The Hilliard Ensemble directed by Paul Hillier
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There was no question in the minds of his peers that Johannes Ockeghem was the greatest composer of the late 15th century. He achieved fame as premier chapelain de chant to three kings of France from c. 1450 until his death in 1497. Although he did some travelling, the focus of his activity was the Abbey of St. Martin of Tours where c. 1458 he was elevated by the king to the lucrative position of treasurer. But just what part Ockeghem's music played in life at St. Martin and at the chateaux of the Loire valley where the French royal families spent so much time during this period is not entirely clear. His works do not include the sort of "occasional" clues that allow us to date precisely the eventrelated works of other composers. They tend to be written for no specific occasion or feast, they use a variety of techniques, and since their sources are mostly late or posthumous, they cannot be reliably dated. The picture we have, then, of the works of this outstanding composer is obscured by ignorance of the circumstances of composition and by the veil of uncertain chronology. Moreover, the image itself is disintegrating around the edges. Ockeghem began the present decade with nine attributed motets - already precious few compared with Dufay's and Josquin's extant output in the framing generations. Over the past few years, the number of Ockeghem's undisputed motets has diminished to the five recorded here, and threatens to shrink even further, as noted below.
Obviously, not a lot of care was taken to preserve his work in the decades following his death. Part of the problem was that Ockeghem's feats of contrapuntal mastery so fascinated theorists of the 16th century that he became known only as a composer of puzzles-a mere theorist himself. Another part may have been that his contrapuntal language was unique and soon fell out of fashion.
The most striking difference in Ockeghem's textures is the near absence of imitation, the organizing element behind so much sacred polyphony in the Renaissance. Ockeghem's phrases, too, are longer, and what cadential motion exists is often undermined by deceptive resolution, rests, or continuing activity in the other voices. Also at cadences, his harmonic language is noticeably different from the Renaissance standard, largely because of his predilection for putting "tenor" motion (stepwise descent) in the bottom voice, resulting typically in what we would call diminished triads and occasionally some momentary 7th-chords. Such things are delightful surprises for us, but for 16th-century musicians they may have seemed crude or at least archaic.
Among the most distinctive features of Ockeghem's style are melodic lines which give the sense of being improvised. There is no obvious stylistic vocabulary which makes it possible to predict more than a few notes in advance where a melodic line is heading. And yet, this comes across not as aimlessness but as spontaneous invention. Perhaps the greatest tribute is that Ockeghem is able to convey this even when there is an agenda which rigidly controls the succession of events in a work as, for example, with the use of a pre-existent melody or a canon. This intentional sense of ambiguity seems further reflected in musica ficta, accidentals which must be added to the music by the singers according to certain conventions and rules. Ockeghem's contrapuntal language does not allow easy application of these rules so that, for example, a whole phrase might legitimately have one or two flats added throughout, or it might not, completely changing its modal character from one version to the other. Ockeghem's sensitivity to this is clear from his Missa Cuiusvis Toni which could be sung (with different musica ficta) in any of the four basic modes. What this means to us as performers and listeners today is that the modal ambiguity in his works is probably intentional and that there is no such thing as the definitive version where Ockeghem's works are concerned.
The Missa Prolationum ranks alongside Bach's Art of Fugue as the apotheosis of contrapuntal achievement. The movements comprise a series of canons in which pairs of voices sing the same music but in different metres and separated by different melodic intervals for each movement or section. Thus, the canons for Kyrie I are at the unison, for the Christe at the second, for Kyrie II at the third, and so on up to the Osanna which is at the octave (the final sections are again at the fourth and fifth).
The two settings of Salve regina are studies in contrast, and in fact one of them is now disputed as a work of Ockeghem. The longer one, from MS Cappella Sistina 42 in the Vatican Library is clearly authentic, showing many trademarks of Ockeghem's style. Especially notable is the sombre mood sustained by the low tessitura and small range of the bass part which carries a paraphrase of the chant antiphon most of the time. In contrast, the middle parts are occasionally given more than usual prominence with lines that soar out of the texture. The final section, beginning O clemens, is particularly beautiful and, for the time, is almost startling in its sensitivity to the text.
The other Salve regina occurs in two sources: MS Cappella Sistina 46 and Motetti novi libro secondo, printed by Andrea Antico in Venice in 1520. In the latter, it bears an attribution to Basiron, presumably Philippe Basiron who was a contemporary of Ockeghem. In MS Cappella Sistina 46, the attribution has been mostly cut off by later binding, but the attribution to Ockeghem was made on the basis of the abbreviation "Io." which remained. Recently, an old catalogue (made before the rebinding) was discovered and in it, this Salve regina bears an attribution to Bausseron, also known as Johannes Bonnevin, a singer in the papal choir from 1514 to 1542. Thus it seems most likely that the piece is the work of either Basiron or Bausseron although it will appear in the forthcoming motet volume of the Ockeghem: Collected Works Series, edited by Richard Wexler. (A discussion of the attribution question is found in Martin Picker's new edition of the Antico print, in the Monuments of Renaissance Music Series.) In any event, given the diversity of the small sampling of Ockeghem's surviving motets, it is not inconceivable that he could have written a work like this. The shorter, clear-cut phrases are not typical of his style, but the highly unusual combination of the chant paraphrase in the top voice with a slower-moving cantus firmus-like tenor is a contrapuntal experiment worthy of him.
The remaining works, the Marian antiphon Alma redemptoris mater and the non-liturgical but likewise Marian Intemerata Dei mater, reflect opposite ends of the spectrum. The bright and transparent part-writing of Alma redemptoris mater is established in the opening duet and sustained by a mostly high tessitura throughout. Although there were no absolute pitch standards at the time, Ockeghem seems to indicate that he wants an airier texture by paraphrasing the chant in the alto rather than the usual tenor voice, and transposing the melody up a fifth from the pitch customarily notated in chant books. The resulting texture is unique among Ockeghem's works, but the piece is almost certainly authentic since it is ascribed to him in a manuscript copied at the French royal court during his tenure there.
The extraordinarily low texture of Intemerata Dei mater, by contrast, is one exploited in a group of Ockeghem's works, and is perhaps attributable to the composer's personal vocal endowments. The work shares the hypo-phrygian mode of the Missa Mi-Mi and makes the listener conscious of that connection at the very beginning by quoting the opening bars of that work with the voices slightly rearranged. But here, Ockeghem serves notice that the mood of this desperate plea will go beyond melancholy to anguish, as the jaws of the chasm gape upon the entrance of an even lower bass part near the bottom of its range. The rest of the opening section is characterised by rich, dense part-writing. The second section, beginning with a paraphrased quote from Ockeghem's Missa Fors seulement, appears to lighten the texture with a series of alternating trios and a flirtation with homophony. But even here, the sombre mood is maintained. In the second phrase, spes nulla laboris, the voices sink bleakly in archaic faux-bourdon to a phrygian cadence which, in the end, is left without a satisfying resolution in the upper voices. The final section builds to a breathtaking acclamation at Filius, then spins a web of free counterpoint spiralling to the close. The works recorded here are in many ways the heart of Ockeghem's output: the mass responsible for his fame but also for his perception as a purely technical composer; the distillate of whatever motets he may have written in his long and active life. Together, they are a monument to his ability to imbue the most technically conceived as well as the most freely imagined abstract counterpoint with emotional power and feeling.
-Ross W. Duffin, 1989