Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing

Parody in Church? When the Sacred and Secular Meet


Painting, Angels singing, detail from the Ghent Altarpiece by Jan van Eyck

When you hear the word parody, you may think of a satirical treatment of serious material.  That doesn’t seem like the kind of thing one might hear in a church.

But in the case of a parody mass, it’s ok (most of the time—I’ll tell you about the exception in a bit).  A parody mass is one which uses a secular song as the musical theme for the setting of the words of the mass.  It has nothing to do with a satirical parody.  It was a technique that was widely used in the 16th century.  It is sometimes called an imitation mass.

Some of the more well-known parody masses are the Westron Wynde masses of John Taverner, Christopher Tye, and John Sheppard, and masses based on the tune L’homme armé, some of the most well known being the settings by Josquin Des Pres, Johannes Ockeghem, and Guillaume Dufay.  You can see an article on L’homme armé, called the “most borrowed tune ever” here.

Here’s the original Westron Wynde.

Here’s a sample of Taverner’s Westron Wynde Mass.

And here’s the original L’homme armé and Dufay’s adaptation.

Of course one should probably be selective in one’s choices for mass themes.

Orlando di Lasso (Orlande de Lassus) wrote a mass now known as the Missa Entre vous filles.  Here’s the problem.  In the song Entre vous filles de quinze ans (written by Jacobus Clemens non Papa), fifteen-year-old girls are advised not to go to the fountains because they are distracting.  Clemens non Papa is rather specific about what is distracting about them.  You can imagine that some people were not too happy when they found out where the mass theme came from.

Here is Clemens non Papa’s song

Here is Orlando di Lasso’s adaptation

The use of the parody mass dwindled, but the musical intermingling of sacred and secular has continued.  Martin Luther used folk tunes for chorales.  Classical themes have been used for hymn tunes and given new words.

Here’s an unexpected mixing of sacred and secular.  See if you can hear Bach’s O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden [O Sacred Head, Now Wounded] from the St. Matthew Passion in Paul Simon’s American Tune.


Image attribution

Jan van Eyck (circa 1390–1441) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons,

6 thoughts on “Parody in Church? When the Sacred and Secular Meet

  1. I once looked up the melody for the Paul Simon song — I was familiar with it because it was in the air. It never dawned on me that that melody was in fact that of a hymn sung often in the Catholic church I grew up in, never knowing, moreover, of the Bach connection. Music is like water. It goes by we see it go by, it goes on, it evaporates, and comes down again as rain at a different time in a different place. Gotta be a name for “musical hydrological cycle.” In any case, I love the rain when I get to be under it and I am not drowning.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is a rich post, Chris. Beautiful stuff, although the Paul Simon song really shakes things up. And I sure wish my French were better.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Nice work, Chris! Huge and very interesting subject. Sacred and secular are of course on a very fluid continuum, in every way (not just music). The whole issue of paraphrase and parody masses and motets is fraught and complex. The Church has always fought rear-garde actions against the secular, but the arts (church arts included) could not have evolved so fast and variously without huge secular influence. Great choices, and pretty standard ones, though I had never heard that gorgeous Clemens chanson, nor the Lassus parody. Great stuff. You do know that Clemens no Papa was so called to distinguish him from Clemens Papa? The origin of the Passion Chorale is of course in an off-color folk tune (“Mein sinn is ganz verwirret”)- way before Paul Simon.



    Liked by 1 person

  4. Interesting post. I must say that parody (or imitation if you wish) is a bit more complex, involving not only the borrowing of motifs but also of the relations of the voices (it is always from a polyphonic composition) as also some of the model’s texture among other aspects. Here we are talking more of the musical borrowing procedures (being parody one of them) as also paraphrase, for monody, contrafacta. Musicologist Honey Meconi has a very interesting book on early musical borrowing. All best


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