Cantus Firmus

Mass as a genre of medieval music is covered well in the page that introduced the music of the Middle Ages and in our slideshow study guide, but the compositional technique used to compose all masses in this period is worth additional study. This content goes a little deeper into the cantus firmus method of composition than necessary for this class, but it serves to illustrate the degree to which Medieval composers felt it necessary to build on the past.

Pieces of new music began with a pre-exisiting melody and built everything else around it. Our concept of a composer who creates something entirely original simply wasn’t present in the minds of medieval musicians. You’ll see this attitude begin to change as we get into the later Renaissance.  This existing melody was called a “cantus firmus.”


In music, a cantus firmus (“fixed song”) is a pre-existing melody forming the basis of a polyphonic composition.


The earliest polyphonic compositions almost always involved a cantus firmus, typically a Gregorian chant, although the term itself was not used until the 14th century. The earliest surviving polyphonic compositions, in the Musica enchiriadis (around AD 900), contain the chant in the top voice, and the newly composed part underneath; however this usage changed around 1100, after which the cantus firmus typically appeared in the lowest-sounding voice. Later, the cantus firmus appeared in the tenor voice (from the Latin verb tenere, to hold), singing notes of longer duration, around which more florid lines, instrumental and/or vocal, were composed.

Composition using a cantus firmus continued to be the norm through the thirteenth century: almost all of the music of the St. Martial and Notre Dame schools uses a cantus firmus, as well as most thirteenth-century motets. Many of these motets were written in several languages, with the cantus firmus in the lowest voice; the lyrics of love poems might be sung in the vernacular above sacred Latin texts in the form of a trope, or the sacred text might be sung to a familiar secular melody.

In the fourteenth century, the technique continued to be widely used for most sacred vocal music, with considerable regional variation.

The cyclic mass, which became the standard type of mass composition around the middle of the fifteenth century, used cantus firmus technique as its commonest organizing principle. At first the cantus firmus was almost always drawn from plainchant, but the range of sources gradually widened to include other sacred sources and even sometimes popular songs. The cantus firmus was at first restricted to the tenor, but by the end of the century many composers experimented with other ways of using it, such as introducing it into each voice as a contrapuntal subject, or using it with a variety of rhythms. During the 16th century the cantus firmus technique began to be abandoned, replaced with the parody (or imitation) technique, in which multiple voices of a pre-existing source were incorporated into a sacred composition such as a mass.

Probably the most widely set of the secular cantus firmus melodies was “L’homme armé.” Over 40 settings are known, including two by Josquin des Prez, and six by an anonymous composer or composers in Naples, which were intended as a cycle. Many composers of the middle and late Renaissance wrote at least one mass based on this melody, and the practice lasted into the seventeenth century, with a late setting by Carissimi. There are several theories regarding the meaning of the name: one suggests that the “armed man” represents St Michael the Archangel, while another suggests that it refers to the name of a popular tavern (Maison L’Homme Armé) near Dufay’s rooms in Cambrai. Being that this music arose shortly after the Fall of Constantinoplein 1453, it is possible that the text “the armed man should be feared” arose from the fear of the Ottoman Turks, who were expanding militarily towards central Europe. There are numerous other examples of secular cantus firmi used for composition of masses; some of the most famous include: “Se la face ay pale” (Dufay), “Fortuna desperata” (attributed to Antoine Busnois), “Fors seulement” (Johannes Ockeghem), “Mille Regretz,” “Pange lingua” (Josquin), and “Westron Wynde” (anonymous).

German composers in the Baroque period in Germany, notably Bach, used chorale melodies as cantus firmi. In the opening movement of Bach’s St Matthew Passion, the chorale “O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig” appears in long notes, sung by a separate choir of boys “in ripieno.” Many of his chorale preludes include a chorale tune in the pedal part.