Tell Me All Your Thoughts

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Program: #13-03   Air Date: Jan 14, 2013

Back to France, Jean Mouton set a chanson by his remarkable older compatriot Loyset Compère, and that rare an amazing piece is the theme of the new recording by The Tallis Scholars (orig. scheduled in Nov.).

NOTE: All of the music on this recording is from the recording Jean Mouton-Missa Dictes moy toutes voz pensées featuring the Tallis Scholars directed by Peter Phillips. The recording is Gimell CD CDGIM047.

Peter Phillips writes:

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.

1. Dictes moy toutes voz pensées [Loyset Compère] 1'50
2. Missa Dictes moy toutes voz pensées Kyrie [Jean Mouton] 5'05
3. Missa Dictes moy toutes voz pensées Gloria [Jean Mouton] 7'34
4. Missa Dictes moy toutes voz pensées Credo [Jean Mouton] 9'25
5. Missa Dictes moy toutes voz pensées Sanctus & Benedictus [Jean Mouton] 9'05
6. Missa Dictes moy toutes voz pensées Agnus Dei I, II & III [Jean Mouton] 7'07
7. Missa Dictes moy toutes voz pensées Quis dabit oculis? [Jean Mouton] 8'35
8. Missa Dictes moy toutes voz pensées Ave Maria … benedicta tu [Jean Mouton] 2'11
9. Missa Dictes moy toutes voz pensées Salva nos, Domine [Jean Mouton] 2'31
10. Missa Dictes moy toutes voz pensées Ave Maria … virgo serena [Jean Mouton] 9'33
11. Missa Dictes moy toutes voz pensées Nesciens mater [Jean Mouton] 4'54

Composer Info

Jean Mouton (before 1459- 1522), Loyset Compère

CD Info

Gimell CD CDGIM047