Jean Mouton was born near Samer in northern France. After holding various positions at churches in Nesle, Amiens, and Grenoble, he joined the chapel of the French court, serving Queen Anne of Brittany, wife of Louis XII. In 1509, Queen Anne helped him to obtain a position as canon at St. André in Grenoble, a post he held in absentia while collecting the income from a benefice conferred to him in 1510. Mouton remained in the service of the French court for the rest of his life. Mouton’s surviving works include more than 100 motets, 15 masses, and over 20 chansons.
A setting of an antiphon for the Octave of the Nativity (January 1), Nesciens mater first appeared in the Medici Codex of 1518, an illuminated manuscript collection of motets. This collection was reputedly copied (by hand) under Mouton’s direction as a wedding gift for Lorenzo de Medici and his young French bride. In the motet, the circumstances of Mary’s role in the birth of Jesus are highlighted by a smooth, flowing eight-voice polyphony which is produced by four voices (the tenor part based on a chant melody) imitating the others at four beats’ distance and a fifth higher. So strict is this quadruple canon, that only the four “leading” voices appear in the manuscript, the others being deduced from them. The result is an exquisite undulating tapestry of sonorous beauty.
Nesciens mater virgo virum peperit
Without knowing a man, the Virgin Mother