but more polyphonic are the two extraordinary gimells, which have done much to characterize Corona spinea for listeners in the past: the first in the Sanctus at ‘in nomine Domine’ (track 7, from 0'41"); and the second in the second Agnus at ‘qui tollis’ (track 10, from 1'28"—this is a double gimell: the means are twinned as well as the trebles). In both cases the basses underpin the weaving of the upper voices, which proceeds with extraordinary invention, as if there could be no end to it. If ever there was writing to illustrate Shakespeare’s ‘music of the spheres’, this is it.

Part of the delight of Corona spinea is that Taverner felt able to ignore the natural boundaries of the text, and experiment with scoring. Repeatedly he starts a full section with the last syllable of the previous solo passage, so that the action is propelled forward. Obvious as this device might seem, it was again most unusual at the time, and contributes to the listener’s sense of excitement. The first example is early in the ‘Gloria’ where the ‘te’ of ‘Glorificamus te’ is attached to the next sentence, beginning ‘Gratias agimus’—and we are thrown from trio into full before we expect it. It happens again at several of the major junctions between reduced-voice passages and full in the subsequent movements.

The way Taverner disposes his six voices in Corona spinea also has an air of experiment about it. Instead of the more standard treble, mean, two altos, tenor and bass (TrMAATB), he swops an alto for another bass, giving TrMATBB. This was not unheard of; but what was unusual was to write such a spectacular top part with the doubled low sonorities of the two basses. And it was also unusual to write a top part which much of the time is nearly a clear octave above the part below it. It is as if the lower five voices have been written as a grouping together, over which the treble has been added, operating in its own universe. From this comes much of the energy and excitement of the writing.

Taverner set Dum transisset Sabbatum—the Respond to the third lesson at Matins on Easter Sunday—twice. The first has always been the more famous (and was so in the composer’s lifetime) but the second is just as engaging. In fact, since the underlying chant in the tenor is the same melody, the two settings offer a glimpse into how a composer might change his response to a pre-existing part: how he may rework the harmony suggested by the chant notes, or derive points of imitation to fit round those notes. In the end the two settings, though structurally identical, offer quite different interpretations of the possibilities. Yet they both conjure up the same rhapsodic atmosphere, the same sense of space, the same sense of repose from the noisy and insistent world we live in. —Peter Phillips

—Missa Corona spinea
—Dum transisset Sabbatum II
—Dum transisset Sabbatum I

II. Jean Mouton : Missa Dictes moy toutes vos pensées (Gimell CD CDGIM 047).

In my ambition to put before the public Renaissance composers who deserve to be better known, Jean Mouton (before 1459– 1522) is a classic case. With a musical language quite distinct from everyone else, he was nonetheless routinely compared with Josquin in his lifetime on account of his astonishing technique. His music is able to convey such a spirit of calm and poise that in the whole gamut of Renaissance art it is really only rivalled by the altar-pieces of such painters as Giovanni Bellini and Hans Memling. Other composers who tried for the same mood – like Lhéritier or Agricola – are simply less interesting.

This characteristic sweetness of tone is attributed to the fact that Mouton had more of a French background than a Flemish one, which resulted in shorter-spanned, clearer melodic lines than were typical of the Flemish, and that he worked in more transparent textures. However his ability to write music of the utmost mathe­matical complexity was almost unparalleled – only more obviously Flemish composers like Ockeghem were as proficient – which rather neatly begs the question which side of this racial mix was more responsible for the complexity of canonic writing, so beloved of the Franco-Flemish school in general. One was inclined to think it was the Flemish, until Mouton came along. Either way, canon was still in his time a desired means of expression; and in the eight-voice Nesciens mater he created one of the most durable, as well as one of the most incredible, masterpieces of the period. Yet even in this piece one can hear everything clearly. The counter­point is crystal clear, the lines short and precisely chiselled: with the right access code it is possible to follow exactly how the mathematics are working out.

For those interested in having a go the code is this: there are two four-part choirs answering each other. The four lines of the choir which enters first are exactly replicated a fifth higher and eight beats later by the choir which enters second. The magic of this comes when the two choirs over­lap, which they do constantly, leading to some very clever things – if Mouton had simply made them answer each other in block sections the whole thing would have been much more straightforward. This is an extreme example of Mouton’s use of canon, but it occurs regularly elsewhere in his music, and in what is recorded here. The short, four-voice motet Ave Maria … benedicta tu is a canon by inversion between the second part down and the fourth; while Salve nos, Domine is based on a plainchant melody deployed in a canon at the fifth between the second part down and the third.

But such was Mouton’s range of expression that he didn’t need to rely on mathematics to build an atmosphere. The motet Quis dabit oculis? stands out for its simplicity – very few pieces of this period go straight to the heart of the matter with so little fuss. Written as a funeral motet for his patron, Queen Anne of Brittany, Mouton mourns her in slow, utterly dignified and compelling lines that reduce to simple chords where her name (‘Anna’) is mentioned. This ability to move from undemonstrative imitative writing to chords is also on display in the last section of his substantial setting of Ave Maria … virgo serena, the chords coming this time where the name ‘Maria’ is invoked. Mouton underlines the gentleness of this idea by using a slow triple-time for Mary, immediately returning to duple for the remainder of the text.

The Missa Dictes moy toutes voz pensées attracted my attention not because I had ever heard it, or even of it, but because in the Complete Edition it stood out from the other fourteen Masses included there in having an Agnus II which was scored for three basses alone. Being an admirer of gimells (or twinned parts) in the English repertoire I was quick to appreciate a man who wanted to divide a low bass part into three. This scoring was startlingly original, hinting at a mind which preferred sonority above other aspects of composition, and therefore in my book to be trusted. The rest of the Mass repaid my faith, yielding exactly the kind of hidden masterpiece which I was looking for. It is an attractive detail that Mouton chose to base this Mass on a chanson by Loyset Compère, whom he probably replaced as a canon of St Quentin in 1518, where they were both eventually buried.

The three voice parts of Compère’s chanson are treated by Mouton as being three indepen­dent lines of melody, to be realigned and worked against each other at will. An example of this comes immediately, in the opening bars of the first Kyrie, where the melody which one hears first in the chanson – in the alto – now is heard third in the baritone part; and the melody which came in third in the chanson – the tenor – enters before the others in the top voice. Almost all the remaining movements begin with some variation of this technique, culminating in the Agnus III where a second tenor joins the ATBarB of the hitherto basic choir giving a whole new range of polyphonic possibilities (and creating some unfor­get­table dissonances). Interestingly the Crucifixus – a trio created by twinning the alto part and adding a baritone as accompaniment, another gimell in everything but name – seems to be free of Compère’s ideas, though with a polyphonist as resourceful as Mouton one can never be sure of what he has remade.

For most of his life Mouton was employed at the French court, having arrived there via the chapel of Queen Anne. As the wife of Louis XII of France she and her chapel would have helped to celebrate many of the grand political events of their married lives, in turn encouraging her composers to write suitable ceremonial motets for them. Quis dabit oculis? is one of these. After her death in 1514 Mouton was employed exclusively at the chapelle royale in Paris, which raises the strong likelihood that he took part in the festivities associated with the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520, when Henry VIII of England and Francis I of France held a summit. If he did, he would surely have met William Cornysh, who was leading the English Chapel Royal. Unfortunately it is not known whether either composer wrote anything specifically for this occasion, but either way rarely can there have been a more telling comparison between two differing styles of composition, which would have wonderfully fuelled the hot-house atmos­phere of rivalry and competition so famously engendered by this meeting. Cornysh’s music is all boisterous ornament concealing flashes of fire; Mouton’s suave and gentle. No doubt they had their contemporary supporters and detrac­tors, arrayed on patriotic lines. It is our privilege that we can take the broader view: both offer differing visions of perfection. — Peter Phillips


Dictes Moy Toutes Voz Pensées,

Composed by Loyset Compère



Missa Dictes Moy Toutes Voz Pensées,

Composed by Jean Mouton 












Sanctus & Benedictus



Agnus Dei I, II & III



Quis Dabit Oculis? (Lament For Anna),

Composed by Jean Mouton



Ave Maria … Benedicta Tu,

Composed by Jean Mouton



Salva Nos, Domine,

Composed by Jean Mouton



Ave Maria … Virgo Serena,

Composed by Jean Mouton



Nesciens Mater,

Composed by Jean Mouton



III. Josquin Masses: Di dadi & Une mousse de Biscaye (Gimell CD CDGIM 048).

Can great music be inspired by the throw of dice? The possibility clearly excited Josquin, who prefaced the tenor part in several of the movements of his Missa Di dadi with a pair of dice, each pair giving a different total score. And the scores show that he knew how gambling worked—they stop when one of the players has thrown a winning combination. Did he know this because he was living in a place where gambling was so commonplace it was even thought appropriate to refer to it in a Mass-setting?

He may have been. Milan under the Sforzas in the late fifteenth century was well known to have been a hot-house of gambling, with the ducal family taking a leading role. Since there is good evidence that Josquin worked there throughout the 1480s, it seems very possible that he joined in with the fashion, at court and in private. This would certainly explain the (not entirely necessary) presence of the dice in the notational scheme of this Mass, as a friendly nod to his singers, and to please the duke. Did he even throw dice to establish his composition plan?

At first sight these dice are nothing more than indicators to the tenors as to how to distribute the notes of the chanson, on which the Mass is based, into their part—Josquin having chosen as his cantus firmus the tenor part of Robert Morton’s chanson N’aray je jamais mieulx. For example the Kyrie is preceded by a pair of dice showing two and one, which tells the singers that the note-lengths of the chanson need to be doubled in order to fit with the other three voice-parts. In the Gloria the dice read four and one, requiring the notes of the chanson to be quadrupled in length. In the Credo the dice indicate six to one. In the Sanctus it is five to one. So far, so good. But there are problems. In the Credo the proportion has to be twelve to one, not six, or the notes don’t fit. In the Sanctus the five to one stipulation doesn’t work across all the notes of the original, only the longer ones. And there are suddenly no dice featured at all after the ‘pleni’. Fortunately the printer, Petrucci, anticipating trouble, wrote out a resolution of the tenor parts. Nonetheless, even though the dice are thus rendered redundant, Petrucci still thought it important to include them in the final print. This only further underlines the question, why are they there?

There have been many theories. André Pirro (in 1940) judged the conceit of the dice to be ‘a useless complication, invented only to amuse or confuse singers devoted to gaming’. More tolerant explanations have turned to the first line of the chanson, ‘Shall I never have better than I have?’, in the hope of finding a clue, though whether this title implies a religious meaning, or is purely secular, is a moot point. Is it no more than the conventional lover’s complaint? Is it the greedy gambler’s gripe? Or is it the languishing soul’s plea for redemption? This last possibility has been taken up by several writers who suggest that the lack of dice after the ‘pleni’ supports the evidence that in the medieval church there was a change in mood at that point, with the following Hosanna and Benedictus serving as a frame for the elevation of the host (the ritual display of the consecrated bread and wine). Since this was the most dramatic and significant moment of the Mass it comes as no surprise to find that composers might give it special musical treatment.

There is one further detail. In the sections where the dice are present Josquin only quotes the first six bars of Morton’s tenor. When we get to the Hosanna (and also in the Agnus Dei) he quotes the whole of Morton’s chanson tenor—a total of twenty-three bars—which explains why these movements are suddenly more substantial than the preceding ones. And in the very last statement of the Morton tenor, in the third Agnus, Josquin finally gives the melody to the basses and starts it on a D, as Morton had done, not G, which is the first note of every other statement in Josquin’s Mass. So not only is there a special reference to gaming in this music, alongside a special way of marking the elevation of the host, but there is also the more common compositional practice of building interest towards the final moments of the setting.

The authorship of both the Missa Di dadi and the Missa Une mousse de Biscaye has been questioned. If one is voting for Josquin—the evidence from the sources is inconclusive—the standard explanation is that they are both early works, by a composer who was trying out differing styles and methods. Knowing how experimental Josquin could be in his mature writing, and finding both these Masses very powerful to perform, I am inclined to support this theory. The Missa Di dadi is especially interesting, since it seems to be a dry run for the much more famous, and probably much later, Missa Pange lingua. If so, this could have been Josquin revisiting and reworking a student composition, or if the Missa Di dadi is actually the later work, then perhaps it could be another composer rehashing an established masterpiece. The dice, however, remind us of the prevailing scene in Milan, and Josquin’s presence there.

The Missa Une mousse de Biscaye is based on a secular tune with a French and Basque text. The French word ‘mousse’ in the title is derived from the Castilian word ‘moza’ meaning a lass; Biscay is a province in the north of Spain, part of the Basque Country, with Bilbao as its capital. The original is a dialogue between a young man, speaking in French, and a Basque girl, who replies to all his amorous proposals with the mystifying refrain ‘Soaz, soaz, ordonarequin’. The confusion in the lovers’ communications is held to explain the way the music wanders about tonally—beginning in F, quickly cadencing in G, returning to F but ending eventually in B flat.

The Mass is said to be Josquin’s earliest Mass-setting, dating from 1473-75. Inevitably for such an early work it is full of untypical details. For example the Agnus Dei is an exact repeat of the Kyrie—unique in Josquin. And the Credo is unusually long by comparison with the other movements. In addition there are some ungrammatical (by later standards) dissonances and resolutions, though nothing as extraordinary as those heard in the ‘Domine Deus, Rex caelestis’ section of the Missa Di dadi. The chanson melody in this Mass is treated quite loosely—appearing in all the voice-parts at different times and with a variety of extensions to the original. It is these extensions which give the writing its fantasia-like charm, especially in the Credo.

Both these Masses based on secular melodies seem to show Josquin as a young man exploring what he could do with the form. He would experiment further, and equally randomly, in other settings of the Mass. But here are two major variations on the timeless theme of how to set the Mass text, one with a particularly engaging history, and both yielding some superlative a cappella writing.—Peter Phillips


Composer Info

John Taverner, Jean Mouton (c.1459 – 30 October 1522), Loyset Compère (c. 1445 – 16 August 1518)

CD Info

Gimell CD CDGIM 046, Gimell CD CDGIM 047, Gimell CD CDGIM 048