The four-voice O très piteulx
, with its French text (according to Dufay’s own testimony, sourced from Naples) expresses all the pathos of this historical moment—the fall of Constantinople—with great plangency and intensity. It is gravely measured and has a gentle inevitability of motion, somehow managing to be sober and austere yet also consoling at the same time. Its tenor carries a text-fragment from Jeremiah, with the two phrases neatly transposed (seemingly to emphasize the political point of the abandonment of Byzantium by the West, as well as by God himself) and set to a paraphrase of the famed ‘Lamentation tone’ for Holy Week. This chant gives the F mode for the composition, and is sung through once in each half in a slightly different guise (the cantus also alludes to it in the free duos which stand at the beginning of each section). The piece as a whole is melodically concise, and thus relatively compact in its phrases and dimensions. Yet, as so often in Dufay, the structural and expressive effect is much larger than its length alone might imply, so perfectly calculated is the balance between the individual melodic gestures, the beautifully controlled ambit of the tenor, and the rhythmic placement of the (modally varied) cadences.
from notes by Philip Weller © 2009