Ockeghem - III. Contemporary Relevance

In some ways it is remarkable that someone who died five hundred years ago could come up in conversation at all, let alone be considered relevant today. Of course there are other such figures, musicians and especially nonmusicians, and Ockeghem is hardly the most spectacular. Nonetheless there is a sense in which he speaks to us today, whether that is through a wealth of musical technique or an honest spirituality which somehow remains uplifting across the divide of centuries. For many, the religious circumstances of the era present a barrier to a more personal appraisal of medieval art as well as a seductive attraction in comparison to our own hectic existence. After all, Ockeghem was primarily writing music for the Catholic rituals, and it is natural to ask whether the same expressions are relevant to today's Christians, let alone today's atheists who have become the central figures in art and entertainment. If music represents a model for thoughts, then there is something in Ockeghem's thinking which is worthwhile today.


Although I have emphasized the natural flow and logical use of material in Ockeghem's music throughout this series, many people describe it differently. For them, Ockeghem is irrational. The rationalist composers are the ones I've described as "mechanical," the ones working toward clear goals and with explicit & consistent means. This is the sort of preordered thinking which dominates our times. In other words, the order is imposed a priori rather than being allowed to emerge organically from the medium. One can note an analogous contrast in the rhetoric of impressionism and various twentieth centuries schools of art, and indeed Ockeghem's music often suggests a kind of impressionistic choreography in which voices and melodies start & stop capriciously. In Ockeghem's music, the contrapuntal interplay can elicit a mystical ecstasy, as the melodies seem to propagate effortlessly and of their own accord. There is never the sort of malaise which can occur while "waiting for some preordained event to occur."

Of course a haphazard arrangement of material or ideas will not have this effect, far from it. While in many ways the variety of means in Ockeghem's music is typical of his generation, and there is certainly much fine music presently neglected, what sets him apart is the way he shapes and harnesses forward momentum as an interaction between the horizontal and vertical domains. Indeed, this is a point which separates great composers from good ones in most eras, and it is certainly what makes Dufay stand out from his contemporaries. With Ockeghem, there are no lulls, no awkward transitions, no points at which the music wanders aimlessly. While it might not have a goal, it does have a direction, and this is a point of philosophical significance. One of my favorite critiques of rationality remains the collection of essays by Sinologist Angus Graham entitled Unreason within Reason, and I recommend it for the variety with which it attempts to explain the same basic ideas. While it is always tempting to posit a certain naïveté to figures in the past, and I am against this position in general, it is even less tenable here. Ockeghem presents nearly the reverse face by posing specific compositional problems, and this sort of scientific thinking (even beyond the usual medieval music-as-science view) has certainly played an important role at various times in the history of Western music.

Crossroads of history

Is Ockeghem a medieval composer or a Renaissance composers? It depends on whom one asks, and it is an artificial distinction anyway. There are epochal changes on both sides of him, namely the tertian harmony of Dufay and the imitative constructions of Josquin. Each proved decisive for Western musical history, and the latter was accompanied by humanist text concerns which unequivocally establish the Renaissance. Is Ockeghem then the central composer in the central period of Western compositional development, or is he a transitional figure between two important developments? The answer depends on one's view. For the contemporary composer, and even the contemporary listener, Ockeghem presents a wealth of unexplored contrapuntal directions. The significance of this reservoir, connected so deeply to tradition as it is, should not be downplayed. However, there is something to be found in the transition, in the lack of "style" itself, as we come to view arrivals as less interesting than journeys. For the West, this is Heidegger, but it is an old idea repeated and discovered often. More specific to music, one can postulate that the maturity of a technique per se indicates its entrenchment, in terms of the limits it places upon ideas and compositional behavior. In short, the parallel fifth becomes wrong.

Although Christianity provides the explicit "stuff" of Ockeghem's music, the more individual elements of his thinking, as expressed in technique and melody, are more generally relevant. Transcending its context is a fundamental feature of great art, and Ockeghem's music does so most directly in the equality & independence with which its voices are deployed. Together with the boundless energy his melodies exude, this is what most clearly sets Ockeghem apart from other composers of polyphonic music. With the emphasis on multi-tasking today, effortless simultaneous melody becomes directly relevant for more than its philosophical qualities. If Mozart's music is a good background for insipid standardized tests, Ockeghem's is good mental exercise for more significant concerns. Ockeghem is not only creative, he is "meta-creative" in that his music naturally induces the sort of lateral thinking necessary to create, or to solve real problems in mutually beneficial ways. The extent to which it defies description in ordinary technical terms also allows his music to act as a mirror for one's own ideas, as they are reflected in describing it. The musical description is the basis for composing within a tradition, and Ockeghem consequently facilitates a deep artistic resonance which can only slowly be explored and appraised.

Administrivia: Next column in three weeks, after I take another vacation.

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Todd M. McComb