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Collected Works, vol. 3, Motets and Chansons.

Though long delayed, the appearance of this third and final volume of Ockeghem's collected works seems fortuitously timed. Coinciding with the quincentenary of Busnoys's death, and preceding that of Ockeghem's by five years, it has provided an ideal inauguration to the interim half-decade, in which the recent breakthroughs and insights in Busnoys scholarship might be brought to bear on Ockeghem. Attention is likely to focus, in the first instance, on the period when both composers were active at Tours (1460-65), years which seem to have been especially fertile ones for song composition and which were brought to a symbolic conclusion in Busnoys's homage to Ockeghem, the motet 'In hydraulis' (1467). In this respect the present edition, by making available all of Ockeghem's songs and motets, provides a welcome impetus for comparative research. More generally, if Busnoys has emerged as a figure of fascinating musical and social ambiguities, this may have prepared the ground for a more multi-faceted image of Ockegehem as well - for which this edition supplies ample material.

More than most composers of the fifteenth century, Ockeghem has tended to be considered in terms of a Personalstil, whose principal features are summed up by Richard Wexler as follows: 'flowing melodic lines, asymmetrical rhythms, equality of voice parts, sparing use of imitation, elided cadence points that create a sense of continuous motion, and a gradual shortening of note durations in the approach to the final close - the often cited drive to the cadence' (p. xlv; see also p. xlii). This represents a marked contrast to figures like Busnoys - well known as an experimenter-and especially Dufay, whose oeuvre has been praised for its variety and breadth of compositional scope. Yet the contrast may to some degree be apparent rather than real. Ockeghem's Personalstil is at bottom an abstraction, of course, based originally but still predominantly on the Masses (Caput in particular), which have been available in modern edition for more than 50 years. Any suggestion that he cultivated such a style for four decades out of some inner musical necessity is immediately belied by the songs, which display none of the characteristics cited above, and reveal him as a natural melodist, immortalizing such poems as 'D'un autre amer', 'Ma bouche tit', 'L'autre d'antan' and 'Ma maistresse' with delightfully memorable tunes.

Ockeghem's Personalstil would thus appear to be at most genre- or context-specific, and conditioned by several historical circumstances: the preponderance of Mass cycles in his surviving output (unlike in the case of Dufay, we have no isorhythmic motets, hymns, Magnificats or, with one exception, Mass Propers), the early availability of that part of his canon, and the modern tendency to value the lowest common denominator of style as more significant than evidence of change and development. An additional circumstance may be self-perpetuation: if a Personalstil is allowed to become hardened into a criterion of authenticity, any stylistic evidence against it will be spurious by definition. For instance, the Missa sine nomine a3, probably Ockeghem's earliest surviving Mass (?1440s), has recently come under suspicion for its stylistic incompatibility with later Masses (which are mostly four-part cantus firmus cycles). However, we may have to allow that this could be a case of apples and pears: one needs to consider only the Masses Spiritus almus and Quinti toni by Petrus de Domarto (who, like Ockeghem, was active at Antwerp in the 1440s) to be persuaded that three- and four-part composition could represent completely different musical worlds even in the hands of the same mid-century Mass composer. To rule out such stylistic variety in the case of Ockeghem may be to turn his putative Personalstil into a totem of canonic purity that could soon demand more sacrifices - as the history of Josquin scholarship shows. (If similar problems have not arisen for Busnoys, it may be because we possess a source copied in his direct working environment - Brussels, Bibliotheque Royale, MS 5557 - which shows him adopting almost as many compositional approaches as it contains settings by him.)

In the present edition I found the handling of these problems not always equally consistent. Like Richard Wexler, I was greatly impressed by the quality of two five-part motets attributed to 'Johannes Okegus' and '. . . kegus' in Regensburg, Bischofliche Zentralbibliothek, MSS B211-15 (copied in Germany in 1538): 'Gaude Maria' and 'Caeleste beneficium'. Wexler follows received opinion in commenting that 'Given the late date and probable remote provenance of RegB 211-215, there is good reason to doubt the authenticity of ['Gaude Maria']' (p. liv). This seems fair enough, yet he goes on to question Ockeghem's authorship on stylistic grounds, and this makes it puzzling, at the very least, that similar critical scrutiny is withheld from a far less plausible stylistic candidate, 'Ut heremita solus'. I will return to this motet below, but suffice it to say that to publish this as an 'undisputed' Ockeghem work, as Wexler does, is to credit the composer with a capacity for stylistic change far in excess of what it would have taken him to compose 'Caeleste beneficium' or 'Gaude Maria'. This may not necessarily be a bad thing, inasmuch as a Personalstil can become a strait-jacket which Ockeghem need not deserve any more than Dufay or Busnoys: let us not rule out unexpected dimensions to his musicianship, even if we have tended to perceive his sacred output in terms of only one.

As far as the five-part motets are concerned, both works can only have seemed decidedly archaic by the late 1530s, given such features as the mensural layout O-??? or O-???-O (rather than ??? throughout), the presentation of cantus firmi in long note-values (especially in 'Caeleste beneficium'), the use of alternating introductory duos involving partial or complete restatements of two-voice complexes (a typical Busnoysian feature later adopted by Obrecht), numerous idiomatic turns and phrases that were common stock in late fifteenth-century sacred music - as well as the composer's evident innocence of pervading imitation and a voce piena texture. These are settings that would not have looked out of place in a 1490s motet source such as Rome, Vatican Library, MS C.S.15: my guess would be that they were written about 1485-95. Wexler points out that if 'Gaude Maria' 'is by Ockeghem, then he is the sole representative of his generation in the manuscript RegB 211-215' (p. liii). Yet this may very well be true of its composer irrespective of whether he was Ockeghem or not. Moreover, it is worth asking whether Ockeghem's name was likely to attract misattributions in late 1530s Germany. So far as we know, his claim to fame by then rested mainly on works of theoretical interest; other than that, authors remembered him, if at all, as a figure from the dark and remote era preceding the advent of Josquin, Isaac and Senfl. And if we tentatively ascribe the misattributions to an earlier stage of transmission (when they were perhaps more likely to occur) one wonders why we should necessarily consider them misattributions in the first place.

At the same time it is true that the two motets show a melodic exuberance that one would not ordinarily associate with Ockeghem. If this is a reason for questioning the unambiguous ascription 'Johannes Okegus' (I would prefer that we first lived with these pieces for a while), then the actual composer should probably be sought among his close contemporaries. In this connection it may be worth speculating whether the second part of 'Gaude Maria' ('Gabrielem archangelum') was perhaps the motet 'Gabrielem' by Busnoys mentioned in 1494 by the Venetian trumpeter Giovanni Alvise, who had arranged the piece for instrumental performance 'so that, in truth, the whole of Venice wishes to hear nothing else'. Certainly the perfect symmetry between the duos of bars 1-16 and 16-31 in the first part is something that recalls Busnoys (or Obrecht) more than Ockeghem, and the numerous cadential 'English figures' notated in partial coloration in the 'Gabrielem' section (bars 105-59) may reflect Busnoys's lifelong penchant for this rhythmic pattern and its full-black plus proportional notation. (See my 'Mensural Intertextuality in the Sacred Music of Antoine Busnoys', Antoine Busnoys: Method, Meaning, and Context in Late Medieval Music, ed. Paula Higgins, Oxford, forthcoming.) The curious repeated bass note on E in bars 71-77 immediately recalls identical procedures in Masses by Obrecht, and it is worth considering whether 'Gaude Maria' might have been composed during Busnoys's last years in Bruges (up to his death in 1492), when he and Obrecht were working within hundreds of metres of each other.

In any case, neither 'Caeleste beneficium' nor 'Gaude Maria' would constitute a blemish on Ockeghem's reputation. On the contrary: if accepted, they would reveal that (like Dufay) he was remarkably responsive to stylistic developments in the last decade of his life, in works of astonishing invention. And one may wonder whether the received image of Ockeghem's stylistic individuality and uniformity is so important (or indeed historically plausible) that it should be bought at the price of such unambiguously attributed works as these motets or the three-part Missa sine nomine. What would such reasoning do to the oeuvres of Dufay and Busnoys?

'Ut heremita solus' decisively explodes that image in any event, at least if we accept it, with Wexler, as undisputed. The motet is mentioned by Guillaume Cretin in his 'Deploration' (1497), in a context in which it is natural to assume that Ockeghem was its composer. It was printed seven years later by Petrucci in his Motetti C, without attribution. The case looks reasonably clear-cut until one looks at the music, which seems to string together as many fashionable cliches of the 1490s as possible, and persists in them with a literal-mindedness that suggests total indifference to long-term musical effect. In the long run (and this is a very long piece, due to the canonic tenor construction), the effect is one of such tedium and monotony as to give an ironic twist to the verbal canon under the original tenor: 'I wait until my change should come'. 'Ut heremita solus' looks like the work of a 1490s composer who admired the most recent Masses of Obrecht and wanted to copy their style, assuming that the secret of their musical energy and force resided solely in such devices as motivic sequence (top voice, bars 9-11; bass, 55-66), motivic repetition (top voice, bars 12-18, 61-64, 77-80, 102-5; bass, 18-20, 20-23, 45-48, 80-82), motivic imitation (bars 27-28, 2832, 33-34, 35-36, 87-92), writing in parallel tenths (bars 24-25, 37-38, 40-43, 47-51, 54-55, 73, 99), and repeats of extended melodic phrases (top voice and bass, bars 49-57). (Bar numbers are for the first part only; the second gives substantially the same picture.) This is as far removed from the received picture of Ockeghem's Personalstil as one can imagine, given that this style is defined by the conspicuous avoidance of these devices. For all Cretin's praise ('ce motet . . . que chascun tint une chose excellente') one hesitates to associate this dismally long-winded piece with Ockeghem or indeed any other talented composer of the late fifteenth century.

Late and and posthumous reports depict Ockeghem as a man of gravitas, an elderly figure of profound wisdom, learning and high social esteem. This fits attractively with the reflective and meditative mood of such motets as 'Ave Maria', 'Intemerata Dei mater' or 'Salve regina'. Yet like Busnoys's, Ockeghem's musical career had a modest start: the unbeneficed singer listed at Antwerp in 1443/4 could well have been a late teenager, at most in minor orders, and part of an unruly clerical subculture of which chapter acts (when they survive) rarely fail to report startling excesses of indecency, profanity and violence. The greatest musical minds who entered the scene in the 1440s and '50s - Ockeghem, Pulloys, Domarto, Caron - lacked a formal university education at the time, and focused their youthful creative energies on novel musical problems which they seem to have resolved almost entirely by instinct. Against the background of the medieval musicus there is almost something audacious about the way they tried their hand at just about everything, shunning theoretical or formal orthodoxies, freely mixing styles and materials, and defying musical and social decorum almost for the sake of it. If it was one thing, for instance, to sing and invent rude and irreverent songs (which we find before 1400 as well), it was another to elevate these to the dignity of Mass or motet tenors, and quite another to expose them audibly in the top parts of such works (as in the anonymous Missa 'Se tu te marie', probably from the 1450s).

The roots of this semi-clerical subculture undoubtedly lie in the early fifteenth-century practice of incorporation, which allowed young, unordained singers to exercise their musical skills in the choir-stalls of collegiate churches and cathedrals (previously reserved exclusively for priests), as well as in the foundation of choir schools, which created a steady supply of well-trained adolescent singers. The 1450s and '60s, it seems, were a time when musicians in their teens or twenties could sway the international musical world with one breathtakingly original work and then hardly ever be heard of again: Domarto's Missa 'Spiritus almus', Pulloys's 'Flos de spina', Hayne van Ghizeghem's 'De tous bien plaine'. It was left to few to retain the initiative in this ongoing eruption of youthful creative energy.

Like his younger contemporary Busnoys, Ockeghem originated from this world, although this is a side to his personality that has tended to remain underexposed. One of the most exciting breakthroughs in Busnoys scholarship has surely been the recognition of his ambiguous position with respect to clerical high and low culture, the margins and centres of society, learned and unlearned - a position which may make his life and music paradigmatic of the mid-century Franco-Netherlandish composer. In Ockeghem's case such ambiguities may have been obscured not only by the dominance of the later image (and generalizations extrapolated from it), but especially from lack of documentary and musical sources. There are hardly any Netherlandish or French choirbooks until late in the century, and those from Italy and central Europe show no sign of any special interest in his sacred music before about 1480 - after which date Ockeghem's increasing reputation as a wise and fatherly Nestor seems to have inspired a collector's zeal that led to the compilation of the Chigi manuscript and may perhaps account for the late transmission of his three-part Sine nomine Mass in a Veronese manuscript. None of the undisputed and doubtful motets in the present edition turn up in contemporary sources before the 1480s. For the Masses this picture is only slightly less dramatic: in surviving choirbooks up to about 1480, Ockeghem's Masses have at most a marginal presence, if at all. It would appear from this that Ockeghem's reputation as a Mass and motet composer hardly extended beyond France until late in his life, and that his later efforts in both genres sparked something of an Ockeghem 'revival' on which the current image of the composer largely depends.

During the earlier part of his career, however, certainly up to the mid 1470s, Ockeghem's sacred works do not appear to have been more sought-after than those of composers whose international success, although perhaps more short-lived, was nonetheless more immediate: Pulloys, Domarto, Caron, Busnoys. On the other hand, it seems astonishing that he kept pace with them all, only to end up competing successfully with Basiron, Lannoy and others, and to be greeted by all of these in Cretin's underworld. That the constant elements in his sacred style during this half-century should be considered more significant than the many differences and changes is far from self-evident: even the pre-1470 Masses (Sine nomine a3, Caput, L'homme arme, De plus en plus and probably Ecce ancilla Domini) show astonishing breadth of compositional scope. And closer study of the songs, which seem to have won him an international reputation much more quickly, might give us a more intimate picture of his creative thought-processes during these years, when he is likely to have remained in close touch with the musically resourceful if earthy environment of unbeneficed singers (as in songs like 'S'elle m'amera - Petite camusette' or 'L'autre d'antan'), and may have written many now anonymous works to which serious consideration has so far been denied.

This highlights what I take to be the main significance of the present volume: the repertory it makes available does itself embody striking musical ambiguities, which it would be unfair to expect the editors to have resolved. It is refreshing now to have the songs side by side with the motets, and to have the picture of uniformity exploded not only by this juxtaposition but also by the inclusion of such motets as 'Ut heremita solus', 'Gaude Maria' and 'Caeleste beneficium', as well as several uncourtly songs whose sexual and social innuendoes are scarcely concealed ('Baisies moy', 'Fors seulement contre', 'Prenez sur moy', 'S'elle m'amera'). As we approach the quincentenary of Ockeghem's death, it is especially welcome to have this final instalment of his collected works and to have many exciting opportunities for reconsideration opened up.

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Author:Wegman, Rob C.
Publication:Music & Letters
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Feb 1, 1996
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