Musical Borrowing
An Annotated Bibliography

Individual record

[+] Robertson, Anne Walters. “The Savior, the Woman, and the Head of the Dragon in the Caput Masses and Motet.” Journal of the American Musicological Society 59 (Fall 2006): 537-630.

A prominently depicted theme in Medieval liturgy, religious art and drama, and folkloric practices was that of Genesis 3:15, in which a savior of humankind crushes the head of the serpent (i.e., the Devil). This promise of the victory of good over evil is represented musically in three fifteenth-century polyphonic masses and a Marian polyphonic motet. These four works use as a cantus firmus the melisma on the word “caput” (head) from the Sarum antiphon Venit ad Petrum. Therefore, incorporation of this melisma (which represents the “head” of the serpent) creates a specific meaning (the conquering of the devil/sin by Christ or the Virgin Mary) that unites these four seemingly disparate works.

A Caput mass by an anonymous English composer served as progenitor of two other masses composed on the same cantus firmus: Missa Caput by Ockeghem, composed in the late 1450s, and a Missa Caput composed by Obrecht in the late 1480s. Ockeghem’s use of canon, Obrecht’s migration of the Caput melisma through all voices of his mass, and both composers’ employment of the cantus firmus in the lowest voice (thereby creating unusual harmonies) serve as musical illustrations of the struggle and ultimate victory of Christ and the Virgin Mary over the Devil. While the Caput mass tradition died out by end of the fifteenth century, Richard Hygons set the Marian text Salve regina to the Caput melody around 1500, tying in the increasing importance of the cult of the Virgin Mary with existing traditions of Mary as “she who crushes the dragon’s head.”

Works: Anonymous: Missa Caput (537-41, 567-72, 581-84, 595-602); Ockeghem: Missa Caput (539-41, 567-72, 581-91, 595-602); Obrecht: Missa Caput (539-41, 567-72, 581-84, 592-602); Richard Hygons: Salve regina (598-600).

Sources: Anonymous: Missa Caput (537-41, 567-72, 581-84, 595-602); Anonymous (Sarum antiphon): Venit ad Petrum (541-72, 581-84).

Index Classifications: 1400s, 1500s

Contributed by: Amanda Jensen

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