The golden age of polyphony

PRIORIS: Your name seems to give rise to a stream of questions to which it seems that we could never provide answers.


PRIORIS: Of what you have left us the most concrete are the notes  and then  some places and some dates, which it is impossible to weave together to form a framework, and a constellation of references, totally insufficient for telling a "story".


Musician of the Pope or courtier of Louis Xll? ltalian, French or Flemish? Your art, where did you learn it? In the nave of a Gothic cathedral, or among the splendours of the Roman Renaissance?


For the Ensemble Daedalus PRIORIS represents the pleasure of discovering an unsuspected universe, confirming once again their vocation for unexplored footpaths, for roads that are forever new.

While the name of PRIORIS appears in some forty different sources, such as notarial acts and ledgers, wills and poems, motets, historical chronicles and letters, it is difficult, with the material at our disposal, to trace a coherent route, to construct a “story” which could satisfy us. It is true to say that, in the life of this composer, there is not a single date which is solidly documented!


A PRIORIS directed the Chapelle of Louis Xll in 1503. One finds his Christian name, Johannes, on a copy of the Missa de Angelis, which is found in a manuscript now in the National Library of Vienna, in Austria. The manuscript is the work of Alamire, the divine, the most excellent among the copyists of his time.


In a letter dated the same year, lean d'Auton, the Royal Chronicler, informed his protector that some representatives of the French court , travelling to Genoa, had had a violent altercation with some angry villains.


And they were frightening people so much,

among them one named PRIORIS,

Master of the Chapel/e, that he believed he

was dead.


One does not know whether our man was part of the complement of the Royal Chapel during the period when it was directed by Ockeghem. A connection exists, therefore, between the Treasurer of St-Martin and PRIORIS.


Agricolla, Verbonnet, PRIORIS,

losquin Desprez, Gaspar; Brumel, Compére,

Speak no more of happy songs, nor of


But compose nothing except remembrances

To mourn our master and good father.


The real significance of the words our master and good fatheris a mystery, for which, however, a logical explanation can be found in another text, again by Crétin. It is a matter this time of a Lament for the recent death of master Jehan Bracconier, known as Lourdault, cantor.


Our good father and master PRIORIS

Take your slate and in your fashion

Compose nothing except remembrances

A song which has no hint of laughter

But only remorse from the sound of


josquin de Prez, write no more songs,

And so build the piteous lament

For this death in many places much


You, Longueval and Mouton, in conclusion,

I implore you to attend to this matter.


It appears sensible to us to imagine that such attributes as our master and good father, used impartially for Ockeghem first, then for PRIORIS, must be taken in their humanist sense of guide/model, or as a recurrent cliché in the Acts of the court chancelleries, but certainly not in their literal sense.


In 1510 our man was elected first chaplain, a responsibility which a decree of LOUIS Xll defines as ambulatoire - temporary. PRIORIS now finds himself entrusted with the formation of the choir school of the Saincte Chapelle (magister cantus puerorum - master of the choirboys)


Here we are at the end of the story. Of PRIORIS nothing more remains!

Sorry! Obviouly we still have his music, which continued to be published, with the praise of the critics and the academics, until 1553.


AD 1491: Rome. A new track, in a completely different scenario.

In the ledgers of St Peter of the Vatican, we come across D. PRIORIS, organistae, cum famulo suo who, in exchange for his services, received, for himself and his famulus (the servant who probably pumped the organ), a payment of 2 ducats. The D which precedes the name PRIORIS signifies Dominus, a title which usually indicates the representatives of ecclesiastical orders. The organist and famulus accompanied the cathedral choir, a group of voices intended for the private ceremonies of the Pope, of which the complement was entirely composed of Italian artists.



This immediately begs a series of questions.

- What is a Transalpine doing in an entirely Italian group?

- Why has PRIORIS, an organist, not left us a single instrumental piece?

- Why does there exist no other source giving evidence of his quality as an organist?

- Johannes PRIORIS and D. PRIORIS are they the same person?

- If they are not the same person, why is it that the majority of the compositions attributed to PRIORIS are preserved in the manuscripts of the Sistine Chapel?

- If D. PRIORIS is not Johannes, then who is he?


Every possible hypothesis, every imaginable response makes one dizzy with a vicious circle of new questions.


And the personality of PRIORIS, his character?

Pierre Moulu, in the motet Mater floreat florscat (May the Mother flourish, burst into flower) relates:


May the Apollo of Longeval shine golden

as the sun among the stars

Lourdault and delightful PRIORIS


And Jean Daniel, again, in the third couplet from one of his Noéls:


Alexandre gleefully

Caused excitement in three parts:

PRIORIS the gentle likewise

Displayed his abilities well.

josquin did the same

And surpassed them all,

As did De La Rue

So that even my crane danced.



Delightful, gentle, timid, a dreamer and also frightened as in the altercation with the villeins: a quiet man, who prefers the shadows to the dazzling clarity of success? An individual destined to be forgotten? Being forgotten, in the case of PRIORIS, would be more akin to a vocation than to a quirk of fate?





The Missa super Allez Regrets only survives in a single manuscript, in the Vatican Library, within Ms 35. The work is a parody of the famous chanson by Hayne van Giezeghem. Documented in certainly 45 codices compiled between the end of the 15th and the beginning of the 16th centuries, the chanson is the basis for three different masses. The earliest, that of PRIORIS, precedes the compositions of Loyset Compére and of Josquin Desprez.


The Requiem survived in a unique source as well. The Officium defunctorum was in fact published under a posthumous title by Pierre Attaignant, in the Vigenti missarum musicalium. Quintus liber tres missas continet. Paris 1532


PRIORIS has left us 4 Missae, a Requiem (the second in the history of music), 14 motets, 8 Magnificats and about a score of chansons and canzoni. He emerges as a personality perfectly at ease in the most diverse styles of musical writing, a strong feeling for the text, for its nuances and, above all, a great mastery in communicating its emotions. To sum up, PRIORIS is a witty composer, who triumphs with intelligence over the multitude of instruments and tricks surrounding the universe of counterpoint of the age. To present PRIORIS, Daedalus has chosen two masses and two different styles of composing on a cantus firmus: in the Requiem, in fact, the composer embellishes a Gregorian line with his polyphonies; in the Missa super Allez Regrets, he decorates a Flemish chanson in this way.


The solemnity essential to a Requiem is assured by its "monolithic" structure. The low register, the homorhythmic writing and the four-part polyphony are the dominant features of the whole office. The work has a few things in common with the Requiem of Ockeghem: the Virgo for two voices (bicinium) and the voice of the cantus which follows the Gregorian melodic line (a feature which seems to me to characterize almost all the polyphonic funeral offices).


The vocal trio to which Ockeghem entrusted a large part of his composition must have sounded archaic to the ears of PRlORIS, younger by a generation, exactly like the quintuses and faux-bourdons with which the old master opened his own Requiem. It is perhaps in Rome - one of the most fertile and the most active milieux of the musical panorama at that time - that PRIORIS formed his ”renascent” taste.


In the Missa Allez Regrets, PRIORIS experiments with a more “dynamic” style. Some trios (tricinia) and some duos (bicinia) blend in with the vocal quartet, eniivening the flow of the composition. The quartet intervenes at the most important moments of the mass, the most tense and the most dramatic ones, in order to underline its intensity.


Paradoxically, PRIORIS loosens the links with his chanson model, and, freer in his creative impulse, constructs his counterpoint on the basis of more complex symbolic elements. The voices of the superius and the tenor of the chanson only perform all together in the Kyrie and the Agnus of the Mass. The other sections of the work consist of the recurring segments of the chanson, disseminated in a counterpoint sprinkled with echos, allusions and quotations.


The Kyrie, scanned in tempus perfectus (ternary rhythm) as an image of the Trinity, borrows two voices as in the chanson - the superius and the tenor.


The Christe, composed with a first bicinium in the high voices followed by a second in the low voices, evokes the double nature of Christ, divine in the high and human in the low voices. It is interesting to note that in the Missa, every time the text mentions Christ incarnate, and then as a man, PRIORIS employs the tempus imperfectus (binary rhythm).


The Gloria: For the Qui tollis peccata mundi (tempus imperfectus), the movimenti tardi e lenti (solemn and slow movements) as ZARLINO will define them, and the low tessitura of the voices illustrate the sinfulness and baseness of mankind. For Tu solus Dominus, tu solus altissimus jesu Christe, PRIORIS again has recourse to the formula already used in the Christe - two bicinia, followed by the four-part polyphony for Jesu Christe.


The Credo: To illustrate the omnipotent Father, PRIORIS has used tubae (a succession of thirds and fourths, typical of military fanfares), a device designed to suggest the idea of divine power. There follow two bicinia for factorum coeli et term, the first in the treble and the second in the bass. For ex Patre natum, the polyphony returns to three voices, in a new allusion to the Trinity. The false relations which decorate descendit de coelo, the durezze harmoniche (dissonances) of the cadence, evoke, with great effectiveness, the painful experience of Christ as man. The incarnatus follows for two voices, which speaks to us once again of the dual nature of Christ. The crucifixus sees the return of the movimenti tardi e Ienti. A long Katabasis (a descending musical phrase) illustrates the words sub Pontio Pilato, passus et sepultus est. Moreover, on this occasion, all the voices move in micro-intervals.


The semitones and the dieses represent the tears and the groans, because of their small intervals, which signify feebleness, for the small intervals which appear going up or going down are like children, or the aged and those recovering from a long illness, who cannot walk with big steps, and who rarely go for walks much of the time. (Marin Mersenne).


The Sanctus: The first section of the piece abounds with faux-bourdons (successions of parallel fourths) and hoquetus (brusque interruptions of the melodic line), figures symbolic of the suffering and the Passion of Christ. For pleni sunt coeli, one has a sudden modulation (commixtio modi) from F to G. Moreover, all the voices rise to their upper limits.


The Agnus Dei: PRIORIS returns to the chanson of Hayne. But this time, the tenor of the original is placed as the soprano, and the soprano of the chanson becomes the altus of the Mass. A very long descending modulation illustrates the words qui tollis peccata mundi. The end of the Missa is a garland of melismas which decorate the word pacem (amplificatio).