Was Josquin's Mass of the Dice inspired by the roll of a die?
Conductor Peter Phillips explains how gambling may have played a part in Josquin Mass of the Dice
The possibility of composing according to the roll of the die clearly excited the French Renaissance composer Josquin des Prez, who prefaced the tenor part in several of the movements of his Missa Di dadi (Mass of the Dice) with a pair of dice. The scores show Josquin knew how gambling worked – the dice stop when the player has thrown a winning combination.
Josquin based the Mass on a popular song, which the tenors sing while the other parts are composed to fit around it. The only exception to this rule is in the final 'Agnus Dei' where the song is sung by the basses.
At first sight, the dice are nothing more than indicators to show the tenors how to distribute the notes of the song into their part. The 'Kyrie' (see clip above, in the excellent recording by the Tallis Scholars) is preceded by a pair of dice showing two and one, which tells the singers that their note-lengths need to be doubled in order to fit with the other three voice-parts. In the 'Gloria' the dice read four and one, requiring the notes to be quadrupled in length. In the 'Credo' the dice indicate six to one, and in the 'Sanctus' it is five to one.
So far, so good. But there are problems.
In the 'Credo' the proportion must be 12 to one, not six, or the notes don’t fit. In the Sanctus the five to one stipulation doesn’t work across all the notes of the original, only the longer ones. And there are suddenly no dice featured at all after the ‘pleni’ where Josquin, for the first time, quotes the complete song.
In 1514 Petrucci published a full resolution of the tenor parts, expanding them to fit with the rest of the choir. Nonetheless, even though the printed dice were rendered redundant, Petrucci still thought it important to include them.
This only further underlines the question, why are they there?
Josquin may have written the Mass in the late 15th century in Milan where the Court is known to have been a hot-house of gambling. Perhaps the dice are there simply to amuse a wealthy patron - or to confuse the singers.
Or perhaps it is linked to the text of the original song: ‘Shall I never have better than I have?’ Perhaps it is a gambler's gripe? Or a lover's complaint? Or is it the languishing soul's plea for redemption?