In the 15th century, musical compositions, both liturgical and secular, often blended several independent voices. Such compositions are labelled polyphonic. Polyphony is a musical texture blending independent voices as do Barbershop quartets.
Secular madrigals, songs in the mother (madre, Spanish) tongue, had been monophonic (one voice), but they were a form used in the development of polyphonic music. So was the Motet, liturgical music. Polyphony could at times blend more than the soprano, alto, tenor and bass (SATB), the four voices we are most familiar with. But more importantly, a Mass by Guillaume Du Fay combined the sacred and the secular. The Ordinary of the Mass was set to L’Homme armé (the armed man) a secular theme. A Mass’ permanent components constitute the Ordinary of the Mass.
Composers still write sacred music. Examples are Benjamin Britten (22 November 1913 – 4 December 1976) and John Rutter (b. 1945). Earlier, Hector Berlioz (11 December 1803 – 8 March 1869) wrote his Grande Messe des morts or Requiem.
An illuminated opening from the Chigi Codex featuring the Kyrie of Ockeghem‘s Missa Ecce ancilla Domini.
We have underlined elsewhere the importance of such collections of musical pieces as the Rossi Codex. Music that might otherwise have disappeared is kept because it is included in an array. There is a second copy, so to speak, that is incorporated in the compendium. Furthermore, a Codex provides an overview of the music of a certain period. The Chigi Codex is one such collection.
The Chigi Codex dates back to between 1498 and 1503 and is therefore just a tad more recent than the Rossi Codex. Moreover, unlike the Rossi Codex, it contains sacred music, masses mainly, five of which are set to a secular melody entitled L’Homme armé. As well, it was probably commissioned by Philip I of Castile.
We should also note that the Chigi Codex originates in the Netherlands, a cultural hub during the early Renaissance. Moreover, like the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, it is richly decorated, not by the Limbourg brothers, but in the workshop of the Master of the Hortulus Animae, in Ghent. As noted in Wikipedia, it is characterized by its “very clear and legible musical notation.”* and is a “nearly complete catalogue of the polyphonic masses by Johannes Ockeghem and a collection of five relatively early L’Homme arméMass settings, including Ockeghem’s.” The partitions it features are early Franco-Flemish sacred music.
According to the Vatican, where the manuscripts of both the Rossi Codex and the Chigi Codex are housed,
The Chigi Codex, one of the richest sources of Franco-Flemish polyphony of the last quarter of the fifteenth century, is also one of the most elaborate and precious of all illuminated music manuscripts. It contains thirteen masses of the great Flemish composer Johannes Ockeghem (ca. 1420-97), including this piece, the opening of Ockeghem’s “Missa Ecce Ancilla Domini.” The Annunciation scene appears in the illumination in the cantus part. The shields and crests were overpainted by the later Spanish owners of the manuscript. Chig. C. VIII 234 fols. 19 verso-20 recto music 09.” (See the images at the top of this post.)
A Secular Melody or cantus firmus
L’Homme armé is not the only secular melody to which a mass has been set. However, because some forty early Renaissance polyphonic masses have been set to L’Homme armé, five of which are included in the Chigi Codex, this aspect of early Renaissance polyphony piques one’s attention and imparts uniqueness to the Chigi Codex.
It is difficult to trace the origin of L’Homme armé. It has been suggested that the “Armed Man” represents St Michael the Archangel. Moreover, musicologist Richard Taruskin has stated that the tune was a favourite of Charles the Bold, or Charles le Téméraire (10 November 1433 – 5 January 1477). Palestrina’s (3 February 1525 or 2 February 1526 – 2 February 1594) Missa L’Homme armé is not included in the Chigi Codex. It is featured in this post because it constitutes a later and charming example of polyphony on L’Homme armé.
It seems an oddity that sacred music, the Mass, in particular, should be set to a secular cantus firmus. By and large, the cantus firmus, or melody, is the product of an inspired musical mind and if anything is borrowed, it is the text, as is the case with masses, psalms, and so many liturgical musical compositions. As for composers of operas, they usually hire a librettist. Lorenzo da Ponte wrote the words (le livret) to Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro (1786), Don Giovanni (1787) and Così fan tutte (1790). As for Beethoven, the choral movement of his sublime Ninth Symphony is a setting of a poem by Schiller: An die Freude.
Setting masses to a secular tune, therefore, seems a topsy-turvy moment in the history of music, but it is not necessarily an easier way to compose a Mass. In fact, composers who used secular melodies, such as L’Homme armé, to set words also dictated to them required inventiveness. The beauty of the cantus firmus plays a significant role in the composition of musical pieces. Still, the beauty of a musical piece also hinges on the manner it has been contrapuntally or harmonically set.
Moreover, let us turn to Mozart’s, Beethoven’s and other composers’ Variations on a theme. “Ah ! vous dirai-je Maman” is very much a composition by Mozart. So are Beethoven’s Diabelli or other variations. In fact, the way a composer develops a musical idea and incorporates a unifying theme, or leitmotif, or “idée fixe,” (Berlioz’s term) resembles the setting of a text to music.
Using secular melodies to set a mass belongs to a period: the late Middle Ages or early Renaissance, but in no way does it preclude music’s finest achievement, the expression of the sublime or the ineffable even where words are said.
But to return to theChigi Codex, we should remember that it is
a compendium of early Renaissance polyphonic sacred music, Ockeghem’s in particular; that it is
a masterfully illuminated Franco-Flemish manuscript; that it contains
settings of masses to secular music, L’Homme armé in particular, but not exclusively;
that it is housed in the Vatican as is the Rossi Codex.
* * *
See Herbert Kellman (Spring 1958). “The Origins of the Chigi Codex: The Date, Provenance, and Original Ownership of Rome, Biblioteca Vaticana, Chigiana, C. VIII. 234”. Journal of the American Musicological Society11/1: 6–19.