Josquin Desprez has enjoyed the highest esteem both of his contemporaries (Martin Luther called him the "Master of the Notes"), and of music historians since his day. A generation before him, the music of Dufay presented developing ideals of equal-voiced polyphony and of large-scale formal balance; later, Ockeghem exploited more of the imitative style and rhythmic intensity. But in Josquin (and his close contemporary Obrecht) the so-called "Netherlandish" style of the High Renaissance reached an early plateau. He composed fluently and well in every contemporary genre of music, sacred and secular. Of his 18 reliably attributed masses, the Missa Pange lingua deserves its high popularity, both for the beauty of individual moments, as well as for the elegance of its formal design.
A prominent biographer confidently calls this the "last Mass composed by Desprez," but no contemporary data can reliably date it. Scholars, judging by stylistic criteria and by the fact that this mass does not appear in Petrucci's third volume of Josquin's masses (published in 1514), generally concur in placing it late in his oeuvre. The Mass takes its name from the Corpus Christi hymn Pange lingua of St. Thomas Aquinas. This melody, with its strong initial half-step motion and graceful arch, becomes the unifying force in Josquin's composition. While heretofore, the common compositional framework used a borrowed melody in a single voice cantus firmus (such as his own masses on L'ami baudichon and L'homme armé), Josquin in this Mass takes the hymn melody and infuses it into the musical substance of the entire piece. The elegant motto openings of each major movement stem from the hymn's first phrase. In addition, this phrase is echoed in many subtle ways. For example, Josquin inserts echoes consisting of small intervals, using vocal imitation manifested through the plangent half-step. There are also frequent ornamental sections which follow ending cadences. Several movements, such as the Kyrie and Agnus Dei III which frame the cycle, derive their entire cadential and formal structure from the phrases of the hymn. And yet, with such complete impregnation of the work by the substance of the chant model, Josquin hardly misses an opportunity to enhance with symbolism and text-painting his presentation of the Mass Ordinary text. In the Gloria, for example, at the text "Qui tollis peccata mundi," Josquin thins out the texture to a severe canon, which stands out from the preceding moments. And the texture shifts instantly to a contrasting and introspective affect upon the cry "miserere nobis." Josquin's moments of greatest compositional reserve, such as the stillness of "Et incarnatus est," or the bare canonic structure which opens the Benedictus, do not represent emotional withdrawal, but rather a greater serenity, on the one hand, and a feeling of expectancy, on the other. Josquin treats the "Agnus Dei" supplications as the cycle's clear culmination, and he evokes this prayer with complex subtlety, beginning with a threefold (triune?) half-step imitation and concluding with a manipulation of the very perception of time through a web of simultaneously sounding rhythmic levels: the now-familiar tune appears in the soprano voice floating at half-speed above the supporting voices, and all voices gradually relax into a languorous imitative mantra of the final prayer "dona nobis pacem: grant us peace." The ineffable motion of the spirit which results from our auditory experience connects us to this masterpiece across time.