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Missa Caput
4vv; based on the melody accompanying the word 'caput' in the chant for the Washing of the Feet on Maundy Thursday in English Sarum and other liturgical uses; previously attributed to Guillaume Dufay
author of text
Ordinary of the Mass, with troped Kyrie

'The Spirits of England & France, Vol. 4' (CDH55284)
The Spirits of England & France, Vol. 4
Buy by post £5.50 CDH55284  Helios (Hyperion's budget label)  
Movement 1: Kyrie 'Deus creator omnium'
Track 2 on CDH55284 [5'39] Helios (Hyperion's budget label)
Movement 2: Gloria
Track 3 on CDH55284 [4'53] Helios (Hyperion's budget label)
Movement 3: Credo
Track 5 on CDH55284 [5'40] Helios (Hyperion's budget label)
Movement 4: Sanctus
Track 7 on CDH55284 [5'02] Helios (Hyperion's budget label)
Movement 5: Agnus Dei
Track 9 on CDH55284 [4'42] Helios (Hyperion's budget label)

Missa Caput
The anonymous English Missa Caput was one of the most revered compositions of the fifteenth century. This much is clear enough from the fact that it has survived in no fewer than seven manuscripts, more than for any other Mass written before the 1480s. But its importance is measurable in far more than just the number of copies that have happened to escape destruction. It was also a piece that had a major impact on other composers of the day. At least two composers—Ockeghem and Obrecht—used it as a model for Masses of their own and its impact went a lot further than this: it was a key work in spawning a whole range of Masses by Continental composers constructed on similar lines and it seems to have been one of the earliest pieces to have added a fourth, low contratenor part in the bass range to the three-voice texture that was standard around the time that it was composed (probably in the 1440s). This four-voice idiom, a forerunner of our standard SATB, spread rapidly through Western Europe, and within about thirty years it had largely taken over as the standard texture for art music.

In so many way the ‘Caput’ Mass was a convergence of ideas whose ‘time had come’. It hit Continental Europe at a time when, as at no other time in history, English music was very much in vogue, and at the centre of this vogue was a huge appetite for English Mass cycles. The idea of using shared musical material for settings of successive items in the Mass Ordinary, something which we take for granted today, was still a very young one, and English composers had devised a method of construction in which a single melody was taken from outside the liturgy of the Mass and laid out in the tenor in each movement or section of a movement. Sometimes the melody was set forth in the same succession of long notes for each statement; on other occasions it was presented in more elaborate forms. But the effect was always much the same: to provide a structural framework around which various counterpoints could provide—rather in the manner of glosses on sacred texts or the illuminations and arabesques in Books of Hours—endlessly changing and richly patterned musical adornments.

This then is the world into which the Missa Caput was born: a world of remarkable musical fecundity which had at its centre a development which has been characterized as one of the founding moments of Western music. Liturgical circumstances and musical wherewithal converged to produce—for the first time—multi-movement musical structures encompassing up to half-an-hour of music. The possibilities that this new technique offered were quickly grasped: it was so widely and scrupulously imitated in the 1450s and 1460s that it is often virtually impossible to distinguish English Masses from their Continental clones.

Such a Mass cycle was usually identified in its manuscript copies by the first word or words originally set to the melody which it had borrowed for its tenor, and it is by such names that these pieces are known today. The melody used in the ‘Caput’ Mass started life as a long tenor melisma on the word ‘caput’ (in Latin, ‘head’) in a chant for a special ritual service of the washing of the feet held on Maundy Thursday in the English Sarum and other liturgical uses. The text comprises a dialogue between Jesus and Peter in which Jesus states: “If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me”. Peter replies: “Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head”. The melody is heard, in long notes, twice in each movement, the first time in triple metre and the second in duple metre.

For those listeners familiar with the standard form of the Kyrie, the ‘Caput’ Kyrie will come as a surprise: following English practice it sets a long troped text, or ‘prosula’, beginning with the words ‘Deus creator omnium’. It was this movement which first alerted scholars to the fact that the Mass could not be by Dufay, as was once thought, but must rather be an English work. The sad effect of this removal of the Mass from the Dufay canon was that performances of it, which had been common, dropped off almost completely. But as this recording demonstrates, it is not difficult to understand why this magnificent work was taken up by a generation of composers as a challenge to their own creative powers. Whoever wrote this beautiful Mass, with its rich, sonorous textures and elegant lines, it is as striking and satisfying a work today as it must have been when, over half a millennium ago, it was one of the most popular works in Western Europe.

The composer of the Missa Caput probably envisaged that his work would be sung by four singers, all adult males, or possibly by larger forces in a proto-choral distribution that is especially likely to have favoured extra singers on the top part. In this performance the Mass is performed with one voice to a part, and all four voices have been texted. It was customary for the upper two parts (superius and contratenor) to be texted in English Mass music of this period; as for the lower two parts, including the tenor which uses the ‘Caput’ melisma, ‘it seems entirely plausible that the skilled [medieval] singer would accommodate text as he could, breaking ligatures as necessary … Where he encountered insoluble problems … presumably he could have divided one or two long notes if only a few syllables remained to be sung, or he could have cut the text in a convenient manner, resuming with the next phrase’ (G Curtis, ed., Fifteenth-Century Liturgical Music III: The Brussels Masses, Early English Church Music 34 (London, 1989), pp. xiv–xv). This seems eminently sensible. The Missa Caput is not a set of Renaissance madrigals designed to project a text but a means of adorning a major liturgical feast with an appropriately luxurious clamour while the Ordinary texts are being spoken by the celebrant and other ministers. Texting—or partially texting—the lower parts of the Mass produces a richer palette of vowel colours than when the two lower parts are vocalized, and produces musical lines which are more appetizing for the performers to sing and are easier to phrase. Full texting also provides a useful artistic resource, namely the chance to synchronize vowels for extended melismas in all voices and thus to modify the colour of the music. If a word like ‘mundi’ is to be sung, for example, there is a profound contrast between a four-voice prolongation of the bright second syllable (munDI) and a prolongation of the darker first syllable (MUNdi).

from notes by Christopher Page © 1996

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Details for CDH55284 track 2
Kyrie 'Deus creator omnium'
Recording date
17 July 1996
Recording venue
Rickmansworth Masonic School Chapel, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Martin Compton
Recording engineer
Tony Faulkner
Hyperion usage
  1. The Spirits of England & France, Vol. 4 (CDA66857)
    Disc 1 Track 2
    Release date: November 1996
    Deletion date: September 2005
    Superseded by CDH55284
  2. The Spirits of England & France, Vol. 4 (CDH55284)
    Disc 1 Track 2
    Release date: August 2010
    Helios (Hyperion's budget label)
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