The Cyclic Mass Tradition: Missa Caput

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The Cyclic Mass Tradition: Missa Caput

Shared Musical Material.

The term "cyclic mass" refers to a mass in which all five movements have musical material in common. One of the earliest is the Missa Caput in which all movements are composed over the same section of chant—a long, rhapsodic passage on the word caput (head), the last word in the Holy Thursday chant Venit ad Petrum. The anonymous English composer of this work assigns the chant to the tenor part of each of the five movements, and further unifies the movements by beginning each of them with the same small melodic-rhythmic motif.

The Contratenor Bassus.

The Caput Mass also displays another technique that was more and more becoming the norm in all polyphonic composition: writing the fourth voice part below the tenor rather than above it, creating the contratenor bassus ("against the tenor but lower," later known simply as the bass part). The technical implication of this change is substantial, since it is the lowest voice that governs the harmony. When the tenor voice was the lowest, it was the borrowed material that played a substantial role in determining the harmonic content of the composition. By adding a lower, newly composed voice part, the composer had far more control of the harmonic flow of the composition.

Abstract Relationships.

The Missa Caput probably was written in the 1440s, and it was immediately followed by many more cyclic masses, including two additional masses using the same borrowed tenor. It is interesting to note that while the Missa Caput is organized around a tenor melody borrowed from the liturgy, the relationship between the borrowed material and the use to which it is put is far more abstract than when the relationship is direct—that is, when a Kyrie chant is borrowed as the basis for a polyphonic Kyrie, as in the Machaut Mass (see above). The Caput chant, on the other hand, is not from any of the parts of the Ordinary, and therefore it is foreign to each of the sections where it is employed as a controlling and unifying device. Once the model had been set for this kind of abstract relationship, composers felt free to choose their organizing material from any kind of sacred or even secular source: Missa Ave maris stella ("Hail, Star of the Sea"), based on a hymn, took its place next to Missa L'Homme armé ("The Armed Man"), on a popular tune, and Guillaume Dufay's Missa Se la face ay pale ("If My Face Is Pale"), on a love song also written by Dufay.


Manfred F. Bukofzer, Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Music (New York: W. W. Norton, 1950).

Richard Hoppin, Medieval Music (New York: W. W. Norton, 1978).

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The Cyclic Mass Tradition: Missa Caput

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