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Hyperion Records

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The Deposition by Gérard David (active 1484-1523)
Reproduced by permission of The Trustees, The National Gallery, London
Track(s) taken from CDGIM009
Merton College Chapel, Oxford, United Kingdom
Produced by Steve C Smith & Peter Phillips
Engineered by Mike Clements
Release date: February 1986
Total duration: 28 minutes 28 seconds

Missa La sol fa re mi
author of text
Ordinary of the Mass

La sol fa re mi, as its name implies, is based on the solmization notes which these syllables represented in the medieval scale: A, G, F, D and E. Virtually the whole mass is derived from this single five-note phrase, which may be clearly heard in different note-lengths and occasionally in different pitches in one or other of the parts. It is mostly found in the tenor (which in fact does not differ significantly in tessitura from the alto part). To write an entire mass-setting which strictly retains the statement of five notes throughout as a kind of very abrupt cantus firmus is an astonishing feat of sheer inventiveness. Josquin had tried out the same technique in an earlier mass entitled Faisant regretz (based on ‘fa re mi re’) but had there allowed himself the opportunity of transposing the ostinato up and down by step, a procedure which was commonly followed by other composers of the time, like Obrecht and Isaac. The technique of La sol fa re mi, on the other hand, was sophisticated and rare.

However, it was not Josquin’s idea in the first place to use these notes. According to Glareanus, writing in 1547 (Henricus Glareanus, Dodecachordon, 1547), they originated in mimicry of an unknown potentate who used to send away importunate suitors with the words ‘Lascia fare mi’ (‘Leave it to me’). Whether this is true or not, a number of popular songs of the time were written around the phrase. (In his entry on Josquin, in D.E.U.M.M. (Turin, UTET, 1985, Le biografie, II, p.472), Nino Pirrotta maintains that these five notes were inspired by the words ‘Lassa fare a mi/Non ti curare’ (‘Leave it to me, I’ll deal with it’), which begin a barzelletta attributed to Serafino Aquilano, a friend of Josquin. It appears that Aquilano’s humorous song alludes to Cardinal Ascanio Sforza, his protector, who was known for making promises he could not fulfil.) Apart from basing the tenor on it almost exclusively, Josquin was able to lend it to the other parts in his mass-setting by the technique of initial imitation, for instance in the ‘Christe’ and first ‘Hosanna’. The ‘Pleni sunt’ is imitative throughout. Only once (in the bass part at the end of the ‘Christe’) is the ostinato transposed to begin on D (subsequently necessitating a B flat). Otherwise, in more than two hundred repetitions, it starts on A or E. Perhaps the finest moment comes at the very end of the Agnus Dei (I and III) where the note-lengths of the ostinato become shorter and shorter as the mystical nature of the music intensifies.

from notes by Peter Phillips © 1986

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