Posted in Project 2: Palestrina and the Mass

Research Point 1.1, Part A2: Polyphonic Mass

This is section 2 of the first part of the research point, the brief of which is to write about the mass, its history and musical structure. In the previous section, I traced the early monophonic mass, while in this post I will give an outline of the mass and its form in the development of the polyphonic music.

Prior to c. 1250, the Gregorian chants that were being used as the basis for early polyphonic music were frequently the Mass Proper items (Apel, 1969: 508), especially the elaborate responsorial forms, which were considered the highest musical points of the mass. The earliest form of polyphony is the note-against-note organum – parallel and oblique, which I wrote about in this research for composing music 1 unit. The sequences of the responsorial Proper chants – Gradual and Alleluia (or Tract which is used instead of Alleluia during Lent and Requiem Mass) were the first to serve as the melodic material for organum. The sequences arose from the enthusiasm of Frankish composers for writing melismas, who tended towards replacing the repeat of the Alleluia and its jubilus (melisma on final a of the word) with an even more extended melisma called sequentia. The sequence evolved further, increasing in size, sometimes ten times as long as Alleluia and its jubilus, thus becoming more than a simple extension of the Alleluia melisma. With the addition of text, called prosa, the sequence was established as a separate musical form, whose syllabic structure (due to the added text, but ironic in a sense, since it developed from melismas) and clear melodic phrasing allowed for polyphonic treatment. Next to Alleluia, it was also placed after the Gradual. This is not the least surprising, since the sequence became a unique musical form of the Franks that could finally rival the expressiveness and artistry of the melismatic Graduals of the old Gregorian composers. (Crocker, 1986: 34-35)

For the early organum forms based on the sequences, the polyphony meant singing the same melody, only 4th or 5th below. However, by the 11th century, not only was the organal voice now above the main melody, but the parallel and oblique motions combined with the new contrary motion in the free organum, and the melody now differed between the voices. As the polyphony was developing, largely in the Aquitanian region, the main drive at the time were the poetic experimentations of the versus – the rhyming, scanning, strophic chants of the 1000s, which provided polyphony their ingratiating melodies, such as at St. Martial (Fig. 1). (Crocker, 1986: 63)

Fig. 1. Illustrations of Abbey of St. Martial in Limoges, left (1594) and right (1901)

The versus influenced and multiplied the musical settings of Kyrie, Sanctus and Agnus Dei (Crocker, 1986: 52), being the reason why these Mass Ordinary items would sometimes appear as the basis for organum. But more importantly, with the crystallization of the polyphonic techniques, the new developments allowed the beginning of the polyphonic treatment of certain solo sections of the Graduals and Alleluias themselves, and not just their sequences. In a way, the polyphony replaced the sequence as a display through which the composers showcased their craft; no more was there a need for addition of their most ambitious sequence pieces right after the Gregorian centre stage of mass music – Graduals and Alleluia, but as Crocker (1986: 73) suggested, there was a new creative impulse of Franks to thrust their music directly into this highest point of the old Gregorian chant, developing it further with the novel techniques of polyphonic music.

In achieving this new musical impulse, from the mid-12th century, in the period named Ars Antiqua, the once lively, highly elaborate responsorial chants became stagnant and sustained notes called tenor, while the organal voice flourished with decorative and ornamental notes in a new fantastic style of melody, based on a series of rhetorical idioms which created the modal rhythm. (More about that, see this post.) This new form is called melismatic organum. Nonetheless, the melismatic phrases in the organal voice, usually terminated by the rests, weren’t supported solely by the sustaining notes of tenor. There remained some sections where the melodiousness of the old plainchants would resurface, with the stagnant tenor flourishing back into phrases of faster notes, at the places where the most important melismas originally occurred in the source chant. Terminated by cadences in octave or unison, these sections, which exhibit the effort of the new generation of Frankish composers to assimilate the remote, abstract progressions of the old Gregorian melismas into their contemporary polyphonic music (Crocker, 1986: 85), are called clausula.  In the earlier clausulae, the faster tenor is notated as rhythmically equal notes without pattern. With the maturity reached in Notre Dame school, first in hands of Leonin (Fig. 2, left), who created a collection Magnus liber organi that served as a liturgical cycle of organum pieces based on gradual and alleluia that cover important feasts of the year, the clausula notes started being differentiated in length.

Finally, with Leonin’s student Perotin (Fig. 2, right), who included additional voices to the organum, and the clausula was subjected to modal rhythm
[1], characterized by melodic sequences and repetitive devices, moving at the same rate as the organal voice, under the name discant clausula. (Pinegar, 2016: 229) In this way, with the return of the elaborate context of the Gregorian plainchant, the traditional note-against-note technique of the old organum was refreshed under the new name, discant. Furthermore, as Crocker (1986: 80) pointed out, although the dimensions of the old Gregorian chant have been distorted, the alternation of the organum and discant sections through a distinct manner maintained its original contrast of the melismatic and syllabic-neumatic sections.

Fig. 2. Medieval illuminations of Leonin (left) and Perotin (right)

Towards the end of Perotin’s era, the upper voice of the discant clausulae were given text, as contemporary commentaries to the old Alleluia and Gradual texts. But more than being simple continuations of old chants, as were the sequences, the commentaries as Frankish metaphoric and rhetoric flourishes, are now sung at the same time as the chant, being heard simultaneously with the old text and melody. (Göllner, 2001) With the addition of the French text, instead of Latin a new form called motet was created. The motet was dualistic in the sense of being not only bilingual (i.e. French and Latin), but by evolving beyond the Alleluia and Gradual chants, a portion of its repertoire became secularized with the rondeau refrains and dance tunes as the tenor, existing both in the sacred and the secular context. With the rise of secularization in the motet, the organum declined, together with the mass music based on Proper chants.

In the 14th Century, with the change of papal seat to Avignon, a new musical period named Ars Nova began. In this period, there was a revival of mass music with a new impulse to set the polyphony to the Ordinary of the Mass. Until then, the polyphonic ordinary mass items were rare in the Continental Europe, with the scarce examples from the aforementioned Aquitanian experimentations with the versus, and also some 13th century secular motet manuscripts that contain very few compositions based on liturgical sources. (Planchart, 2000: 83-85) However, in the insular setting of England, the polyphonic ordinary was not uncommon at all, in fact, being numerous in the manuscripts, such as the Winchester troper. As Lefferts (2011: 117) points out, between 1200 and 1400 the polyphonic mass ordinary was written for the Virgin Mary, to whom a large number of votive masses were dedicated as a nearly universal service across England. Moreover, as he indicated, the polyphonic mass ordinaries as votive formularies for Virgin Mary may have emerged in the Continental Europe as the adoption of the custom modelled afer the English practice. What may have also contributed to this, as Taruskin (2010) writes, is that at the usual mass in the Continent, the Ordinary used to be sung by the unlettered choir or even whole congregation, whose skills wouldn’t allow for polyphonic treatment. As the votive masses were donor based, the patrons could afford the expense of skilled singers, in turn allowing for polyphony as the deluxe model of music. In fact, the less powerful donors would receive only the monophonic formularies, and this imbalanced practice grew into abuse that caused the sixteenth-century reformation.

In addition to the above, as Crocker (1986: 119) suggests, in a way, the polyphonic Ordinary mass chants represented the continuation of the trope composing for Kyrie and other items which continued into 1300s, through the extending realm of polyphony that borrowed from the contrapuntal procedures standardized in the motet. In some cases this influence would extend quite far, in which case it would not be possible to tell whether the composers used a pre-composed Ordinary trope for tenor or wrote their own for the polyphonic setting they were composing. Similarly, as the Ordinary chants and tropes became grouped as cycles in the 13th century, resulting in the creation of Kyriale that I mentioned briefly in the previous post, the polyphonic Ordinary followed this tradition, itself emerging into cycles. The first is the Tournai mass, which consisted of compiled polyphonic ordinaries written by different composers from different periods. Connecting this cycle to the topic of Virgin Mary mass I tackled, in addition to the Tournai mass being associated to the votive services devoted to her, established at the time by the bishop of Tournai for the church donors; as Robertson (2001) mentions the manuscript of the cycle also included sacred Marian monophony. Furthermore, he writes, the tenor of Ite, missa est is taken from an Annunciation chant (announcement about the conception and birth of Christ to the Virgin Mary by angel Gabriel) (Fig. 3), so this movement and the rest of the mass, may be related to the Annunciation play that was performed in the city. Below is a video of Tournai mass.

While there were several other similar compilations, more important was the polyphonic Ordinary cycle that appeared under the name and style of a single composer, Guillaume de Machaut (Fig. 3). Titled as Messe de Notre Dame (Mass of Our Lady) for the votive Marian masses at the Reims cathedral, Machaut’s ordinary cycle was the last one which included Ite, missa est as its item. Four movements are isorhythmic, with only two being homorhythmic in the style of the older Tournai mass. Isorhythm is a compositional technique that was developed in motet, in which the tenor notes, in this case borrowed from the Ordinary chants, are transformed into a repeating rhythmic pattern called talea, translated as cutting. The chant notes may also become a repeating melodic pattern called color. Because the talea and color often contain different number of notes, the two primary aspects of melody – rhythm and pitch, are disjointed. (Gann, 2006: 85) Below is the isorhythm in from Machaut’s Kyrie. (Fig. 4) Within the large isorhythmic divisions, Machaut also included several subsections in his mass that are pan-isorhythmic, with repeating taleas in all parts. (Taruskin, 2010) Another achievement of Machaut’s mass is the new sonorities, produced by each of the four choral parts having specific roles in the distinctive high or low range. (Roden, Wright and Simms, 2010: 104)


Fig. 3. Portrait of Guillaume de Machaut


Fig. 4. Isorhythm in Machaut’s Kyrie (bottom), developed by adding the talea (middle) to the color of the opening of Kyrie IV (top)

Up to this point, the Ordinary cycles were grouped by the liturgical association, but in the insular tradition, the English composers Power and Dunstable (Fig. 5) were the earliest to unify the items by the musical device, using a single tenor melody as the basis for all movements, called tenor mass. There are two types of tenor mass. The first type is the strict tenor, descending from Power’s Alma Redemptoris mater, which uses the Marian antiphone as tenor, unaltered in every movement. This type allowed for the continuation of the isorhythm, being the heir to the now dying tradition of the once popular isorhythmic motet. (Randel, 2003: 491)


Fig. 5. Portraits of Leonel Power (left) and John Dunstable (right)

The second type is the free tenor, descended from Rex seculorum, attributed to both Power and Dunstaple, which uses the Benedictine chant as the tenor that appears in different melodic and rhythmic variations in each movement. While both Alma Redemptoris mater and Rex seculorum were based on non-liturgical sources (Gomez, 2001), these were still plainchants, but this situation paved the way for the rise of cycles based on tenors from secular songs, especially French chansons, which occurred after 1450 in the Continent by Dufay (Fig. 6) and his successors. Both types of tenor mass were adopted, but Dufay also started a new tradition of motto mass in which movements share identical opening motifs, and he even employed this technique in his tenor mass cycles. Another new genre of mass comes from Dufay’s successor, Ockeghem (Fig. 6) in Missa prolationum. This type is the canonic mass, where the principles of progressive canon is used through all movements.  (Lockwood and Kirkman, 2001)


Fig. 6. Guillaume Dufay (left) and Johannes Ockeghem (right)

In the early Renaissance, Josquin Des Prez (Fig. 7) continued all the previous mass techniques, but also introduced several new ones. One of these is the solmization syllables in his Missa La sol fa re mi. Another is seen in Missa pange lingua, where the the plainchant melody, on which all movements are based, moves from voice to voice using imitative texture, which became a new compositional paradigm. This represents a departure from the old tenor mass to the new practice of imitative paraphrase, where it is impossible to detach a single voice as tenor; all the voices are equal in the presenting of the paraphrased musical material. (Lockwood and Kirkman, 2001) Finally, Josquin utilized the parody mass, which will become the principal mass form of the high renaissance, where it is no longer the single pre-existing melody that is used as the borrowed material. Instead, the whole polyphonic complex of voices is quoted from the source, usually the four-voice motet, now re-established as the sacred composition set in Latin non-liturgical text (Randel, 2003: 530), with a blend of imitative and homophonic texture, in contrast to the madrigal as the main secular genre. As such, the voices were no longer perceived as self-contained linear units.


Fig. 7. Portrait of Josquin des Prez

The height of Renaissance was reached by Lassus, who mainly used the secular chansons and madrigals as the sources for his mass cycles, and Palestrina, who derived them from sacred models of Gregorian chant and motets. (I have mentioned both of the composers before, which is why I haven’t included their pictures.) It is Palestrina whose personal style became the hallmark of classical polyphony and mass composition. He cultivated all types of mass mentioned, as well as two based on newly written materialMissa sine nomine and Missa Papae Marcelli. However, despite the new peak reached in the Renaissance, with the development of monody and polychoral writing, the polyphonic mass was slowly abandoned. 

Before I end this post, I feel the need to mention that although the Ordinary cycles became the main form of mass composition, there did exist a number of mass Proper cycles in Renaissance, in fact, Sutherland (1976: xiii) further suggests thatthere were a great many Proper cycles from the time of Dufay to that of Monteverdi”, emphasizing how the history of these cycles has been ‘little noted’, ‘not adequately documented’ and ‘rarely considered’. The two most famous are Heinrich Isaac’s Choralis constantinus, the three-volume polyphonic setting of Proper texts for the whole liturgical year, and Byrd’s Gradualia, which was the last publication of this genre. (Apel, 1969: 508)

With this I am closing the post. The next one will be the final section that addresses the mass music, where I will trace its development after Renaissance to the contemporary times. Click here to read it.

List of Illustrations:

Figure 1. Illustrations of Abbey of St. Martial in Limoges, left (1594) and right (1901) [Website, public domain] At: (Accessed on 10th April 2018)

Figure 2. Medieval illuminations of Leonin (left) [Website, public domain] At:éonin/+images/e495c5c3a37b4d37b4bec5d87eef8117 (Accessed on 6th April 2018), and Perotin (right) [Blog, public domain] At: (Accessed on 6th April 2018)

Figure 3. Portrait of Guillaume de Machaut [Website, public domain] At: (Accessed on 8th April 2018)

Figure 4. Isorhythm in Machaut’s Kyrie (bottom) [Wikimedia commons, public domain] At: (Accessed on 2nd April 2018), developed by adding the talea (middle) [Created in Sibelius by the author of the blog], to the color of the opening of Kyrie IV (top) [Website, public domain] At: (Accessed on 12th April 2018).

Fig. 5. Portraits of Leonel Power (left) [Website, public domain] At: (Accessed on 20th April 2018), and John Dunstable (right)  [Website, public domain] At: (Accessed on 20th April 2018)

Fig. 6. Guillaume Dufay (left) [Website, public domain] At: (Accessed on 20th April 2018), and Johannes Ockeghem (right) [Blog, public domain] At: (Accessed on 20th April 2018)

Fig. 7. Portrait of Josquin des Prez [Website, public domain] At: (Accessed on 24th April 2018)


Apel, W. (ed.) (1969) Harvard Dictionary of Music. (2nd ed.) Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Crocker, R. L. (1986) A History of Musical Style. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.

Gann, K. (2006) The Music of Conlon Nancarrow. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gollner, T. (2001) ‘Early organum to the school of Notre Dame.’ In: Mass. [Online] Grove Music Online. At: (Accessed on 3rd April 2018)

Lefferts, P. (2011) ‘England’ In: Everist, M. (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Music. [Online] Cambridge University Press. At: (Accessed on 2nd April 2018)

Lockwood, L. and Kirkman, A. (2001) ‘The cyclic mass in the later 15th century’ In: Mass. [Online] Grove Music Online. At: (Accessed on 6th April 2018)

Pinegar, S. (2016) ‘Clausula’ In: Kibler, W. W., Earp, L., Zinn, G. A. and Henneman, J. B. (eds.) Routledge Revivals, Medieval France: An Encyclopedia. New York: Routledge. p. 229

Planchart, A. E. (2000) ‘Polyphonic Mass Ordinary’ In: Duffin, R. W. (ed.) A Performer’s Guide to Medieval Music. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. pp. 83-104

Randel, D. M. (ed.) (2003) The Harvard Dictionary of Music. (4th ed.) Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Robertson, A. (2001) ‘Tournai Mass.’ In: Grove Music Online. At: (Accessed on 5th April 2018)

Roden, T., Wright, C. and Simms, B. (2010) Anthology for Music in western Civilization, Volume I Antiquity through the Baroque. Canada: Schirmer Cengage Learning.

Sutherland, D. A. (1976) Recent Researches in the Music of the Renaissance Volume XXI: The Lyons Contrapunctus (1528), Part I. Madison: A-R Editions, Inc.

Taruskin, R. (2010) ‘Machaut and His Progeny.’ In: Taruskin, R. The Oxford History of Western Music. [Online] Oxford University Press. At: (Accessed on 23rd April 2018)

Taruskin, R. (2010) ‘Whys and Wherefores’ In: Taruskin, R. The Oxford History of Western Music. [Online] Oxford University Press. At: (Accessed on 15th April 2018)

[1] Taruskin (2010) writes: “If we assume that the “Perotin” generation finally wrote down the music of the “Leonin” generation (in the process devising a notational method that opened up a whole new world of musical possibilities that they were quick to exploit), then we can not only account for the gap between the twelfth-century repertory and its thirteenth-century sources, but also make sense of the fact that the theoretical descriptions of modal rhythm come as late as they do.” 


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