About this Recording
8.555861 - Mass of Tournai / St. Luke Passion
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The Mass of Tournai • St Luke Passion

The Mass of Tournai • St Luke Passion

This recording brings together the earliest complete polyphonic settings of the Ordinary of the Mass, and the Passion narrative (from St Luke’s Gospel). Their appearance, one in mid-fourteenth-century Tournai, on the Western border of present-day Belgium, and the other in early-fifteenth-century England, marks a new stage in the development of Western music. For many centuries plainchant (so-called Gregorian), itself derived originally from Jewish chant and other sources, was the overriding musical vehicle for the sacred texts used in the Christian liturgy. With the perspective of two long millennia, the emergence of notated polyphony in manuscripts seems to parallel human development from infancy to adulthood; on that scale, these late mediaeval pieces are like teenagers about to leave home – able to do many things with frequently striking individuality, but not yet endowed with the full-grown self-assurance of late fifteenth-century and sixteenth-century polyphony. If this seems a patronising 21st-century assessment, it should be remembered that the fourteenth century was a time of musicological struggle between what could be sung and what could be written down. The harmonic implications of adding several extra voices to existing or pseudo-plainchant were both enticing and dangerously uncharted, and by the end of the fourteenth century the levels of rhythmic complexity were pushed to extremes not heard again until the cerebral experiments of many a twentieth-century composer.

            Against this background, the Mass of Tournai can be seen for what it is, a collection of anonymous Mass movements by a number of composers in older and more up-to-date styles, compiled for use in the huge spaces of Tournai Cathedral in the first half of the fourteenth century, and antedating Machaut’s masterly setting of the Mass for Rheims Cathedral by a generation or so (Naxos 8.553833). The Cathedral at Tournai was at that time the focal point of a large diocese and was clearly in touch with important musical establishments elsewhere (versions of the Credo and Ite missa est are both found in manuscripts associated with the émigré papal court at Avignon). It was near the back of one of the Cathedral’s manuscripts, full mostly of plainchant in different scribal hands, that the Mass of Tournai was rediscovered in 1862. The Mass has since been linked with various supplicatory services that were held in response to the terrible events of the 1340s, the siege by the English king Edward III and his allies (soon after the start of the Hundred Years’ War) and the arrival of the Black Death in 1349. In that same year, the Bishop of Tournai, Jean des Prés, instituted a daily sung Mass that called for six trained singers – perhaps the Mass of Tournai was thus called into regular service.

            The six movements of the Mass of Tournai are surprisingly diverse (on this recording they are heard side-by-side without intervening plainchant in order to aid comparison). The Kyrie is relatively archaic and presents some intriguing questions about musica ficta, while the Gloria displays the characteristic intricacy of the ars nova (the ‘new art’ of the early fourteenth century), and with its immense ‘Amen’ is at least as ambitious as the corresponding movement in Machaut’s Mass. The Credo is a mostly note-against-note setting that conveys the text modestly but very effectively; the Sanctus and Agnus Dei are bell-like settings that hark back to the old rhythmic modes, but seem to push forwards in terms of harmonic colour. The Ite missa est is (unlike Machaut’s setting) a polytextual motet with a love-song in a French dialect on the top line and a moralistic Latin poem for the motetus part – quite how it was performed in the context of the liturgy is not clear, but the psychological effect is one of release and an inescapable connection between spiritual and worldly matters.

            Despite the superficial fact that both the Mass of Tournai and the St Luke Passion are in three-voice polyphony, they are cultural worlds apart. This recording seeks to show off those geographical and historical differences by using specific local pronunciations for the Latin texts, and partly by varying the ensemble colour in the Passion to reflect the expressive demands of the music and the momentous text it carries.

            Settings of the Passion are part of an ancient tradition within the Church in which all four Gospel accounts of the Passion are sung to plainchant in Holy Week (St Luke’s account on the Wednesday). Over the centuries the three main elements of the story were separated out onto different reciting tones, and later given to different singers. This increasing dramatisation is further enhanced in the thirteenth-century Rationale Divinorum Officiorum where there is a directive to differentiate between the ritual Gospel tone of the Evangelist and the words of Jesus (to be sung sweetly) and those of the crowd (correspondingly harsh and loud). Whether that had any direct effect on the composition of this St Luke Passion is immaterial; the depth of response to the drama of the story in its newly-composed polyphonic sections is undeniable.

            The anonymous St Luke Passion is found in the “Windsor” Manuscript (Egerton 3307), probably written or compiled for St George’s, Windsor, in the early fifteenth century. The first part of the collection is liturgical music for Passiontide and Easter (interestingly, it includes a three-voice setting of part of the Mass on the pages just before the St Luke Passion – which itself contains a detailed account of the Last Supper); the second part of the manuscript is mainly made up of Latin and English carols for Christmas, along with a drinking-song. Although the music of the St Luke Passion is relatively old-fashioned, most striking is the characteristic sweetness of the English-style harmony, particularly set against the bare recitation tones of the Evangelist and the words of Jesus. This sweetness, given the poetic description “la contenance Angloise” by Martin le Franc, was noted and absorbed by continental musicians throughout the fifteenth century and saw its ultimate late-mediaeval flowering in the glorious euphony of England’s Eton Choirbook.

            It was in the Eton Choirbook that the Passion tradition reached another milestone, with a composer’s name attached for the first time: Richard Davy’s St Matthew Passion. The Passion settings of J.S.Bach are well-known; in our own time, composers such as Arvo Pärt in his St John Passion (Naxos 8.555860) have once again returned to the traditional Latin text and the ritualistic framework of the medieval Passion.

            Apart from the questions of interpretation already noted above, there remain the important matters of performance pitch and tempi. As with the question of which accidentals should be added by the singers – sometimes to avoid the awkward melodic outline of a tritone, and sometimes to underline the cadential effect of two parts moving by contrary motion onto a perfect consonance (such as a fifth or an octave), truly satisfactory answers can be suggested only by repeated rehearsal and performance. We hope our solutions on this recording make sense to both the erudite and the unsullied ear.

Antony Pitts


This recording is dedicated to Luke Warren who was born during (but not at) the recording sessions.


Many thanks for help in preparing the performing editions go both to Joanne Whitworth and to Nick Sandon, whose publication of English chant in The Use of Salisbury, Vol. IV (Antico Church Music) was the basis for our reading in the St Luke Passion.

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