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Hexachords in Headington

May 2013

Forty-four singers gathered at the Headington Community Centre on March 9, 2013, for another fascinating trip into the unknown with John Milsom. The two works to be explored were Palestrina’s hexachord mass, ut re mi fa sol la, scored, in Michael Procter’s 2005 edition, for SSAATB, and a motet for SATB by Josquin entitled Ut Phoebi radiis, with (as is discussed later in this review) a deeply mysterious text. The dank mist which shrouded the building and absorbed any rays which Phoebus might have been emitting was an appropriate symbol of the complexities which we were to encounter. In the intervals of warming-up, John imparted some information about hexachords. (Readers who know all this can skip the next paragraph).

Rather like a box of assorted chocolates, the hard hexachord Bs are square (and were formerly called B quadratus or, as in Thomas Morley’s Socratic dialogue, A Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke (1597), B quarre) while the soft ones (B molle) are round. This analogy breaks down with the natural hexachord, which does not contain a B. Everything that the young man wishing to be a social success needs to know about hexachords is set out in very considerable detail in Morley’s work in which Philomathes, the would-be singer, is confronted at the outset with a fearsome table (the Scale of Music), which we term the Gam, says his teacher, Master Gnorimus, since the G which is the lowest note of the hard hexachord and is therefore called ut was conventionally represented by G (gamma) - hence the word “gamut”. John briefly mentioned the role of Guido d’Arezzo in devising a solmization system. The so-called “Guidonian Hand” was a mnemonic device used by teachers of sight singing. Twenty locations on the Hand correspond to the twenty notes of the gamut which range, in modern notation, from the bottom G of the bass clef to the E which is two octaves and a sixth above. Philomathes eventually plucks up sufficient courage to ask Master Gnorimus why the scale was devised of twenty notes and no more, to which Gnorimus replies that “under Gam ut the voice seemed as a kind of humming and above E la a kind of constrained shrieking”. It seems that Gnorimus would have had little time for sopranos, had they appeared on the Elizabethan social music scene.

The hexachord mass is constructed, as Jon Dixon observes in the introduction to his edition, on the basically simple device of the constant repetition, up and down, in various rhythmic presentations, of the hard hexachord, the cantus firmus lying in the Cantus II part. We spent a considerable amount of time working on the Kyrie with the primary aim of getting the six parts, in various combinations (and including various alternations of parts between the first and second sopranos), to keep in time with each other and with John himself. We made sufficient progress with this to be allowed to tackle some of the later movements during the morning, before our encounter with Ut Pheobe radiis.

In this composition, each line of the first verse has one more solmization syllable than the previous line; the text is sung by the upper parts, leaving the lower parts with only the solmization syllables, the basses singing the C and the tenors, the F hexachord. The second verse mirrors this structure-the singers, having worked their way up to the top of the hill, get marched down again from la to ut. A great deal of effort has been expended on attempts to explain the symbolism involved. The essay by Willem Elders entitled “Symbolism in the Sacred Music of Josquin” at pp.531-68 of the Josquin Companion contains a substantial section on the symbolism of the Holy Virgin including both number symbolism and the attribute called the scala regni caelestis (which makes its first biblical appearance as Jacob’s ladder) and which, as John told us, was a Marian symbol in Western art. Elders suggests that Ut Phoebi radiis is the first composition in which the hexachord pattern symbolises Mary as the scala caelestis.

Elders also detects a second level of significance relating to the Order of the Golden Fleece (founded by Philip le Bon, Duke of Burgundy in 1430, with the motto Pretium Laborum Non Vile-no mean reward for labour) in the textual references to Jason’s quest for the Golden Fleece and the signs of the fleece for which Gideon prays in Judges vi. 36-39. Huizinga, in The Waning of the Middle Ages (1919, tr. Hopman, 1924) tells us that the rules of the Order “are conceived in a truly ecclesiastical spirit; masses and obsequies occupy a large place in them”. However, French propaganda about the rapacity of the Burgundian nobility induced the bishop of Chalons, as chancellor of the Order, to identify the Fleece with “Gideon’s fleece, which received the dew of heaven” (and which, says Huizinga, was one of the most striking symbols of the Annunciation) so as to associate the title of the Order with a more reputable origin than the exploits of Jason, which involved larceny and perjury, according to the French poet and political writer Alain Chartier in his Ballade de Fougeres.

After lunch we returned to our study of the Palestrina mass. We did a good deal of work on the Sanctus and the Agnus Dei, the second part of which expands into seven parts, the additional part being Altus III, which has the cantus firmus in canon with Cantus II. John drew our attention to the direct quotation from the Richafort Missa pro defunctis which many of us had previously studied with him and which itself quotes from Josquin’s six-voice chanson Nymphes, nappes and, more briefly, from his five-voice chanson Faulte d’argent. The Palestrina hexachord mass could thus be seen as a homage to Josquin, whose own Masses la sol fa mi re and Hercule dux Ferrarie were the first of the solmization genre, a device which seems to have been particularly popular among Spanish composers (Boluda, Capillas, Esquivel and Morales); there is also a la sol fa mi re Mass by Robert le Fevin. John was not, initially, inclined to spend very much time on the Credo of the Palestrina mass, but after we had worked on it for a short time he found it to be rather more interesting than he had thought it would be, and so it received some extra attention.

Amply refreshed after tea, we sang through most of the Palestrina but did not revisit Ut Phoebi radiis. John was very complimentary about our pitch, which had held up well throughout, and that no doubt reflected the level of interest and attention which his direction of these events always generates. We are all grateful to him for another rewarding day’s singing. Warm thanks are also due to Nicola Wilson-Smith, Wendy Davies and Diana Porteous for their work in organising the event.

Sidney Ross

© Sidney Ross 2017

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