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If This is What They Sing in Heaven...
on March 23, 2009
...I might not mind going there, despite the company. Josquin's 'Missa L'homme Armé super voces musicales' is the kind of music that, when you're listening to it, you can't help thinking "nothing finer or more sublime has ever been written... not by Bach, not by Beethoven, not even by Monteverdi!" Admittedly, you may have the same thought while listening to other pieces, but my point is that this mass is a 'summit' experience. At least thirty-one L'Homme Armé masses have survived, by most of the greatest composers from Dufay to Palestrina, including Busnois, Obrecht, Brumel, Tinctoris, Mouton, Carver, Regis, da Silva, Morales, and Carissimi. Josquin's is the best. Punto! Even more cerebral and intricate than the one by Johannes Ockeghem, using every device of prolation and counterpoint, and yet serenely melodic and expressive! And then... Josquin wrote another! Missa L'homme Armé sexti toni, and both are recorded on this disk. "Sexti Toni" specifies a major tonality based on F, which makes this a triumphant-sounding, celebratory setting of the liturgy, more forthright than the meditative "super voces" mass. But then, another surprise! The "Agnus Dei" of L'homme armé sexti toni" is cerulean serenity, ethereal beauty, and the utmost mathematical intricacy, the loveliest eight minutes you'll ever live!
Music historians have struggled to account for the sheer number of L'Homme Armé masses that were composed. The 'song' is a quirky, jerky little melody with just one enigmatic verse of words, warning everyone to fear the "armed man" and to arm oneself with an haubregon of iron. Some musicologists have supposed that the song is a reference to the Crusades, particularly against the Turks. My own hypothesis is that the entire set of masses were commissioned by members of the aristocratic, international confraternity called The Order of the Golden Fleece. It's well established that L'homme armé was the anthem of the Order, which had convocations on a regular basis at which mass would certainly have been celebrated.
I've been known to criticize The Tallis Scholars for a certain kind of choral complacency, but their recordings of Josquin are their best work. The two masses here, recorded in 1989, are sung beautifully and insightfully. I can't imagine a finer performance.
This seems as good a place as any to list all the verified Josquin masses, with what I consider the best available recording of each:
L'ami Baudichon CAPELLA ALAMIRE
L'Homme Armé super voces TALLIS SCHOLARS
L'Homme Armé sexti toni TALLIS SCHOLARS
Ave Maris Stella DUFAY ENSEMBLE
De Beata Virgine THEATRE OF VOICES
Pange Lingua ENSEMBLE CLEMENT JANEQUIN
Fortuna Desperata TALLIS SCHOLARS or CLERKS' GROUP
Malheur me Bat TALLIS SCHOLARS or CLERKS' GROUP
Mater Patris CHANTICLEER
Hercules Dux Ferrariae HILLIARD ENSENBLE
La Sol Fa Re Mi TALLIS SCHOLARS
Sine Nomine TALLIS SCHOLARS
Ad Fugam TALLIS SCHOLARS
Gaudeamus A SEI VOCI
[Hurray! I can replace Sei Voci on this list! Missa gaudeamus is on a CD called Musica Symbolica, sung by De Labyrintho]
Di Dadi MEDIEVAL ENSEMBLE OF LONDON
Faysant Regretz CLERKS' GROUP or MEDIEVAL ENSEMBLE OF LONDON