Missa Se la face ay pale

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Missa Se la face ay pale

Secular Elements in the Sacred Repertory.

In 1434–35, while Guillaume Dufay was first in the service of the duke of Savoy, he wrote a chanson, Se la face ay pale, thought to be in honor of Anne de Lusignan, who was the duchess of Savoy (part of the kingdom of Burgundy). Although his whereabouts prior to 1452 are unknown, it is clear that he lived in Savoy between 1452 and 1458, and among the many compositions he wrote for various occasions was a cyclic mass, the Missa Se la face ay pale, based on the tenor of the earlier chanson. One can only guess at what might have been the very special significance the earlier chanson had for the Savoy court.

Punning Rhymes.

The text of the chanson is an unusual ballade because instead of the usual lines of eight or ten syllables, Se la face ay pale has only five, in a complicated format known as équivoquée (punning rhyme). Unfortunately, the numerous puns (pale/principale, amer/amer/la mer, voir/voir/avoir) in the text do not translate from French to English, but it is possible nonetheless to get an idea of the difficulty of this format from observing the range of meanings that are created from words with almost identical sounds.

Se la face ay pale
La cause est amer. ["amer"=love]
C'est la principale,
Et tant m'est amer ["amer"=bitter]
Amer, qu'en la mer ["amer"=to love, "la mer"=the sea]
Me voudroye voir.["voir"=see]
Or scet bien de voir ["de voir"=truly]
La belle a qui suis Que nul bien avoir ["avoir"=have]
Sans elle ne puis.

If my face is pale
the reason is love.

That is the main cause,
and love is so bitter
for me that I wish to
drown myself in the sea.
So she can truly know,
the fair one to whom I belong,
that I cannot have any joy
without her. [two more stanzas]

Dufay's musical setting of the chanson text is also unusual in that he wrote a continuous single unit of music with short phrases rather than the usual format with two sections and longer melodic phrases.

Fast and Slow.

In writing the Missa Se la face ay pale, Dufay borrows only the tenor line, which he places in the tenor voice in all five movements. In the shorter movements (Kyrie, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei), the chanson melody closely resembles the tenor part of earlier motets, moving at a much slower pace than the other three voices, thereby calling attention to itself. In both the Gloria and Credo, Dufay extends this idea by employing yet another motet-like technique: he repeats the chanson melody in the tenor at three speeds, beginning it three times slower than the other parts, then twice as slow, and finally at the same speed as the other voices. Borrowing a technique employed in the Missa Caput, Dufay further unites the movements of his mass by beginning each of the five movements with the same opening melodic-rhythmic motif.


David Fallows, Dufay. Rev. ed. (London: J. M. Dent, 1987).

Reinhard Strohm, The Rise of European Music, 1380–1500 (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

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