Ockeghem - II. Works, part 1

A broader context for this discussion is found in the previous article. After that, Pierre Roberge's excellent comprehensive discography of Ockeghem provides a coherent listing of recordings by which to orient the present survey of works. In addition, my personal list of favorite recordings of Renaissance polyphony can be consulted. When it comes to a survey of Ockeghem's works, the first thing which must be noted is their relatively ample representation on record, especially as compared to those of many other Franco-Flemish masters. Every authentic motet & mass, with the exception of the Missa Ma maistresse (Kyrie-Gloria torso) has been recorded at least once in the 1990s, although the one known Missa Caput recording is too obscure to find. [Note 11/04/98: A situation quickly rectified.] The songs receive relatively less attention, but the classic complete set remains available sporadically.

Ockeghem is one composer who fits the "mass as symphony" stereotype, and so it is only natural to begin this survey with his mass cycles. They present the heart of his style, and show the most structural variety. The motets can then be placed alongside specific mass sections, due to the interplay of ideas between them. In the case of the motets, there remains some doubt as to what exactly constitutes Ockeghem's complete surviving output, but I will adopt the more restrictive view. The emergence of the 4-voice cantus firmus style is central to the musical developments of the mid-15th century, and so that idiom will be taken as a touchstone for a nonchronological survey of Ockeghem's output. As far as it goes, chronology is established mostly by guesswork, and perhaps marks technical shifts far too neatly for the real activities of a creative artist. Prior to Ockeghem's generation, the 3-voice medium had been the standard for both hymn harmonizations and secular ballades, but isorhythmic motets for a larger number of voices were also conspicuous in their grandeur if less uniform in their application. The 4-voice cantus firmus style, with a preexisting melody in the tenor, can be viewed as a synthesis of the 3-voice hymn harmonization and the more structural isorhythmic models. Its preeminence was signified decisively when Dufay took up the idiom in his four marvelous cantus firmus masses, but of course there had been strong precedents by his mostly-anonymous English contemporaries who established the genre. Ockeghem's four-voice masses may then be viewed as an exploration of the full contrapuntal possibilities of cantus firmus technique, leading to its abandonment in his later work.

The Missa Ecce ancilla Domini provides a natural point of comparison between Ockeghem and Dufay, and in each case the works offer some of their composers' most characteristic and compelling music. However the difference is quickly perceived, since Dufay set up extensive linear duets in expected ways and handled the cantus firmus formally in a regular sectional progression from duple to triple meter, whereas Ockeghem shifted meters and scorings at will. Despite this, Ockeghem's cycle displays a triumphant overall coherence as well as a kaleidoscopic array of textures. He let the cantus firmus stop and take up where it left off, reacting to it freely, with partial cadences in some voices to allow for dynamic groupings. Ockeghem's writing for trios is particularly striking, especially as these are broken into constituent duos. Although Dufay retained a certain elegance through restraint, Ockeghem took the material as a nucleus for a work more freely conceived. The latter is especially true in his even more extravagant Missa De plus en plus, where a greater number of liberties were taken with the cantus firmus. It stops & starts even more frequently, sometimes letting loose just a few notes, sometimes with extensive embellishments, and is partially reprised in each movement as a sort of coda. These full voice sections are linked again by Ockeghem's trademark partial cadences with virtuosic sections for three and two voices in varying dispositions. The resulting contrasts stretch 4-voice tenor cantus firmus technique to its limit, but remain cogent on their own terms. Indeed, the textures of the Missa De plus en plus are especially original and beautiful, as special attention can be drawn to the alternating "ringing" phrases toward the end of the Gloria. A relatively neglected stand-alone Credo "De Village" also displays the pointillistic style found in parts of the tour-de-force Missa De plus en plus, but in a more compact setting. Among the tenor masses, the Missa L'homme armé is a more modest work, featuring the popular song in regular note values (rather than augmented). In this way it lends its rhythmic character to the entire work, a novel device of its own, and another fine example in the impressive lineage of masses on this theme. Ockeghem offered another twist, as the range is transposed downward in the final two movements to give the music a darker sound.

The relatively straightforward, but melodically rich, Requiem setting is justifiably popular, and presents direct allusions to previous compositional styles. Here the chant generally stays in the top voice, with little ornament, and indeed some sections are written in the conventional 3-voice faux bourdon hymn style of Dufay et al. I have seen it suggested that Dufay's "lost" Requiem may actually be alive in Ockeghem's work, and the idea is not without some attraction. Certainly the first two sections sound characteristic of Dufay, not only in their harmonic style, but in their frequent use of duets and in their straightforward pacing & layout. The brief concluding 4-voice Kyrie, with its equality in structure, seems to signify a shift, and then the lengthy Graduale offers the more "usual" Ockeghem with its shifting dispositions and interlocking melodic motion. Although the writing retains a melodic emphasis, here it includes a more impressive alternation between the relative grace of sinewy duets and the more imposing 4-voice blocks. It is of course the irregularity of these shifts and the resulting rhythmic changes which mark the entire movement so strongly as Ockeghem's. The regular phrasing and more consistent harmony of the Tractus is again suggestive of Dufay, while the Offertorium returns to Ockeghem's idiom at its most kaleidoscopic and dramatic, especially in the opening passages. At the very least, the Requiem provides an interesting juxtaposition between what would have been old-fashioned conventional harmony, and the most innovative 4-voice textures.

As already suggested by the downward transposition in the Missa L'homme armé, Ockeghem's interest in bass voices led to structural ideas. This was taken to the next level formally in both the Missa Caput and the motet Salve Regina, where the cantus firmus was placed in the lowest voice. Indeed this can be seen as one of the key points of Ockeghem's style, as it facilitates the liberation of the bass voice from what had often been a simple harmonic underpinning for the tenor, and does so emphatically by placing the structurally determining line there. In some ways it was a return to the older forms of Perotin et al., in which the tenor was the lowest voice, but within an entirely new idiom. The Missa Caput and Salve Regina consequently have a darkly rich texture which marks them so characteristically as works by Ockeghem. Although there is never the sort of "wallowing" which was to emerge later, the resonance of the bass provides a source of strength by which to construct arching triumphant figures. In the motet Alma redemptoris mater, Ockeghem performed the reverse procedure, but in a more unorthodox way. He wrote essentially a 3-voice work with a cantus firmus in the top voice, not as a relatively simple hymn harmonization, but more like the remarkable 3-voice tour-de-force of the obscure Liebert in which the lower lines have real contrapuntal independence. A faster decorative voice then moves in an even higher range, creating a unique texture, and making the motet one of Ockeghem's most immediately attractive works. One can only marvel at the sheer variety of his 4-voice cantus firmus technique.

This discussion will continue directly next week.

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Todd M. McComb