The most personal invocation to the Virgin is this last: Dufay’s own. This sung prayer has long occupied a prominent place in western music history on account of the deeply expressive nature of its utterance, clearly audible to us more than five centuries after its composition. Its fame also stems from the allusion to its most personal moment in the Agnus Dei of the same composer’s Missa Ave regina celorum
and the Gloria of his Mass for St Anthony of Padua
. Though composed by the mid-1460s, when it was copied into a choirbook of Dufay’s home Cathedral of Cambrai, it was clearly conceived from the beginning with a view to the composer’s end, as a personal plea to shorten his time in purgatory. This is vividly expressed through Dufay’s famous request, in his will, that the motet be sung by the choirboys and three men at his bedside at the point of his death, a request that, sadly, as we learn from his executors’ account, could not be fulfilled ‘due to the brevity of time’. The performance took place instead the next day as part of the composer’s exequies. Even more startling than the personal tropes, added to the standard words of the Marian antiphon, is the nature of their musical settings. This is particularly true of the latter of the two, where – almost a century before the earliest documented equation between the minor mode and ‘sadness’ – the composer without warning suddenly switches into a dark minor sonority with notated melodic diminished fourths. It is almost as if Dufay is consciously appealing to the prayers – and sensibilities – of a future age, one which, like presumably his own, could not fail to miss the poignancy of his utterance.
from notes by Andrew Kirkman © 2003