On April 8, 1433, the Pope Eugenius and Sigismundus, King of the Romans, united to sign a treaty of peace. The king was crowned Holy Roman Emperor and there was much celebration. To commemorate this joyful occasion, Guillame Dufay wrote the motet "Supremum est mortalibus bonum" ("The highest good for mortals is peace"), including the names of these two honored men in his great sustained chords near the piece's conclusion (Bent, CD notes). Dufay's main text is shared by his top two voices, the triplum and motetus, and is divided into two stanzas. The first 12 lines comprising the first stanza speak of the benefit of peace to men of all classes and of the freedom and joy it brings to the natural world. The second stanza, encompassing the final 8 lines, prays for the eternity of peace and praises Eugenius and Sigismundus, the envoys of peace. Dufay carefully sets these words to music, colorfully painting their meanings before our eyes through his rich melodic lines. Ironically, however, as he also struggles to bring isorhythmic structure and support to his work, he battles between text and design, foregoing a sense of peace to create a curious collage of his musical ideas.
Dufay's motet is of isorhythmic design, employing a repeating tenor line that moves slowly beneath the other parts, functioning as a foundation for the work. As noted by Grout, isorhythmic motets have tenors built up of colors (the "repeating series of pitches") and talea (the "long recurring rhythmic unit").1 Dufay's tenor has six 15 bar units of a certain talea. His piece is curious, for we could interpret it as having two colors, since the entire melodic line of the tenor repeats only o...
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... the last three measures of the work's introduction, bringing the motet full circle. The last two beats of bar 119 tease us with odd tension and dissonance on the final "men," which is peacefully resolved on the final cadence of bar 120. (Play Example 12) With "Supremum est Mortalibus bonum" Dufay has created a piece that lavishly illustrates text while also employing fauxbourdon and isorhythmic design. With so many competing forces fighting to be displayed and heard, Dufay's work about peace is ironically at war with itself. Though a fine composition on all these levels, a careful listening and analysis leaves us feeling unsettled and certainly not at peace!
1Grout, Donald J. and Claude V. Palisca, A History of Western Music, (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1996) 104-105.
2 The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Vol. F, 434.
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