Beethoven has enjoyed all kinds of attention in 2020 to celebrate his 250th birthday, but Johannes Ockeghem deserves a birthday party too. He’s turning 600. Never heard of him? Some recent recordings show how this Flemish composer helped create a musical bridge from the Middle Ages into the Renaissance and became one of the most influential musicians of his day.
Full disclosure: The year 1420 is only musicologists’ best guess for Ockeghem’s birth, but close enough. We need more to celebrate in 2020 anyway. Despite holes in his biography, there are some things we know for sure about him. He made a living as a choir singer in Antwerp as a young man before moving to Paris, where he worked for some major cathedrals as well as the royal court.
As a composer, he was famous for his bass voice, which inspired the unprecedented vigor and depth he gave to bass parts in his own compositions. He was trained in the rich-sounding “English style” and applied it to polyphony in both secular and sacred works. He was also at the cutting edge of a trend to combine those two types of compositions, writing so-called cyclic Masses that used pre-existing musical material – a secular song, a Gregorian chant, a motet – as the shared basis for thematically connected Mass movements. He was a close colleague of Guillaume Dufay (whom I wrote about previously in Copper Issue 100 and a major influence on Josquin DesPrez (Watch this space!).
At least one early-music ensemble is determined that Ockeghem get the birthday attention he deserves. Boston-based Blue Heron, under the direction of Scott Metcalfe, put together and toured 13 different Ockeghem programs in their huge Ockeghem@600 Project. Undeterred by COVID-19, they’ve just announced a Zoom lecture series for next spring as part of the festivities (https://www.blueheron.org/concerts/ockeghem-academy/).
Blue Heron’s latest Ockeghem recording is Johannes Ockeghem: Complete Songs, Vol. 1, released on their own label. By “songs,” they mean secular polyphonic vocal works, usually for three or four voices, with French texts.
“S’elle m’amera/Petite camusecte” (“If She Will Love Me/Little Snub-Nose”) is a beautiful example of a secular motet. By the time you get to Bach, the term motet was used only for sacred music, but it started out in the late Middle Ages as quite a different genre. By definition, it had to have at least two texts being sung at the same time, which could be secular (even quite raunchy), sacred, or both simultaneously! This motet is made up of two French love songs, with two voices singing each. Blue Heron, accompanied by bowed and plucked instruments, performs with a fluidity of phrasing sometimes missing from pre-Baroque recordings.
None of these tracks are available on YouTube, but you can hear the entire album and view the lyrics with translation here:
Another new recording of Ockeghem’s secular songs can be found on the Musique en Wallonie label. Johannes Ockeghem: Les Chansons is by Cut Circle, an award-winning American ensemble led by Jesse Rodin. The two-disc set contains two dozen songs.
The confident singing is notable for its use of something close to Pythagorean temperament. In brief, this means that the intonation focuses on making perfect intervals (fourth, fifth, octave) exact, which results in thirds and sixths that are slightly larger or smaller than the modern ear is used to. This is, by all accounts, accurate for music of the 16th century and earlier. If you want a little more detail on this topic, you can see a piece I wrote in The New York Times a while back: https://www.nytimes.com/1999/03/14/arts/music-ok-everyone-in-tune-whatever-that-means.html And if you want a lot more information, I recommend the book Temperament by Stuart Isacoff.
Listen to their performance of the three-voice song “Aultre Venus” (“Another Venus”) for a particularly clear example of the perfect-centered intonation. I am not one who assumes that authenticity is the end-all and be-all of early music performance, but this is quite an effective recording.
Ockeghem got extra mileage from his polyphonic secular songs by re-using them as the basis for cyclic Masses. This technique explains why Masses of his and the following generation often have apparently random French words in their titles. (Ockeghem’s Missa Fors seulement, for example, uses material from his song “Fors seulement.”)
Sometimes the cyclic technique is less obvious, as in the Mass commonly known as Missa Mi-Mi. It’s called that because of the melodic motif, appearing in every movement, of E down to A, both using the proto-solfeggio syllables “mi.” But some scholars find evidence that Ockeghem also borrowed material from his song “Presque transi,” so subtly that it takes detective work to find the quotations.
Its sources aside, Missa Mi-Mi is a stunning work, and we’ve been treated to a fine new recording by a group, little known in America, called Beauty Farm. This vocal ensemble, founded in 2014 and recording on the Frabernardo label, is based in Austria. It is made up of six men, all experienced early-music singers, many of whom also work with other groups. Beauty Farm is focused exclusively on the lush polyphonic Franco-Flemish repertoire of Ockeghem’s era.
Beauty Farm’s new Ockeghem Masses, Vol. 2 includes the Missa Mi-Mi plus three other Masses, making it an important contribution to the recordings of this corpus. Vol. 1 came out in 2017. The ensemble has a dense, even sonority, with equally strong singers from bass to countertenor who blend together beautifully. The recording, made in a monastery, rings with the ancient holiness of the surroundings, reverberating at the end of every line. Here is the Gloria from this album:
Any fan of Mozart will know the potential power of a Requiem Mass, but the genre was far from new in Mozart’s time. One that survives by Ockeghem is his Missa pro defunctis (Mass for the Dead). Three of its movements are included on a new recording by Ars Veritas on Centaur Records.
Conductor Jeremy D. Jones also produced this recording made at the Varnhem Cloister Church in Sweden. The album, Old and New Worlds, offers an interesting mix, including several world-premiere compositions by co-director Jakob Patriksson as companion works to the Ockeghem and earlier pieces. The Ars Veritas voices have a less precise, breathier sound than the other groups mentioned above, and sometimes the intonation is questionable. Still, one can imagine that this is closer to what it would have sounded like for cathedral choirs in Ockeghem’s time to sing this music, long before it was possible to get a master’s degree in early-music performance.
Here’s to 600 more years of this beautiful music!