Ockeghem's Masses revisited

In retrospect, my previous discussion was part of a veritable outflowing of new & worthwhile remarks on Ockeghem's music. Although much of the discussion seemed fairly new to me at the time, the surrounding rhetoric has grown substantially in the interim, making it easy for me to enhance my own views on this music by taking advantage of various other elements of feedback. While I once bemoaned the relative lack of sensitive aesthetic discussion on the individual features of Ockeghem's masses, these now appear regularly. Even the stereotypically bad CD liner notes frequently contain worthwhile observations these days, and indeed one can perceive a true growth in the appreciation of Ockeghem's music on its own terms. Previously, comments & praise all too rarely reflected anything unique to Ockeghem. This growing appreciation rests not only on greater familiarity with the entire era, and consequently the various differences between individual composers, but on a better understanding of the nuances of Ockeghem's individual works themselves. This has served only to reaffirm his contemporary relevance.

Nowhere is this more vigorous exploration more apparent than in the "obscure" corners of his output, and so I will take the three-voice masses as a prototype for this growing appreciation. When Kevin Moll's recording of the two masses appeared, it was a revelatory example of both the merits of the out-of-the-way corners of Ockeghem's output as well as of convincing ideas on interpreting his music. That was a little over five years ago. Since my remarks on those masses, a high-profile recording of each has appeared. First was Clemencic's recording of the Missa Sine Nomine, complete with organ incipits. I'll leave the organ question to one side, although it would be difficult to argue with Clemencic. The discussion goes on to clarify the rhythmic patterns Ockeghem uses in this mass, and the nonstandard nature of the unification. The notes contain one of the best comments on his music: "His music is a sound event ... to be trusted beyond the scope of rational certainty." Now that is art! The disc also contains what is suddenly the third major performance of the instrumental motet Ut heremita solus. [Note 09/26/01: This work may also be by Agricola.] Following quickly after Clemencic was the second such recording, the Missa Quinti toni by the Clerks' Group. The discussion surrounding it not only dates the mass confidently to near the end of Ockeghem's career (Moll speculated on the point), but makes some tangible connections with the Missa Mi-Mi, one of Ockeghem's most famous compositions. The notes also go on to discuss just how clearly delineated the three different voices are in this work, a trait which anticipates the next generation of composers, and differs from the almost interchangeable vocal disposition of the Missa Sine Nomine (its interchangeable counterpoint, without imitation, being a feature I particularly enjoy). Perhaps more significantly, each of these is a quality interpretation, helping to signal the end of butchered Ockeghem. The Clerks' Group still has a tendency toward mediocrity, but on the other hand their gradually improved presentation is very representative of performance practice as a whole. Clemencic is more compelling, but also more idiosyncratic, as usual. Of course, Moll still gets the nod from me, both for being first, as well as for putting the masses together to make such a worthwhile program.

Much of the expansion in awareness of Ockeghem's music is built upon a continued realization that intervals of a third were not "really" consonances in the medieval era. Performers, who may have been reluctant to embrace such a significant aesthetic distinction, differing as it does from their own ingrained intuition, have begun to realize that understanding period interval structure is crucial to idiomatic phrasing. Many listeners have likewise become more willing to accept this music presented as something other than "almost-modern." There is now fundamentally an understanding that thirds in Ockeghem are not triads, and that perhaps they should not even be tuned as such. The most "conservative" element here seems ironically to be music reviewers, who despite little or no knowledge of the music beyond what they've heard in other recordings, sometimes continue to insist that passing thirds be tuned in other than fifth-oriented ratios. The major problem with such a naïve approach is that it fails to recognize the dynamic through which those intervals occur, and ends up distorting the lines themselves by constantly moving them one way or the other. Ockeghem, given his position on the cusp of medieval style, well after the Ars Subtilior but before Josquin, has become something of a crucible for tuning issues. Indeed, the idea that Ockeghem is fully medieval in orientation, an idea repeated here previously more out of vanity than conviction, begins to be more compelling. There are still no "triads" (in the modern sense) in Josquin's music, certainly, but the more stable role of thirds is increasingly sharply divided from their role in Ockeghem's music, and with it the phrasing & formal construction of the masses. Understanding this shift, compressed as it is into ever-smaller spans of time, unfortunately becomes even more elusive.

One offhand notion is to consider more closely the developing distinction between public spectacle and private devotion. There is already a growing realization that performance practices differed around the Continent in this era, and so one might conclude that different contemporaneous mass settings were intended for different functions, functions which might imply a different tuning. It is a tenuous suggestion, but it is indicative of how Ockeghem makes us think about music. Of course, this brings us full circle to Ockeghem's survival primarily as a textbook composer, prior to the modern revival. Whether even more enthusiasm for music of the period continues to reflect Ockeghem's lofty artistic position in the general public remains to be seen, especially as more extroverted & showy settings are put onto disc. Ockeghem is, after all, more subtle than showy, and his music is more in keeping with medieval priorities. Although one might conclude that Ockeghem would begin to suffer, this has not been the case. His music is embraced by an ever-widening audience, especially for the mass settings. That said, the one impression which continues to dominate as I revisit Ockeghem's mass settings is their sheer effortlessness. In that way, they truly instantiate the Taoist idea of "doing without working" in music.

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Todd M. McComb