Missa prolationum

Missa prolationum

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The Missa prolationum is a musical setting of the Ordinary of the Mass
Ordinary of the Mass
The ordinary, in Roman Catholic and other Western Christian liturgies, refers to the part of the Eucharist or of the canonical hours that is reasonably constant without regard to the date on which the service is performed...

, by Johannes Ockeghem
Johannes Ockeghem
Johannes Ockeghem was the most famous composer of the Franco-Flemish School in the last half of the 15th century, and is often considered the most...

, dating from the second half of the 15th century. Based on freely written material probably composed by Ockeghem himself, and consisting entirely of mensuration canons, it has been called "perhaps the most extraordinary contrapuntal
In music, counterpoint is the relationship between two or more voices that are independent in contour and rhythm and are harmonically interdependent . It has been most commonly identified in classical music, developing strongly during the Renaissance and in much of the common practice period,...

 achievement of the fifteenth century", and was possibly the first multi-part work to be written which used a unifying canonic
Canon (music)
In music, a canon is a contrapuntal composition that employs a melody with one or more imitations of the melody played after a given duration . The initial melody is called the leader , while the imitative melody, which is played in a different voice, is called the follower...

 principle for all its movements.


The mass is for four voices, and is in the usual parts:
  1. Kyrie
    Kyrie, a transliteration of Greek κύριε , vocative case of κύριος , meaning "Lord", is the common name of an important prayer of Christian liturgy, which is also called the Kýrie, eléison ....

  2. Gloria
    Gloria in Excelsis Deo
    "Gloria in excelsis Deo" is the title and beginning of a hymn known also as the Greater Doxology and the Angelic Hymn. The name is often abbreviated to Gloria in Excelsis or simply Gloria.It is an example of the psalmi idiotici "Gloria in excelsis Deo" (Latin for "Glory to God in the highest")...

  3. Credo
    A credo |Latin]] for "I Believe") is a statement of belief, commonly used for religious belief, such as the Apostles' Creed. The term especially refers to the use of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed in the Mass, either as text, Gregorian chant, or other musical settings of the...

  4. Sanctus
    The Sanctus is a hymn from Christian liturgy, forming part of the Order of Mass. In Western Christianity, the Sanctus is sung as the final words of the Preface of the Eucharistic Prayer, the prayer of consecration of the bread and wine...

     and Benedictus
  5. Agnus Dei (in three sections: I, II, III)

A typical performance takes 30 to 35 minutes.

The mass uses progressive canon through all its movements, similar to the way Palestrina
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina was an Italian Renaissance composer of sacred music and the best-known 16th-century representative of the Roman School of musical composition...

 used the technique in his "Missa Repleatur os meum" (Third Book of Masses, 1570), and to J.S. Bach's use of canon in the canonic movements of the Goldberg Variations
Goldberg Variations
The Goldberg Variations, BWV 988, is a work for harpsichord by Johann Sebastian Bach, consisting of an aria and a set of 30 variations. First published in 1741, the work is considered to be one of the most important examples of variation form...

more than two centuries later. Most of the movements feature pairs of mensuration canons. The interval separating the two voices singing each canon grows successively in each consecutive movement, beginning on the unison, proceeding next to the second, then the third, and so forth, reaching the octave in the Sanctus
The Sanctus is a hymn from Christian liturgy, forming part of the Order of Mass. In Western Christianity, the Sanctus is sung as the final words of the Preface of the Eucharistic Prayer, the prayer of consecration of the bread and wine...

 at the "Osanna" section. The four voices each sing in a different mensuration, so rendered in modern music notation, the four voices in the Kyrie II sing respectively in the meters 2/2, 3/2, 9/4, and 6/4, with the voices singing canon 1 in 2/2 and 3/2 (the voice in 3/2 sings the tune half again as slowly, so the voices pull apart gradually), and the voices singing canon 2 in 9/4 and 6/4, again with the voice in 9/4 singing half again as slowly, pulling away from the 6/4 voice. In the score, only one voice was written out for each canon, with the mensuration marks (approximately equivalent to a modern time signature
Time signature
The time signature is a notational convention used in Western musical notation to specify how many beats are in each measure and which note value constitutes one beat....

) given alongside, so the singers would understand that they are to sing in those proportions, and thus at different speeds; in addition the intervals between the voices are given in the score by the positions of the C clefs. What so astonished musicians and listeners from Ockeghem's age to the present day is that he was able to accomplish the extraordinarily difficult feat of getting it all to work out.

Ockeghem was the first composer to write canons using the intervals of the second, third, sixth, and seventh, the "imperfect" intervals, and the Missa prolationum may have been the first work to employ them. The layout of the work, with the interval of imitation
Imitation (music)
In music, imitation is when a melody in a polyphonic texture is repeated shortly after its first appearance in a different voice, usually at a different pitch. The melody may vary through transposition, inversion, or otherwise, but retain its original character...

 expanding from the unison up to the octave, is the same as that used by J.S. Bach in the Goldberg Variations; it is not known, however, if Bach was familiar with Ockeghem's work (which was generally unavailable in the 18th century). Another unusual feature of this mass is that the tunes used for its canons were all apparently freely composed; none have been identified from other sources. During this period of musical history, most of the time composers built masses on pre-existing tunes, such as Gregorian chant
Gregorian chant
Gregorian chant is the central tradition of Western plainchant, a form of monophonic liturgical music within Western Christianity that accompanied the celebration of Mass and other ritual services...

 or even popular songs.

Source and dating

There are two sources preserving the mass. One is the Chigi Codex
Chigi codex
The Chigi codex is a music manuscript originating in Flanders. According to Herbert Kellman, it was created sometime between 1498 and 1503, probably at the behest of Philip I of Castile. It is currently housed in the Vatican Library under the call number Chigiana, C. VIII...

 (f.106v to 114r), which was copied for Philip I of Castile
Philip I of Castile
Philip I , known as Philip the Handsome or the Fair, was the first Habsburg King of Castile...

sometime between 1498 and 1503, shortly after Ockeghem's death. The other one is the Vienna manuscript (Wien, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Handschriftensammlung, MS 11883, f.208r to 221r). Exactly when he wrote the Missa prolationum is not known, and there is no evidence to allow its dating other than what can be inferred from its internal characteristics, or from a comparison with other works of Ockeghem which already have tentative dates (Ockeghem's output is notoriously resistant to precise dating, even for a composer of the Renaissance; not only did he have an unusually long career, possibly spanning sixty active years as a composer, but there are few records tying specific pieces to events). No dates more precise than "mid-15th century" or "second half of 15th century" have been established for this piece.