Sanctus uit Missa Mi-mi


This mass has no exact composition date and originated somewhere between 1450 and 1480.

Mysterious title

From its composition in the fifteenth century until 1985, a reasonably well-documented mass by Johannes Ockeghem was known only by the mysterious title Missa MyMy [Mi-Mi]. Three manuscripts in the Vatican Library, copied between around 1480 and 1503, preserve copies of the Mass, and a copying record from the church of St. Donatian in Bruges from 1475-1476 may refer to the same piece. Jacob Obrecht knew the Mass, quoting from it in his own Missa Sicut spina rosam and Missa de Sancto Martino. Two other, slightly later "Mi-Mi" Mass settings, by Mattheus Pipelare and Marbrianus de Orto, use a similar motif for organizational purposes; their tune comes from a popular song, Petite camusette, and bears no other apparent relation to Ockeghem's Mass.

Obvious head motif?

And so the question stood -- where does the tenor voice designation "Mi-Mi" come from? An obvious head motif links the major movements of Ockeghem's Mass -- a bass descent from the pitch E to low A; in the contemporary system of theory and singing practice, both pitches would be sung on the syllable "Mi." Furthermore, many of the movements begin with an upper voice repeating two pitches E, again requiring solmization of "Mi-Mi."

Discovery of a lost model: Presque trainsi

This partial explanation of the enigmatic title failed to completely satisfy the natural curiosity about the Mass' origins, until musicologist Haruyo Miyazaki published in 1985 his discovery of the lost model for "Mi-Mi" -- Ockeghem's own chanson, Presque trainsi.

Presque trainsi, a Bergerette in three voices, dates from around 1460, and contains, in its tenor voice (here the lowest) the head motif for the Missa "Mi-Mi," e-A-e-f-e. The upper voice beginning the second part of the chanson yields another common melodic motif from the Mass, e-a-g-a-b-c. A number of fleeting, but convincing, allusions to other fragments of chanson music lie scattered around the Mass, and several movements conclude with a tenor line quite similar to the tenor at the chanson's close. However, as became Ockeghem's later ethos, these references are used more as markers and echoes than for any structural foundation (see the Missa Au travail suis and Missa Quinti toni).


The apparent irrationality of Ockeghem's practice has led generations of analysts to retreat behind the term "mystical" to describe it. Most of the Mass is in fact "free-composed," but not random. Close analysis of the music demonstrates an elusive but well-crafted level of motivic and rhythmic organization between voices, often involving subtle imitation in the background. Fascinatingly, Gayle Kirkwood traces "Mi-Mi" as a title directly to an esoteric strain of mystical allegory which Ockeghem almost certainly should have known. In the writings of Jean Charlier de Gerson, chancellor of the University of Paris, each note of the musical scale could be allegorically associated with a particular human emotion, and then to an attribute of God. While singing the note, the literal sound of the voice may be transformed into spiritual reflection, thereby becoming the music of one's soul. In this formulation, "Mi" is the syllable of compassion, of God's mercy, and of Christ Himself, since it contains Jesus' initial, which (in Greek and Latin) is "I." Thus a piece of music whose basis is a double "Mi" becomes a spiritual exercise of a doubly profound nature.

text by Timothy Dickey, from

With this score it is difficult to make a perfect transcription. We have attempted to place a version online which is relatively true to the source material and is clearly legible for modern singers.

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