Pro Cantione Antiqua, London, Bruno Turner - Conductor
Recording: Hamburg-Harburg, Friedrich-Ebert-Halle 1973 (Ockeghem) / 1976 (Desprez)
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This disc couples the two leading composers of the late 15th century and two of their most significant works. Ockeghem's Requiem has its place in all musical histories as the earliest surviving work in the genre; and Josquin's Mass L'homme arme super voces musicales has a comparable place as the first printed mass cycle, the work chosen to head Otta-viano Petrucci's volume of Josquin masses published at Venice in 1502.
Yet neither work quite fits the standard characterization of its composer. Ockeghem is famous as a man fascinated with bafflingly intricate contrapuntal artifice; but his Requiem exploits the utmost simplicity of texture, much of it either in just two voices or in stark three-voice homophony until the concluding Offertory becomes slightly richer and more complex. Josquin's reputation rests primarily on the extraordinary clarity and lucidity of his music, whereas this mass abounds in technical display of all kinds. Ockeghem's music normally leaves little clue to its design, but his Requiem is the most easily understood of his compositions because the top line often keeps closely to the Gregorian chants for the Requiem Mass, making the work easy to follow for anyone familiar with those chants (which is something we can presume of all his 15th-century listeners). Josquin's design is usually straightforward, but this work treats its borrowed material with such artifice that its underlying structure is the one feature that will surely be incomprehensible to any listener without a score to hand.
Finally, most commentators observe that the text is the primary inspiration in Josquin's music and that his works show an unparalleled expressivity in text setting, whereas Ockeghem seems normally to have regarded the text as secondary to the purely musical conception. In that respect it is easy to see Ockeghem as the "pure" musician, as the last remnant of a medieval attitude, and to see Josquin as the more rounded figure, a true Renaissance man. Those positions are reversed in these two works.
But in other ways they are characteristic. Ockeghem spent the bulk of his career as master of the French royal chapel, from 1454 until his death in 1497; Josquin, though French by birth, lived mostly in Italy from 1459 until 1504 (when he returned north to Conde, remaining there until his death in 1521). Ockeghem's literal treatment of the chant is very much in the northern style inherited from Dufay. The Requiem's often surprising harmonies, parallel progressions, schematic textural contrasts and bizarre unpredictability of phrase are all in line with his other work, even though here he employs a simpler style. And although Josquin may hide many of the details of his artifice, here as elsewhere he invests the music with the utmost elegance and clarity of phrase-structure, with literal imitation, repeated phrases, sequential patterns and all the devices he developed with so much more refinement than any other composer up to his time. Because they are based on chant, the five movements of Ockeghem's Requiem have different tonalities; but they also vary considerably in style. It has even been suggested that the work may incorporate sections from the lost Requiem (ca. 1470) by Dufay (just as Juan Garcia de Basurto's Requiem includes the Sicut cervus from Ockeghem's).
For the massive opening panel of Introit and Kyrie Ockeghem provides music of the utmost simplicity and solemnity. The Gregorian chants (cf. Liber usualis, p. 1807) appear in the top voice with only the lightest embellishment. The stark homophony of the Introit antiphon leads to a psalm verse set even more simply (in a style close to fauxbourdon), followed by a repeat of the antiphon. The ninefold Kyrie alternates the three-voice style of the Introit with duos for two equal high voices; and the counterpoint slowly becomes more elaborate until the last Kyrie, in which, for the first time in the work, a fourth voice is added to the texture.
The Gradual uses the chant current in France at the time: "Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death" (cf. Graduale sarisburiense, p. 61). Here Ockeghem's approach is more relaxed. Often the chant disappears entirely, and the counterpoint is freer, recalling a set of mid-15th-century Proper settings sometimes associated with Dufay (in the Ms.Trent 88).Textural contrast guides the movement: a three-voice opening section, a more elaborate and extended duo, and a four-voice coda.
For the Tract, "As the hart panteth" (cf. Graduate sarisburiense, p. 112), Ockeghem concentrates almost entirely on two-voice writing, with a gradually introduced third voice in the third verse ("My tears have been my meat") and, once again, full four-voice texture for the last line ("Where is thy God?"). Only in the concluding movement, the Offertory (cf. Graduale sarisburiense, p. 232), do we find the sort of contrapuntal intricacy found in Ockeghem's mature Masses, with florid melisma, mensural complexity and tonal ambiguity.
Of Josquin's 18 surviving mass cycles, two are based on the L'homme arme melody, which had already been used for cycles by many composers, among them Dufay, Ockeghem and Busnoys. In several ways this extraordinarily rich and beautiful work is technically the most ambitious mass of Josquin and the most complex of all L'homme arme masses. The words super voces musicales describe the treatment of that melody which starts on a different note of the hexachord each time it appears: in the Kyrie on C, in the Gloria on D (then retrograded), in the Credo on E (then retrograded, precisely as in the Gloria), in the Sanctus on F, in the first Agnus Dei on G (only two-thirds of the melody), and in the final Agnus Dei on A (where the melody has risen so high that it is transferred from the tenor to the top line).
But these varied statements are incorporated into a consistent key-scheme, with each movement fundamentally based on D. So the surrounding counterpoint often directly contradicts the melody's tonal implications. Moreover, the melody is stated in the tenor with note-values of such length that it is scarcely ever audible as such. Indeed the counterpoint is so constructed that the tenor often sounds as though it is the least important line, and even (seeing the work in terms of the old attitudes of successive composition) as though it had been the line added last, though its exceptionally strict treatment shows that the tenor was the starting-point and the framework of Josquin's entire conception.
However, the L'homme arme melody is not completely hidden, for it often appears in the other voices, in faster note-values and at prominent moments, thereby establishing its presence throughout the work. Just two sections of the work are independent of the melody, and they include complexities perhaps even greater than elsewhere. The Ben-edictus consists of three two-out-of-one mensural canons for equal voices; and the second Agnus Dei is a three-out-of-one mensural canon which continued to be cited by the theorists until the very end of the 16th century.