Johannes Ockeghem: The Golden Age of European Polyphony

Nélida Nassar  03.10.2017

Johannes Ockeghem was one of the leading composers of the Franco-Flemish school, situated between Guillaume Dufay and Josquin des Prez. Acclaimed throughout Europe as one of the outstanding composers of his time, he spent his career exclusively in the service of three French kings: Charles VII, Louis XI and Charles VIII. His Missa Caput (circa 1450),  comprising the five standard elements of Ordinary Mass (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei), dates from his youth but is considered to be a very accomplished piece. It is an early example of four-part polyphony (Bass, Tenor, Altus and Superius) and all the elements share a common musical theme, commonly a cantus firmus, thus making it a unified whole. The cyclic mass was the first multi-movement form in western music to be subject to a single organizing principle.

The Blue Heron choir presented the Missa Caput in the fifth of a series of concerts featuring the work of the composer, part of their ambitious project entitled “Ockeghem@600,” launched in 2015 and to be completed in 2020 – 2021, in time to commemorate the 600th anniversary of his birth. The Missa was astutely placed on the same program with works by the 15th century English composers John Pyamour, Walter Frye, and Robert Morton, as well as the Netherlander Gilles de Bins, dit Binchois.

Why this particular selection? It was designed to illustrate one of the most productive exchanges in the history of liturgical music, initiated by the presence of the Englishman John Dunstable (c.1380-1433) on French soil. His work introduced Continental composers to the English practice of using three or six chord progressions with an emphasis on the cantus firmus “fixed song” (which in effect was an ornamentation of the Gregorian chant). Each element states the melody twice always beginning with the tenor.

Three mid-15th century masses are known to been based on the cantus firmus known as Missa Caput, but the origins of that famous tune are somewhat obscure. Many believe it derives from a fragment of music used in the English Sarum Rite. More properly called the Use of Salisbury, this was a variant of the Roman Rite widely used for the ordering of Christian public worship. Later in the century, another great Flemish composer, Jakob Obrecht, composed his own Missa Caput. Both Ockeghem and Obrecht betray intimate knowledge of their predecessor Guillaume Dufay and take pride in deploying more compositional complexity than he did. In addition, after the excesses of Machaut, Philippe de Vitry and their contemporaries, Ockeghem opted for a certain simplification in the areas of rhythm, notation and melody. Stylistically, his Missa can be considered a mid-point between the simplicity and homophonic textures of Dufay and Binchois and the soon-to-be pervasive imitative counterpoint of Josquin and Gombert.

To achieve this simplification, Ockeghem espoused the Gregorian chant (or plainchant) which is much more austere than Byzantine chant and deliberately avoids the latter’s ornamentation. Over the centuries, attempts have been made to soften the severity of plainchant. One of these is called machicotage, in which ornamentation is achieved by intercalating notes and by creating melismas between two notes. Gregorian chant may appear to be rather barren but it is really quite rich. Paradoxically, it is the simplicity of its basic material that made possible the elaboration of verticality in music, that is, the simultaneous deployment of several autonomous musical lines, in short, polyphony and then, much later, the symphony.

In their presentation of Ockeghem’s Missa Caput Blue Heron took up the challenge of reviving the early Renaissance practice of inserting plainchant between the elements of the mass. And they were very much up to the difficulties this entailed. All the members of the group – mezzo-soprano Laura Pudwell, who effortlessly negotiated the composer’s highest notes, bass-baritone Paul Guttry, baritone David McFerrin, tenors Jason McStoots, Mark Sprinkl, Sumner Thompson and Owen McIntosh (filling in for the ailing countertenor Martin Neil in one of the pieces; this also necessitated Laura Pudwell taking on more) – sang well, considered both individually and as participants in the ensembles they formed to suit the different pieces on the program (mostly quartets, with one singer to a part). They beautifully expressed Ockeghem’s varied rhythmic shapes, always managing to maintain the proper degree of independence of their different parts. The First Church in Cambridge, Congressional had sufficient reverberation to hold the pitches and to center the sound, keeping the polyphony clearly audible and the words of the texts understandable. The overall effect was nothing short of enchanting.

The Missa Caput – an early piece – already displays Ockeghem’s expressiveness and, equally, his technical prowess. He was most famous for his contrapuntal achievements, which consisted entirely of mensuration canons, and the Missa Caput was designed to be performed in any one of the different modes. Often disturbing, its harmonies proceed under the influence of an arcane and, to modern ears, nearly alien logic. All the same, the piece demonstrates his insightful use of vocal ranges as well as his uniquely expressive tonal language. He was himself a renowned bass singer, and so it is not surprising that his use of wide-ranging and rhythmically active bass lines sets him apart from many of his fellow Netherlandish composers. 

In brief, Ockeghem’s creations opened the way to the polyphonic style which developed in their wake and which flourished for more than a century. His contemporaries believed he was the finest musician of his time, a judgment which is endorsed by modern musicology. For example, Jean Vigué maintains that “All musicians of the pre-Renaissance have more or less directly been influenced by his work”. And Ernst Křenek judiciously remarked: “It is his ability to evoke not only an intellectual interest, but also immediate emotional responses, which proves that Ockeghem’s music is still alive.” This ability explains the enthusiasm of Scott Metcalfe with the Blue Heron’s singers and their commitment to record the complete works of this seminal composer whose music is somehow both mystical and monumental.