Move over John Cage and Henry Cowell. Chance music, it seems, existed long before last century. How surprising and intriguing to discover that the roll of the dice may well have determined the compositional method of a Mass that could have been written by the great polyphonist, Josquin des Prés. (Josquin was employed by the Sforza family, some of the biggest gamblers in 15th-century Milan.)
Movements of the Missa Di Dadi (Dice Mass) are preceded by images of dice showing different numbers. These indicated to the tenors the proportional length of the base melody (a chanson by Robert Morton) to the other parts. As Peter Phillips points out in his engaging notes, these indications are a bit haphazard and fortunately the publisher (presumably not a gambler) wrote out the actual tenor part to avoid confusion. While all of this is quite amusing – and despite not knowing for certain the Mass is by Josquin – the music is certainly worthy of attention. The customary precision and blend of The Tallis Scholars is in evidence throughout, but the final Agnus Dei is particularly moving.
Missa Une mousse de Biscaye also lacks firm evidence of authorship by Josquin. Based on a secular tune that relates the hapless attempts of a French lad to speak to a Basque girl, this experimental Mass is possibly Josquin’s earliest. Thanks are due to Phillips and his singers for providing a more complete picture of this seminal composer.