About Singing and Faith in the 15th Century

A place to retreat - the Protestant church in Luxembourg City. © Charles Thibo
A place to retreat – the Protestant church in Luxembourg City. © Charles Thibo

I like to sing. I have been singing since I was a child. Children songs at school, Christmas songs on Christmas Eve, Luxembourg’s national anthem on June 23. I sang “Eng lëschteg Band” when on the road with boy scouts and I sang the “Kyrie” at mass. Both with enthusiasm. I feel light when I sing, like if nothing could harm me. A special kind of euphoria.

Infinite joy and love

Do you sing? Perhaps when you are alone? Under the showers? May be in a choir? I feel that singing is important. It can help overcoming pain, sorrow, anger, despair. It can express infinite joy and love for mankind. It is a way to communicate with others and with oneself without the risk of misunderstandings. You can not lie when you are singing.

The composer Josquin Dezprez probably had this in mind when he composed his “Missa sine nomine” (Mass without a name). He was born in France around 1450 and he is one of Europe’s most eminent Renaissance composers and a representative of the French-Flamish School. He started as a composer in the service of French noblemen, but emigrated later to Italy. In 1484 he joined the Papal Choir in Rome. The mass was probably written at the turn of the century when Dezprez had returned to France and was at the service of the French king Louis XII.

Mass without a name

The “Mass without a name” is a vocal piece, there is no distraction by an organ or any other instruments. In a time when multiple wars ravaged Europe, it was meant to reproduce the song of angels and to lift the spirit of those poor sinners to a higher level to foster their belief in God, to transport the message of the Gospel by the sole action of the melody with little or not importance being attached to text itself, which was in Latin anyway.

In a way, Dezprez was already anticipating the restrictions that the Council of Trent would place on sacred music some 50 years later and the direction that the Italian composer Palestrina would take (see my New Year’s post on Cavalieri). The human voice was to transport God’s word in its purest form and Deprez’ mass is an excellent example. It follows the traditional liturgy: Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus et Benedictus, Agnus Dei.

The “Missa sine nomine” has been recorded by the Tallis Scholars under Peter Phillips and it is simply marvellous. This recording also features Dezprez’ “Missa ad fugam” (Mass in the form of a fugue). Now summon your courage even if you aren’t a believer and listen to the angels’ voice! Your personal convictions do not matter when it comes to aesthetics. But your soul may benefit from it.

© Charles Thibo

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One thought on “About Singing and Faith in the 15th Century”

  1. I used to sing. A lot. Some even used to pay me to do it. I haven’t for years. Not sure why. Now, when I try, the sound comes out distorted and ugly.

    I love Josquin Desprez. I am not familiar with ‘Missa Sine Nomine’, so thank you for flagging it up. One of these afternoons, after working hard on a translation, I’ll reward myself with a stroll to Prelude Records…

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