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,


Haiku Wednesday: Josquin des Prez

Josquin des Prez

A moment in time:
It happened to be Josquin.
Frozen in memory.

The October skies
Were vivid blue with clouds by

The air was so crisp
And leaves rustled underfoot;
World in equipoise.

Then I heard Josquin,
Motets of aching beauty,
Many years too late.

As the notes wove
Around each other and me,
Nothing was the same.

In 2012 I wrote this to a friend:

How did I manage to live 50 years without hearing Josquin Des Prez motets?  Yesterday the sky was bright blue, the clouds were puffy and white, and Josquin…sublime.

It was a before and after moment.  After was somehow…different.  It was early in my forays into polyphony, and since then other pieces of that period have endeared themselves to me more:  Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli, Lotti’s Crucifixus for eight voices.  But that combination of Josquin and autumn will remain with me always.

Josquin des Prez (around 1450-1521) was a Franco-Flemish composer.  He was one of the great experimentalists, adopting a variety of different styles.  His music spread widely thanks to the use of the newly invented printing press.  One of his more well-known works is the Missa L’homme armé, whose theme is based on a popular tune.  He wrote both sacred and secular music.

Here is a Josquin gem, La Déploration sur le Mort de Jean Ockeghem, performed by Vox Luminis.