Hyperion Records

Missa Se la face ay pale
The Missa Se la face ay pale uses the tenor of Dufay’s own chanson as its structural cantus firmus. The distribution of the phrases of this tenor throughout the Mass is absolutely clear and cogent, and provides the groundplan and the overall proportions of the larger form. It is presented integrally ‘once through’ in the Kyrie, Sanctus and Agnus, and is run through three times—in successively shorter note values—in the Gloria and Credo. This creates not only a broad framework for forward motion in general, but also a sense of real excitement and cumulative momentum towards the end of each of the two longer movements. In the final sections of these two, the melodic behaviour of all parts tends to converge, the rhythmic texture as a whole gains in animation and integration; and the tenor melody emerges, so to speak, in its ‘true’ shape, in equal-voiced dialogue with the other voices. Among other things, this also allows the brilliant fanfare figures taken over from the end of the original song to make their full, culminating impact in the Mass.

The vocal layout of the Mass is sonorous but completely lucid, with two highish tenor parts (one of them carrying the cantus firmus), a distinctively melodic top part lying a fifth above, and a (contra)tenor bassus lying a fifth below—a texture modelled, perhaps, on that of the English four-voice cyclic Masses of the 1440s (Caput and Veterem hominem) which had recently created such a stir among Continental musicians. The compositional problem of reconciling the constructive pattern of duos, trios and full sections with the ongoing melodic and rhythmic needs of the moment, besides keeping an alert controlling ear on the music’s general shape and pacing, is handled by Dufay with seemingly effortless mastery, as though he had been writing this kind of piece all his life. Although the flow and shapeliness result from contrapuntal invention that is intricate and highly sophisticated, it is the ease and clarity of his solutions that help to give the work, musically, its classic status. If, as seems possible, it came into existence to celebrate a grand public event, perhaps a dynastic wedding, then there could be no more thought-provoking demonstration of the mutually interdependent relations of the (transient) requirements of social culture and the (universal) purposes and beauties of art.

from notes by Philip Weller © 2009

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