Ockeghem - II. Works, part 2

Continuing from last week....

It is perhaps easy to view Ockeghem's 3-voice masses as primitive or lesser works, but his handling of 3-voice textures within the 4-part works invites a much closer inspection. Indeed, especially in the case of the stunning Missa Sine nomine I, there is little reason to believe that Ockeghem's 3-voice writing dates to early in his career. The way he passes motives between voices and the overall coherence of the movements makes the 3-voice Missa Sine nomine a remarkable technical achievement as well as wonderful music. Although there is no nominal integrating factor for the cycle, and the voices display a wealth of independent detail, the basic unity is a good indication of Ockeghem's contrapuntal mastery. In many ways the 4-voice motet Ave Maria, also written without a cantus firmus, fits a similar mold. It likewise displays a high degree of conciseness and unity, despite the lack of any particular integrating technique. The 3-voice Missa Quinti toni is a more straightforward work, offering a unified & luminous texture which is perhaps most directly evocative of the hymns of Dufay & Dunstable, although the approach to modality might be seen as more representative of the ideas of Tinctoris. As always, Ockeghem is not content with previous models, and goes on to sustain both linear & harmonic momentum over the scale of a full mass Ordinary, investing the entire cycle with an almost unprecedented serenity. The 5-voice Missa Sine Nomine II (Kyrie-Gloria-Credo torso) presents a style of vaguely similar contour, with chants placed alternately and simultaneously in different voices to form the scaffolding for another work of clear texture mediated by the additional lower voices. Together with the Missa L'homme armé in a different mold, this mass can be seen as a sort of "monophonic parody" in which single melodies can lead to nonimitative multi-voice textures.

The full-fledged "parody" mass, in which an entire set of voices is lifted from the model as a basis for both melodic & harmonic ideas, would not find its full maturity until the works of La Rue, but Ockeghem did employ similar ideas. The marvelously compact and energetic 4-voice Missa Au travail suis can be seen as presenting a sort of pre-parody technique in which the opening contrapuntal figure is lifted from the song and used together with an infrequently stated tenor. This work features some strongly syllabic declamation, further anticipating some of the later styles, and is among Ockeghem's most vibrant statements. The 4-voice Missa Ma maistresse (Kyrie-Gloria torso) presents a more direct use of the parody technique. The incomparable 5-voice Missa Fors seulement (Kyrie-Gloria-Credo torso) offers a stunning & kaleidoscopic tour-de-force of interlocking melodic figures derived from the song, arrayed in multiple shifting voices. Ockeghem's refusal to become mechanical is perhaps most evident here, and the fact that his music never becomes aimless confirms him as a supreme contrapuntal genius. Instead, the work combines a tangible harmonic drive with independent linear impetus derived from real melodies in each voice. Technique similar to that used in the Missa Fors seulement, and indeed some of the same basic material, is also found in the 5-voice motet Intemerata Dei mater in which Ockeghem offers his own combination of distinct Marian texts outside the liturgical context. The melodic & harmonic integrity of this motet, together with its contrapuntal innovations, makes it one of the most compelling shorter pieces of the 15th century. Intemerata Dei mater also opens with a quote from perhaps Ockeghem's most impressive cycle, the 4-voice Missa Mi-Mi. Although it has never been done justice on record, the interplay of ideas in this work make it one of the monuments of the period. The mass is generated from the E-A interval jump presented as a "Mi-Mi" pun in two hexachords, thus establishing the smallest motivic gesture. It is worked out with a dazzling array of melodic invention and rhythmic ingenuity, and suspended over a large-scale structure without artifice. Melodic motion in different voices overlaps even more strongly here, with full cadences almost entirely absent, and the resulting momentum sustained without a tangible drive to resolution. This is Ockeghem at his most effortless and mysterious.

Of course, it is also easy to overstate Ockeghem's prescience, or imply that his music is of merit primarily for the way it anticipates future developments. This notion must be guarded against, because it serves to obscure the direct musical merit of Ockeghem's music on its own terms. Nowhere is this more true than in his famous "puzzle" works which were raised as theoretical examples years after his death. Although the 4-voice Missa Prolationum & Missa Cuiusvis toni support lofty theoretical considerations, they also offer beautiful melodies which are attractive and satisfying. The Missa Prolationum, constructed entirely in canon at a succession of intervals, has paradoxically become one of Ockeghem's most popular works. It was once seen as an example for study only, but the unselfconscious way in which the canons are heard makes it a masterpiece in the aesthetic domain as well. The Missa Cuiusvis toni is perhaps performable in any of the basic modes, but remains a work of very straightforward texture (reminiscent of the Missa Quinti toni) and compelling artistry in its understated mensural shifts. I say "perhaps" because it has been suggested that the Latin "any mode" title is actually intended as the question "which mode?" and that the answer is Phrygian. Perhaps so, but the work can hardly be said to suffer too much in the others, only adding to its enigma. The puzzle-canon motet Ut heremita solus is another work in this basic mold, and offers one of the relatively early surviving examples of what is apparently music intended for instrumental performance. It survives without a text, as do Obrecht's only known non-Latin works. [Note 09/26/02: I was apparently misinformed on this point, but it is true for most; see also the note regarding Agricola in the revisited article.] However in contrast to Obrecht's relatively compact phrasing, once unraveled, Ut heremita solus conjures the sort of spinning lines and pliable textures which characterize Ockeghem. Together with an account of a hypothetical performance upon his death, this has served to confirm it as authentic, despite less than secure attribution otherwise. In contrast, the mechanical & relatively forced construction of the sometimes-attributed Gaude Maria & Salve Regina II make them easily dismissed, in my opinion. Although describing Ockeghem's style in words is difficult, and it is sometimes characterized as the "lack" of some particular element, familiar listeners know it when they hear it. Perhaps that is its most remarkable aspect.

Ockeghem's songs do not elicit the same sense of awe, but they should not be neglected. Unfortunately, they do suffer the typical fate of this genre. These are not "symphonic" works, nor are they generally contrapuntally innovative. They are, perhaps, conventional. However Ockeghem's command of the form places his chansons, together with those of Busnoys, at essentially the end of the medieval tradition of songwriting. Later the fixed forms broke down, as they were replaced by humanist concerns. Ockeghem's songs contain some ravishing passages, and have long been among my favorites in the genre. In many ways, they represent its perfection, and it is to Ockeghem's credit that he knew when to summarize and when to innovate. Indeed his two sets of music, the songs certainly no less voluminous than the Latin output, occupy very different positions with respect to the trends of the 15th century. The songs are almost entirely in 3-voice style, as Binchois' had been, with conspicuous 4-voice exceptions such as the deploration on the latter's death Mort tu as navre, the quodlibet S'elle m'amera, and the reworking of Cornago's original Qu'es mi vida preguntays. Finally, chansons such as Fors seulement & Ma maistresse formed a significant reservoir of musical ideas. In fact Ockeghem borrowed within his own body of songs, reworking Fors seulement l'actente into Fors seulement contre ce (the famous cantus of the former is the bass of the latter). Although this discussion certainly does not do them justice, and the web of allusions is particularly dense here, Ockeghem's songs can still be readily appreciated for their straightforward beauty.

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Todd M. McComb