Recorded Eglise Saint-Jean de Neel
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Missa Cuiusvis Toni
With the Missa cuiusvis toni, Johannes Ockeghem achieved a masterpiece bearing witness to a thorough mastery of compositional techniques and providing a challenge for performers. At a time when composers vied with one another in virtuosity, this Mass became an unsurpassable model cited as an example in most of the important treatises such as Heinrich Glarean's Dodecachordon (1547). This means that, in the history of western music, it occupies a place alongside Johann Sebastian Bach's Musical Offering and Art of Fugue.
A simple transcription of this Mass into modern notation does not allow the artists to understand its conception and consequently find the keys-literally and figuratively. It is therefore indispensable to go back to the sources and read them using the tools of the period, namely: modality, solmisation and counterpoint.
In the 15th century, the modal system consisted of eight modes or tones constructed on four finales: protus on D; deuterus on E; tritus on F and tetrardus on G. Each of these finales generates a diatonic scale (musica recta) in which the place of semitones is different. The first two modes have a minor third (D-F and E-G) and the following two a major third (F-a et G-k). In our chart, the semitones are indicated in grey.
The Missa cuiusvis toni is conceived to be sung in these four scales without changing notation. For that, Ockeghem exploits the possibility of altering certain degrees with the help of the b molle (B flat), which was used since the origins of western music to avoid the succession of three whole tones (tri-tonus) between F and h quadratum.
Thanks to this process, Ockeghem reduces the difference between, respectively, the two minor modes and the two major modes since the second semitone is found between the fifth and sixth degree in protus and deuterus and the first semitone is found between the third and fourth degree in tritus and tetrardus. Singers will therefore have only to shift the other semitone to change scales. In place of the traditional F and C clefs, Ockeghem puts a congruence sign at the beginning of the stave indicating where the finalis is located. The choice of one of the four finales by the singers will thus determine the place of the semitones when they are reading from the same part.
Actually, solmisation, invented by Guido d'Arezzo at the beginning of the 11th century, allowed the singer to place the semitone by means of the hexachord: ut-re-mi-fa-sol-la in which the semitone is found between mi and fa.
Thus, the first stage in deciphering the Missa cuiusvis toni amounts to correctly placing the hexa-chords in order to obtain the desired scale thanks to the placement of the semitones. For that, the singer had a system of transpositions clearly described in the anonymous Berkeley treatise copied in Paris in 1375. Rather than transposing the notes (which would have made no sense in a system where there was no set diapason as there is today), the singer moved the hexachord on the musical scale, each bar of which is represented by a letter, this having the effect of creating semitones where there were none and thereby modifying the structure of the scale as our accidentals would do today. Let us stress that the unknown author from Berkeley describes this practice not as regards polyphony but in reference to plainchant, as does, moreover, a chart of hexachords preserved in the Graduate giuntino dated 1499-1500 and reproduced by Gaston G. Allaire. This technique was therefore current and probably remained in use throughout the Renaissance since it is still described at the beginning of the 17th century by Cerone.
As we have just explained, solmisation allows for singing the basic degrees of each of the four scales, but the deciphering of the Missa cuiusvis toni is not finished for all that. Beginning in the Middle Ages, it was customary to alter certain degrees, especially owing to the nature of the intervals used in the counterpoint. A certain Petrus frater dictus Palma ociosa describes this technique in the Compendium de discantu mensurabili, dated 1336. Despite its relatively early publication in the 20th century, many interpreters of mediaeval and renaissance music are still insufficiently familiar with this essential text. Yet this practice does seem to be of great importance since Jean de Murs alludes to it in his brief treatise Ars contrapuncti. We can surn-marize the principle of these rules schematically as follows: every imperfect interval (third and sixth) must be as close as possible to the perfect interval (octave, unison and fifth) on which it resolves, i.e., one of the voices must proceed by semitone. This principle is repeated with variants up to the 17th century, the great difficulty of its application lying in the fact that the texts never explain either the context or degree of obligation, and the fact that the style evolved considerably between the 14th and 17th centuries. However, it remains certain that works such as the Missa cuiusvis toni cannot be performed without taking this into account. To that is added the question of use of the diminished fifth. This interval was forbidden in mediaeval counterpoint (ban on singing mi against fa) so, to avoid it, it was necessary to make the fifth perfect by altering the B, ancestor of our B flat. Ockeghem belonged to a generation of composers that was beginning to use this interval, opening the way to widespread use in the 16th century, in keeping with the rule set out by Pietro Aaron and Gioseffo Zarlino. But in the 15lh century, it was not easy to delimit its field of application; the proof of this is in the condemnation of the use of augmented and diminished intervals by Tinctoris in his Liber de arte contrapuncti (1477), even though, as he wrote himself, he was aware 'that almost all composers use them...'
By way of conclusion
After reading the.preceding, one will have understood that the interpretation of the Missa cuiusvis toni calls for in-depth work on the part of the singers, not to mention the vocal demands that such a score assumes. I am particularly grateful to the members of Musica Nova for having given me this unique opportunity to deepen the comprehension of a work that, for years now, I have continually gone back to and about which we might legitimately wonder whether a definitive reading will ever be possible.
I also view this collaboration as the fruit of work undertaken since 1987, the year I founded the early music department at the National Conservatory of Music and Dance in Lyon. In agreement with Gilbert Amy, who was the director at the time, and with the support of the music division of the Ministry of Culture, the curriculum placed the accent particularly on the Middle Ages and Renaissance, periods that are generally neglected in musical training. In all these years of teaching, my sole objective has been to put the study of these composition and notation techniques-too often considered 'theory' in the pejorative sense of the term-at the heart of practical teaching in order to train performers responsible for their artistic choices.
- Gerard Geay (translated by John Tyler Tuttle)
A profoundly mystical universe
This recording of Ockeghem's Missa cuiusvis toni ('Mass sung in all the keys') brings together for the first time the four versions of a unique work, conceived to be sung in the four modes: D, E, F and G. This Mass conceals 'enigmas', often difficult to elucidate, that awakened our very pronounced taste for this type of practice.
Thus, Gerard Geay, 'grandmaster of the game', and ourselves, Musica Nova, joined forces to take up the challenge and offer to a wide audience, connoisseur or not, four versions of the same Mass, considered arduous from time immemorial. Our wish is that others besides ourselves will take up this approach and propose other solutions so that this work may become better known and admired 'increasingly' (another of Ockeghem's favourite themes) and that, despite its complexity, it will acquire the fame that it truly deserves. The fact that Ockeghem left no instructions quite obviously indicates the quality and level of the singers at his disposal. Most of them, accustomed to these practices from an early age, could probably, at first reading, correctly place the alterations-this not being the case with us. We therefore had to deepen our knowledge in solmisation (old solfeggio) and counterpoint to fully reappropriate this music. The aim of the joint work sessions with Gerard Geay was to make choices justified by the theoretical texts as well as musical examples drawn directly from Ockeghem's oeuvre (e.g., Missa Mi-Mi for the mode of mi). But in the end, purely aesthetic considerations came into play when several possibilities offered themselves to us, despite the aforementioned constraints. So it was that, up to the last minute, we were able to take the liberty of 'correcting' the alteration pf certain notes with the same enthusiasm that we had previously had in defending them.
This experience proves to what point a work of this importance, far from pulling us towards any absolute whatsoever, five centuries after its creation, forces the performer to be aware of and responsible for the choices made:
- the choice of presenting you with the Mass texts in a Latin pronounced 'a la frangaise' (research carried out by Thierry Peteau);
- the choice of placing the words according to the melodic lines and counterpoint (Marc Busnel), since the manuscripts remain quite vague and imprecise;
- finally, the choice of beginning each of the four Masses on the same note (D), in order to give the listener the same starting reference. We were anxious to integrate the sublime motet Intemerata Dei mater in its original version in which the five voices are used in their lowest register (the bass in particular).
May you listen to these Masses not as the strange work of some mad scholar or a composer subordinated to Church dogma, but as that of an artisan who will have put not only all his talent, but all his soul, in behalf of a profoundly mystical universe.
- Musica Nova
Ockeghem (va. 1420-1497) was one of the most respected composers of the fifteenth century, and along with Guillaume Dufay & Josquin Desprez, one of the most influential composers of the early Renaissance. Ockeghem was born in the French-speaking province of Hainaut, in the town of Saint-Ghislain, according to recent definitive research. He was premier chaplain to three kings of France, as well as holding the prestigious position of treasurer at the great cathedral and monastery of St. Martin de Tours. During his lifetime, Ockeghem was known for his personal refinement and fine bass voice. After his death, a famous poem by Guillaume Cretin (set to music by Josquin Desprez) praised his character, skill, and influence. He was long identified as one of the fathers of Renaissance music, his influence finally fading only years after his death. Ockeghem's surviving musical output is relatively small, comprising a mere handful of motets, several masses, and a couple of dozen secular chansons. His style is marked by a careful handling of vocal ranges in a primarily four-voice texture, and an emphasis on complex and expressive bass lines. This emphasis on lower textures opened up a new world of structural possibilities for Renaissance composers, and Ockeghem's compositions exploit these potentials in a variety of ways. Ockeghem's reputation as a purely technical master was also earned by the relatively long survival of his more intricate polyphonic explorations as textbook sources. These include his incomparable Missa Prolationum, constructed entirely in canon; his Missa Cuiusvis toni, designed to be performable in any of the available modes.
Ensemble Musica Nova
Musica Nova was created from a common desire to spread the riches of the polyphonic and monodic musical repertoires of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, both secular and sacred. Essentially made up of singers accustomed to a cappella singing, the group includes the participation of instrumentalists, depending on the programme. Musica Nova is meant to be a place of exchange and creation. Its interpretations are based on rigorous musicological research, relying on some of today's most important specialists in this field. This approach is motivated by the idea that only the quest for stylistic accuracy can permit the full expression of the work and the performers' musi-cality. The ensemble also seeks to reproduce these various types of music in a way that is as convincing as it is full of life.
Since its founding, the ensemble has given numerous concerts in France and Europe. In 2003, its recording of the complete motets of Guillaume de Machaut received many awards from the music press (Prix du Disque Lyrique, Diapason d'Orof the Year and Choc de la Musique of the Year). In 2005, the recording of Guillaume Dufay's Motets, Hymns and Anthems to the Virgin was also honoured by a Choc de la Musique of the Year. The ensemble is based in Lyon and benefits from the support of the Rhone- Alpes Regional Cultural Affairs Department (DRAC) and Region Rhone-Alpes. It is currently in residence at the Abbey of Royaumont (2007-2008).