Ockeghem - I. Context

In recent years, the music of Johannes Ockeghem (c.1410-1497) has received a great deal of interest from listeners of otherwise disparate tastes. Although specialists in fifteenth century music often consider Ockeghem difficult and unapproachable, and while scholars and performers struggle to find coherent interpretive positions or even the correct notes, ordinary listeners are attracted to his music in increasing numbers. In many ways, Ockeghem occupies a central position in Early Music, between the clearly stratified polyphonic styles of the Gothic era and the more mechanical integrations of the Renaissance. His music liberates the bass line, allowing all parts to participate equally in the contrapuntal interplay, but retains a freshness of conception unconstrained by what were to become the standard harmonic progressions. It is this liminal position which paradoxically biases appreciation of Ockeghem's music toward the nonspecialist, as his counterpoint varies widely in style, relying on the basic integrity of the material over any learned formula. Even the most convoluted technical works display a dazzling freshness when performed, and the puzzling combinations of accidentals and rhythms necessary for that purpose are lost entirely on the lay listener. For the most part, it seems that any choice will do. Ockeghem becomes a two-headed genius, presenting the academic with ample space for disputation, while presenting the appreciative listener with an endless fount of flowing melody.

Ockeghem is the paragon of the idea of "mass as symphony" with all its allusions and oversimplifications. Although one must take the cantus firmus masses of Dufay and his mostly-anonymous English contemporaries as the beginning of that phenomenon, it was Ockeghem who stripped the cycle of its straightforward assignment of parts and functions, and gave the contrapuntal ideas their own inherent logical connection. This is not to say that Ockeghem does not use cantus firmus technique, but he does so by choice. It is the coherence of his masses without benefit of such glue which invests his use of the technique with a greater weight and ultimately a greater drama. Likewise, Ockeghem's ability to conceive of equality among voices allows a rethinking of traditional dispositions. In his youth, three-voice composition would have been standard, especially in the relatively simple faux bourdon hymn harmonizations of the time. It was again the generation of Dufay which returned to the four-voice disposition of Machaut, and Ockeghem used this medium primarily. However, his three-voice settings show the same sort of genius, and when he attempts five-voice counterpoint it is not merely a mechanical addition. The progression of Ockeghem's three-, four- and five-voice technique (and there is no particular reason to believe that he wrote these works in that order) provides ample evidence of his concern for equality and substance, and especially for requiring a voice part because there is really something for it to do. He shows this in its barest form in the exquisite two-voice sections of the Requiem, again taking a lead from Dufay. All statements suggest that Ockeghem was a man of profound integrity and respect for his fellow man, and this is reflected in his art with what is to me a deep show of respect for his musical material.

Of course this economy of means has its apotheosis in the twentieth century, in a variety of guises. Ockeghem was claimed by Webern, along with his younger Flemish contemporary Obrecht, as a source of profound inspiration. It is a basic concision which they share, but of course Ockeghem's finely spun melodies are far out of proportion to Webern's, and this is certainly the aspect of his music which appeals most directly to the modern listener. The melodies seem to go on forever, never losing their sense of invention or identity, and so it is this fundamental melodic integrity which can be seen as the driving force behind Ockeghem's contrapuntal prowess. This is one way in which he differs from other great contrapuntists in Western history, as Ockeghem never lets technique obscure his material, and such brilliant material it is! By adopting different phrasings in difference voices, and employing deceptive or partial cadences, Ockeghem allows his melodies to continue unimpeded by the structural design of the music. In that sense, they contribute to the architecture while at the same time being buoyed by it. It is only too clear that Ockeghem had mastered the idea of "never-ending melody" long before it became a rallying cry. Of course it is precisely the ambivalent cadences and essential lack of climaxes which make Ockeghem's masses so difficult to wrap one's mind around, and then it is the continuously spun legato line which makes them physically daunting. The latter is, however, more benefit than fault, as they do not require any superhuman breathing, but rather subtle and perilously gained insights into the nuances of phrasing. For anyone obsessed with the finest details of phrasing, Ockeghem's music provides a reservoir of seemingly infinite depth. Wrestle with it for a while, and anything else seems either nonsense or child's play.

If twentieth century composers find Ockeghem stimulating, it is little wonder that his own peers saw him as a great master. However as happens so often in the history of music, when new ideas are introduced in works of breathtaking brilliance and coherence, they are adopted elsewhere in more slavish ways. The canonic writing of Josquin Desprez has its precedence in some of Ockeghem's work, and although Josquin brings his own sense of artistry to "pervasive imitation," the canon loses the un-self-consciousness with which it was employed by Ockeghem. After Josquin, having a formal scheme became an end in itself while the intervening musical passages served only a series of mechanical goals. Whereas Ockeghem had a melodically-driven logic, later composers used imitation because they knew nothing else, sometimes to the point of banality. For me, much of Josquin's music lacks the natural flow of Ockeghem, and it certainly lacks the filigree melody... it is the first step toward the "sound bite." Among composers working in the sixteenth century, those who developed the ideas of Ockeghem most compellingly were Jacob Obrecht and Pierre de la Rue. While neither shows the dazzling combination of melodic and contrapuntal invention which Ockeghem seems to exude so naturally, both present the sort of musical genius which makes the late fifteenth century the Golden Age of Western music. Obrecht cannot match Ockeghem's melodies or seemingly effortless momentum, but the grand architecture and planning of his masses is nearly as impressive. La Rue can be as subtle and unselfconscious as Ockeghem, with a strong sense of melody and an ingenious use of form hidden from the listener. His nuanced expression, seemingly uninhibited by what are some of the strictest formal constraints of the era, might be the truest reflection of Ockeghem in the next generation, even if La Rue sometimes lacks Ockeghem's potency. It is ultimately that potency which establishes Ockeghem's stature today, as new listeners continue to be moved by the sheer beauty and grace of his simultaneous melodies.

In two planned future installments, I will take a closer look at individual works and contemporary relevance.

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Todd M. McComb