Saturday, October 17, 2009

Dufay Mass, and a Motet

(Kyrie from Dufay's Missa "Se la face ay pale")

I have a CD of a vintage recording (directed by Planchart) of Guillaume Dufay's Mass "Se la face ay pale" - Jennifer told me the performance is a bit dated, but I rather like it. Anyhow, I've just ordered a CD of a different performance (directed by Binkley), which as a bonus comes with the chants, prayers and readings of the Nuptial Mass.

Why a Nuptial Mass? Because Dufay's famous Mass setting is the first cantus firmus Mass based on a secular chanson - Se la face ay pale is a rather predictable late mediæval love-song about suffering pangs of love for a puissant lady, complete with a play on words ("love", "bitter" and "sea" all sound much the same in French), which Dufay set to music in the 1430's - and it is thought this Mass was first sung at a royal or ducal wedding about 1450. With the passage of time, what would have fallen under the condemnation of Trent against sacred music making profane allusions is now quite acceptable!

Here is the text (the first part), with a rather clumsy translation:

Se la face ay pale,
la cause est aimer,
c'est la principale
et tant m'est amer aimer
qu'en l'amer me voudroye voir.

Or scet bien de voir,
la belle a qui suis
que nul bien avoir
sans elle ne puis.

If [my] face is pale,
the cause is love,
that is the principal,
and so bitter it is to love
that I want to throw myself into the sea [!].

Now she knows well,
the lady whom I serve,
that without her
I cannot be happy.

See what I mean about a rather ordinary collection of clichés? But the Mass is very beautiful.


As all men know, it is de rigueur to sing Ave Maria at a wedding: and I think this sentiment Catholic and orthodox, howsoever modern liturgists may complain, since after all the Orthodox sing a Megalynarion to the Mother of God just after the very Consecration at every Liturgy, and it seems strange at a wedding to make no plea whatsoever to Our Lady, who is our "most gracious advocate", as well as in her marriage to St Joseph a most holy model for all.

(Raphael's Marriage of the Virgin)

You'd think that at the Reform of the Liturgy some effort would have been made to add some reference in the marriage rites to Holy Mary and her most chaste spouse. But no: in fact, to add insult to injury, the modern recension of the Nuptial Blessing (to which two 1960's compositions have been added, as alternatives) dumps the reference to Rachel, Rebecca and Sarah, and the former final blessing, invoking the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, has been entirely removed from the Novus Ordo. So much for a return to the sources: out with Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel.

The Introit, too, alluding to Tobias and Sarah, has been left out of the new Gradual. Only reference to our first parents Adam and Eve, and to Christ's mystical marriage to the Church, seem to have survived. Predictably, given the vast selection of readings that bemused couples must choose from, the readings from Tobit, or what St Paul says to the Ephesians, are left aside in favour of I Corinthians xiii, used shamelessly at both weddings and funerals (even dreadful Diana's).

Now, while singing Ave Maria is all very well, the Bach-Gounod, let alone the Schubert settings are so hackneyed and dripping with sugary sentiment as to be a bit vulgar. Better is a restrained, tasteful polyphonic setting. But I am amused to learn that my favourite Ave Maria, while attributed to Victoria, is in fact almost certainly a late forgery, which first appears in print in the 19th century, and has no manuscript evidence for it at all! At least it is good counterpoint, clear and devout, not too difficult for four voices to sing successfully.

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