Quarter Century: 1450-1475
In short, the melodic lines written here were drawn-out, long, active, and beautiful. There was nothing much for the listener to really familiarize themselves with, since the voices were meant to be quite balanced, and most every note heard was but a product of voice-leading and its relationship with other voices. Among all of that, though, were wonderful collective movements and a graceful shape that rises and falls exquisitely. There’s only one recognizable and principal melody that repeats, and it comes in at the very beginning of every movement. After that, the music takes many twists and turns with the melodies serving as the forces that drive everything collectively towards the cadence points. The many independent and seemingly important lines made it difficult to fully engage with a single melodic idea in the texture. I thoroughly enjoy Renaissance polyphony, but I must say that melodic engagement is not normally its strength, and only a few composers before the 17th century could really achieve it. Melodic engagement is important to me, but so is shape, energy, fulfillment, presence, and many other factors. Dufay did an incredible at writing lines that were individualistic, balanced, and coordinated with each other, which complimented the sound extremely well.
In Dufay’s day, there really wasn’t such a thing as harmony. That’s not to say that we can’t look at this work with our musical knowledge today and not find a working harmonic structure. I said earlier that basically every note in the entire work was there because of the other notes that were around it. By using a cantus firmus in the tenor, Dufay strapped himself to a foundation that the other lines would be based off of. In keeping with the contonance angloise, or the “English Sound” that was the next big deal in polyphony, Dufay strictly used only consonant intervals and correctly resolved dissonance in his writing. In other words, there was really only a small amount of possibilities for the musical structure in the first place. Sounds very constricting, doesn’t it? Sure, but there’s a reason as to why it was constricted in the first place, and it’s all in the name of beauty and experimenting to find perfection. In Missa L’Homme Arme, the calculated structure of consonant intervals was perhaps the most successful result to come from this experiment at the time it was written. Indeed, the result was a brilliant stagnancy of harmonious connections that gave way to serenity and repose that has hardly ever been matched. Although Dufay didn’t know anything about keys or tonality, the music contained wonderful explorations of the diatonic chords that could be found within the tonal center that exists. His lack of tonal awareness also meant that there were many passages dominated by one pitch’s presence, which wasn’t always the most pleasing. Also, while it was practice at the time to only use perfect intervals at cadence points and not including any thirds, I did dock points because of that, because those points really missed the fullness that a major or minor tonality would’ve provided, and I believe Dufay should have been more forward thinking. Every other aspect was quite exquisite.
When discussing the balance of the melodies, that was more of an observation on technique and less of an overtly positive musical effect. The balance of the timbre, however, and specifically of the usage of the voice parts, was extremely positive and a very important reason as to why this work is so beautiful. In order to obtain this much power and exuberance from four voices, they all need to be significant and work in a strong way by themselves while still being connected to the rest of the texture. Dufay was perhaps the first composer to ever fully achieve this exuberance. This is what Renaissance composers excelled at, and is why I believe this era produced the only a cappella works to ever reach incredible status, and I don’t think they will never be topped again. This Mass setting is a true delight because of its wonderfully balanced and smooth sound. By using only two or three voices for extended periods of time, Dufay gives greater importance to the sections where all voices are in. He only uses a full voice texture sparingly in order for the grandiose effect to really work. Of course, with only four voices and similar techniques being used, it all kind of sounds the same. That sound, though, is basically heaven. It’s hard to believe composers actually found ways to improve upon it.
This cantus firmus Mass had an incredibly profound effect on the musicians of the day and thereafter. Not only was the use of the popular l’Homme Arme tune reason to listen, but also the amazing way that Dufay delicately formed the voices and the lines to create something reminiscent of heaven. Again, no one before him was as successful at this. It’s too bad that Josquin comes into the picture shortly thereafter and shows him up with his own l’Homme Arme Mass. Dufay was considered the greatest composer of his time, and this Mass is widely regarded as his most brilliant major work. This work helped many other Renaissance composers understand how to achieve serenity and beauty. In time, future musicians went on to improve on Dufay’s techniques and reach even greater heights of mastery, and this piece is now but an example of early Renaissance polyphony. That may not excite too many people these days, but there’s an important historical reason that every musician studies this piece in school. It’s not just because of the cute crab canon; it was a testament to how polyphony of the High Renaissance was influenced by the past generation, and that has an importance I cannot begin to express.
Final Score: 156/180