- Johannes Ockeghem
was held in the highest esteem among fifteenth and
sixteenth-century musicians, theorists, scholars, and humanists. Johannes
Tinctoris (c. 14351511), one of the foremost theorists of the
period, places Ockeghem at the top of his list of learned composers.
Composer and theorist Johann Forkel (17491818),
an early J. S. Bach biographer, also praised Ockeghems subtlety
of craft, citing his monumental Missa Prolationum.1
In our own century, no less a modernist composer than Ernst Krenek (19001991)
became fascinated with the work of Ockeghem and in 1953 published a
book on his oeuvre.2
composer Johannes Ockeghem (c.14101497) has received renewed
attention since the 500th-anniversary observance of his death in 1997,
his name still seems more or less relegated to the margins of mainstream
Renaissance composers such as Giovanni da Palestrina (c.15251594),
Roland de Lassus (c.15321594), and William Byrd (c.15431623).
Pre-sixteenthcentury composers, such as Ockeghem, seem to receive
disproportionately less aesthetic recognition. Indeed, even chant,
with its monophonic traditions founded centuries before the polyphony
of the above composers, is widely marketed and has made its way into
public appreciation with greater ease. This is certainly no reflection
on the music of Ockeghem itself, but perhaps has far more to do with
the way our modern culture shapes listeners' musical expectations.
Nevertheless, no degree of obscurity can deter the resolve of musicians
like Edward Wickham, the director of The Clerks Group, to bring
such neglected works to the attention of the greater public. Wickham,
who both directs the group and sings as a bass/baritone, earned his
master of arts degree in medieval studies and his Ph.D. in musicology
from Kings College, London.3 Wickham
and The Clerks Group have set out to record all of Ockeghems
sacred musicincluding an impressive array of masses on the British
ASV Gaudeamus labeland their performances evince a world-class
perspective on this repertory with brilliant musical results.
Clerks Group, specializing in neglected works by fifteenthcentury
Flemish composers, has been performing and recording for nearly a
decade since their London debut in 1992. Nine Ockeghem discs by The
Clerks Group have been released to date; their recording of
Ockeghems Missa Fors Seulement and
Requiem won Gramophones Early Music Award (1997) and
the others have accumulated a host of critical accolades. Of
particular interest are their live concert performances: rather than
each singer performing from his or her own musical score, the singers
in the group gather around one large choirbook as was the practice
five hundred years ago. Most importantly, performing in such a manner
involves singing from a written notation quite foreign to our own
today. The Clerks expertise within this performance medium brings
a palpable clarity and freshness to the individual lines of the polyphony
that is often lacking in comparable ensembles.
The opening of Ockeghems Missa Caput in the Chigi
Codex, famed repository of nearly all of Ockeghem's Masses.
(Vatican City MS Chigi CVIII234)
distinguished career was one of service in a variety of aristocratic
and royal contexts: from c.1451 he served at the French royal court
under Charles VII and then under Louis XI, ultimately becoming premier
chapelain of the royal chapel; from 1459 he additionally served
as treasurer of the church of St. Martin, Tours; and from 1463 he
was a canon at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. Ockeghem was also likely
present at various international political negotiations, and although
any diplomatic role on his part would be highly speculative, his presence
was certainly valued.
- The humanist literati
knew of Ockeghems sterling reputation and work. For them he was
an embodiment of virtue in craft and personagea reputation hard
won by composers during this period. This concept of virtue was of great
importance within the deepening wellspring of humanist thought. Emanating
from the universities and international circles of scholarly discourse,
humanism became one of the great bequests of medieval learning and scholarship
throughout the Renaissance. Humanism was ultimately imported from academic
circles to the courtly arena where it transformed the politics of rhetoric
and became a device of persuasion that brought about cultural regeneration
and upheaval. Such was the case during the Reformation when humanism
played a defining role in shaping the aesthetic objectives behind musical
- This review focuses
primarily upon a select group of Ockeghems Masses recorded by
The Clerks Group which, in their stylistic diversity, have a great
deal to tell us about a fifteenthcentury composers craft.
The performances of these masses also educate us about the important
relationship between written notation and a singers proficiency
in what could be called auricular counterpoint. Medieval
boy choristers first learned counterpoint and its rules not through
reference to written notation, but by ear in accordance with the hexachordal
system devised by Guido of Arezzo in the eleventh century. The notation
of a polyphonic piece was generally written with such ear training in
mind, and thus took into consideration the performance decisions affecting
pitch and rhythm that would be unnecessary to prescribe in written form.
Imagine for a moment a baroque keyboard player reading the numerals
of a figured
bass part, but construing the harmonic figures by ear based on what
is heard in communication with his or her performing colleagues. This
performative relationship comprises a special sort of complimentarity
between oral tradition and written notation but with oral tradition
as the defining template for practical performance decisions. This kind
of practice is an important concept to bear in mind when discussing
the performance of fifteenthcentury polyphony such as Ockeghem's.
It creates a very different performance practice environment, which
The Clerks Group has sought to emulate with impressive results.
- Two of Ockeghems
masses in particular serve as supreme examples of what was possible
to achieve with a notation less prescriptive than ours today. The Missa
Cuiusvis Toni, which means mass on any tone you wish,
would have served as a vigorous exercise of an expert singers
skills in auricular
counterpoint. Given Ockeghems advantageous position as premiere
chapelain of the French royal chapel choir, his singers would likely
have been qualified to deal with such performance challenges. Essentially,
each of the movements can begin on virtually any solmization syllable
(utremifasolla) by reading the notation
according to one of four different clef combinations, each giving the
work a fresh modal characteristic. Thus, a singers knowledge of
auricular counterpoint confronts a supreme test of skill in performing
this piece, since the notation remains the same for each different modal
reading. An example of this is provided on The Clerks Group recording
of this piece (ASVGAU 189) where the opening and closing movements of
the mass, the kyrie and the agnus dei, are repeated, each
time beginning on a different starting pitch: fa (mixolydian) [hear
example] and mi (phrygian) [hear
example] respectively, though most of their performance is in the
Phrygian mode. It is striking how persuasive the music remains in each
instance and it is this highly clever compositional facility, among
others, that earned Ockeghem such high praise during his lifetime and
for generations afterwards.
best-known work, particularly among theorists and musicologists, is
Prolationum. As revealed in the Mass title, the formal designs
of the movements are rhythmically devised in conjunction with the melodic
material by having the parts move at different rates of speed so that
they are cleverly contrived into a series of double-canons. Thus, both
melodic and rhythmic characteristics must be executed with synchronic
precision within a highly restrictive compositional structure. The time
signature is different for each voice in a way that would metrically
confound more traditional approaches to canon or double canon. Unfortunately,
listening to the music alone will provide no overt sound clues to this
structureit is ironically simple from the perspective of the listener.
Like some sort of sung calculus example, this mass has served as a source
of constant fascination for virtually all subsequent generations of
Created many years after the
composer's death, Ockeghem is believed to be the paternal, elder-statesman-like
figure in this striking sixteenth-century illustration.
(MS fr1537, Biblioteque Nationale Paris)
- The Missa Fors
seulement, based on the composers own three-voice secular
rondeau, is richly scored for four voices, and is sung by The
Clerks Group with utmost sensitivity and expression. The ensembles
understanding of Ockeghems polyphonic landscape and melodic nuances
are a joy at every turn. Asymmetries of musical phrase are executed
with uncanny control, and cadences are realized with effortless and
deliberate authority. On the same disc there are also beautifully sung
compositions based on Ockeghems Fors seulement rondeau
by his younger contemporaries Pierre de la Rue (c.14601518)
and Antoine Brumel (c.14601515). Ockeghems Requiem
makes a striking contrast to these works. In fact, as Princeton Universitys
Rob C. Wegman, a specialist in fifteenthcentury church music,
has pointed out, there is great deal of contrast within the Mass itself,
which has led to speculation that the movements were not originally
composed together as a whole.
- The level of ensemble
precision by The Clerks Group is impressively high throughout
this series. The performance editions that they use vary from disc to
disc, although a majority are by the Dutch editor Jaap van Benthem and
published by Koninklijke Vereiniging voor Nederlandse Muzikgeschiedenis.
However, the ensemble clearly has made its own sensible editorial decisions
with regard to text underlay, always a problem with music manuscripts
of this period, and their solutions prove reliable and consistent. The
Clerks Groups decisions with regard to musica
ficta, the singerly performance practice of raising
or lowering certain pitches, seems less consistently derived, adopting
a hierarchy of musical priorities that is less apparent. However, one
can never question that the group affirms its own carefully weighed
editorial decisions through its excellent performances. Wickhams
musical direction achieves a sound that is supremely blended and euphonious,
and yet simultaneously one that permits an undeniable individualism
of discrete vocal parts. In those instances where Ockeghem brings attention
to cadences through a diminution of note values and punchy syncopated
rhythms, The Clerks Group exerts a rhythmic clarity that is thrilling
to the ear and stylistically revealing to the intellect.
recording quality is excellent and improves as the series proceeds.
The liner notes, as articulated by Rob C. Wegman, author of the definitive
book on Ockeghems younger contemporary Jacob Obrecht (c.14511505),
are particularly insightful. You can keep up to date with all of this
outstanding ensembles activities on the web: at http://www.clerks.dircon.co.uk.
Dana T. Marsh
University of Oxford
Fabrice. Johannes Ockeghem, Masses and Models. Paris: H. Champion,
Grout, Donald J. and Claude Palisca. A History of
Western Music. 5th ed. New York: Norton, 1996.
Ernst. Johannes Ockeghem. London: Sheed & Ward, 1953.
Phillipe, ed. Johannes Ockeghem: actes du XLe Colloque international
détudes humanistes. Proc. of the Tenth Colloquim
of International Humanistic Studies, 38 February 1997, Tours,
France. Paris: 1998.
The Masses of Ockeghem recorded by The Clerks Group
1. Ockeghem, Johannes. Requiem and Missa Fors seulement.
The Clerks Group. Cond. Edward Wickham. ASV/Gaudeamus, 1996
(CD GAU 168).
2. Ockeghem, Johannes. Missa Mi-Mi. The Clerks Group.
Cond. Edward Wickham. ASV/Gaudeamus, 1994 (CD GAU 139).
3. Ockeghem, Johannes. Missa Prolationum. The Clerks
Group. Cond. Edward Wickham. ASV/Gaudeamus, 1995 (CD GAU 143).
4. Ockeghem, Johannes. Missa De plus en plus. The Clerks
Group. Cond. Edward Wickham. ASV/Gaudeamus, 1996 (CD GAU 153).
5. Ockeghem, Johannes. Missa cuiusvis toni and Missa quinti toni.
The Clerks Group. Cond. Edward Wickham. ASV/Gaudeamus, 1999
(CD GAU 189).
6. Ockeghem, Johannes. Missa Au travail suis and Missa Sine nomine
a 5. The Clerks Group. Cond. Edward Wickham. ASV/Gaudeamus,
2000 (CD GAU 204).
7. Ockeghem, Johannes. Missa L'homme armé and Missa Sine
nomine a 3. The Clerks Group. Cond. Edward Wickham. ASV/Gaudeamus,
2000 (CD GAU 204).
8. Ockeghem, Johannes. Missa Ecce ancilla Domini. The Clerks
Group. Cond. Edward Wickham. ASV/Gaudeamus, re-released 2001(CD GAU
223). Original release ProudSound, 1993 (PROU CD 133).
9. Ockeghem, Johannes. Missa Caput and Missa Ma Maitresse. The
Clerks Group. Cond. Edward Wickham. ASV/Gaudeamus, 1998 (CD
Clerks Group has also recorded a disc of the music of Tinctoris
(Musique en Wallonie CIP 3608).
Two useful sources reflecting recent scholarship on Ockeghem include
Fitchs Johannes Ockeghem and the proceedings of the 1997
Ockeghem conference in Tours which includes articles by a variety
of experts on fifteenthcentury music.
Edward Wickham has published papers on Ockeghem and has also contributed
articles published in Classical Music, Church Times,
and Musical Times.