John Dunstable: Preco prehemineciae/Precursor premititur/Internatus mulierum

Our Recording

Canterbury Cathedral

The Battle of Agincourt
John Dunstable's Preco preheminenciae is an example of an isorhythmic motet. The motet is one of the more interesting genres of music in the Middle Ages. The musicologist, Hendrik van der Werf refers to it as follows:
The motet is an odd member of the large family of medieval songs. It has two, three, or four voices, each of which usually has its own text. One of these voices actually is an excerpt from a Gregorian chant while the others are newly composed. The pre-existing voice, often called "cantus firmus" or "tenor", has the liturgical text, while the added voices sing texts specifically made up for the purpose. Much of the time, the tenor is the lowest sounding voice, and it often comprises a string of pitches for one syllable, whereas the upper voices have one syllable for almost every pitch they sing."
Hendrik van dr Werf, The Chronology of Motet and Discant Passage and The Origin of Modal Notation (Armidale, Australia, 1995), 5.

The isorhythmic motet, a subgenre of the family of motets, was often used for the most solemn or symbolic occasions. These motets, which were archaic practically from their inception, distinguish themselves by their complex rhythmic and melodic techniques, known as isorhythm, that served to assert order and structure to the composition. At its most basic level, isorhythm works as follows: the composer creates a rhythmic sequence and a melodic sequence - the two did not necessarily have to have the same number of elements - both of which are repeated throughout the composition. To this foundation, he freely composes other lines of music that complement or comment on the tenor or each other. For further and more complicated explanation of isorhythmic principles see the Sonic Glossary's entry on isorhythm.

There is very little known of the life of the English composer John Dunstable (c.1380-1453); scholars even debate the proper spelling of his name: Dunstable or Dunstaple. From an inscription on hisgrave and records of the St. Alban's Abbey they have agreed that besides being an accomplished composer, he was also a mathematician and astronomer. Such multifaceted individuals were a logical extension of the education system of the time in which people were trained in the Seven Liberal Arts, which was comprised of the Trivium (grammar, rhetoric and logic) and the Quadrivium (arithmatic, geometry, music, and astronomy). In Dunstable's music the interplay of the four elements of the quadrivium is apparent as mathematics and proportion play an enormous importance in his music; his larger structure of his isorhythmic motets are balanced according to natural ratios.
During Dunstable's lifetime, the Hundred Years' War raged and because of it, many English composers were present on the European continent serving in the retinues of the various Dukes pursuing military campaigns. Dunstable was in the service of John, Duke of Bedford, the brother of the famed Henry V, who fought the French armies of Joan of Arc. During the war there was a good deal of crossfertilization between the musical scenes and the sound of Dunstable's music, what came to be known as the contenance anglais, caused quite a sensation on the European continent, owing to its use of harmonies that were considered dissonant in Europe.
Preco preheminenciae owes its genesis to the famed Battle of Agincourt, in which a tired and demoralized English army defeated the much stronger French army as a result of France's misguided decision to rely on cavalry and men-at-arms instead of archers. Shakespeare would later dramatise this battle brilliantly in Henry V from which the mother of all rallying speeches, Henry's St. Crispen's day speech comes.
After England's surprise victory in the battle and the arrival of further good news with the breaking of the siege of Hartfleur by John of Bedford, a Mass of Thanksgiving attended by Henry V and The Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund was celebrated in Canterbury Cathedral. Preco preheminenciae was specially composed for this occasion in honor of Bedford and his patron saint, John the Baptist.

The two best resources I have found for the Battle are here and here.

Things to Note
The complexity of the work is formidable. First, there are three texts which are sung simultaneously, each is in a series of alliterative couplets. Structurally, the compositon is divided into three sections related proportionally such that the length of each section is in a ratio of 3:2:1. Because of this subtle acceleration, the work has a strong sense of motion to its finish. By using such ratios, Dunstable follows through a Pythagorean notion of music as symbolic of the physical world in its rationality and further shows awareness of the various number symbolisms in the air at the time.
Unlike most motets which assign a rhythmic scheme to only the cantus firmus, Dunstable assigns each melodic voice its own repeating rhythmic scheme. Even more complexly, Dunstable has used his own technique of paraphrasing plainchant throughout, basing his melodies off of ornamentation of existing plainchant. This becomes a further internal hidden melodic framework.
The cantus firmus, Inter natos mulierum, is taken from a fragment of a plainchant in honor of John the Baptist from the Sarum rite (a particular style of chant practiced only in England.)
Truly a tour-de-force for Dunstable.

Listening Chart

John Dunstable: Preco prehemineciae/Precursor premititur/Internatus mulierum (ca. 1416)

Preco preheminenciae / Precursor premititur / Internatos 0:00 Section 1: Beginning of Rhythmic Scheme (talea) in all four parts. Two top parts sing different texts in a florid manner. Two lower parts both begin rhythmic schemes with rests.
latuit languidis largitus / profuit pluribus prudenter / [sur - ] rexit 1:37 Second stament of Talea in all four parts.
modi melioris / Crudeli convivio / Internatos 3:16 Section 2: Second set of Rhythmic Schemes begin in upper three voices. Lowest voice (cantus firmus) continues first talea at a quicker pace. Pitches of pitch scheme (color) in lowest two voices repeats.

[di - ] vinitus donum deitatis / saciavit; pars prima / [sur - ] rexit 4:19 Taleas repeat in all parts.
tribuitur tronus trinitis / merces mulieri / Internatos 5:20 Section 3: Third set of Rhythmic Schemes begin in upper three voices. Lowest voice continues first talea at an even quicker pace. Pitches of pitch scheme (color) in lowest two voices repeat.
[re - ] quiem renatis / preces precursoris / [sur - ] rexit. 5:51 Taleas repeat in all parts.


Preco preheminenciae
principi precessit,
salus sapiencie
subito successit;
preco penitentiam
prius predicavit,
priceps per potentiam
peccata purgavit;
legislator latuit
languidis largitus,
precursor patuit
prudens et peritus.
Lympha lavit liquida
lubricum luentum,
truba tinctam turbida
timet et tergentem;
missus ministerium
magni mandatoris
mutat in mysterium
modi melioris.
Pax paterna panditur
plebi penitenti,
filius dum funditur
flumine fluenti,
descendit divinitus
donum deitatis,
oarticeps paraclitus,
preiceps pietatis;
singulare sequitur
signum sanctitatis,
tribus hiis tribuitur
tronus trinitatis.
Cessat circumfusio,
cella celsitatis,
renovat renacio
requiem renatis;
premebatur patria
primitus penalis,
renatosne regia
recepit regalis.


Precursur premititur
populum parare,
nebulosis nititur
nova nunciare;
deitatem domuit
deserti decenter;
predicando profuit
pluribus predenter;
carceris custodia
captus coartatur,
timens tantis talia
tyrannus tubatur
Crudeli convivio
caro convocavit,
saltans in salario
sacro saciavit;
pars prima precinditur
proceris proceri
miserando mittitur
merces mulieri.
Prestentper presidium
preces precursoris,
sequentis subsidium
sancti salvatoris.


Internatus mulierum non surrexit
major Johanne ba[ptista]


The herald preceded
the supreme prince,
the salvation of wisdom
followed soon after;
the herald proclaimed
repentence beforehand;
the prince purified us
through his power;
the lawgiver lay hidden,
granted to the weak;
the forerunner was manifest,
wise and experienced.
The flowing water washed
the slippery path of expiation,
the troubled crowd fears
both the stain and the cleansing;
he is sent and changes
the ministry of a great
messenger into a mystery
of a better kind.
The peace of the father is unfolded
to his repentant people,
while the Son is immersed
in a flowing river.
He descends from heaven,
the gift of God,
sharing with the consoler,
the prince of piety.
A single sign
of holiness follows;
to these three is assigned
the throne of the Trinity.
The outpouring ceases,
the shrine of
rebirth renews
rest for the reborn.
The land of punishment
was for the first time subdued.
The royal city
takes back the reborn.


A vanguard is sent
to prepare the people.
He strives to announce the news
to those in darkness;
He fittingly overcame
the god of the desert;
by foretelling wisely
he was of help to many.
Captured, he was confined
in the custody of prison.
Fearing such things,
the king was greatly ddisturbed.
The body called together
to a cruel banquet,
dancing, in cursed payment,
she wounded him
by slicing off his head.
The head was sliced off
and sent as payment
to the pittiable woman.
The prayers of the vanguard
stand forth as a help,
the support of the holy saviour
who follows.


Born of woman there has never been one
greater than John the Baptist.

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All text © Todd Tarantino 2002-2012.
Not to be reprinted without permission.