A bit of a puzzler

Bayan Northcott on the 500th anniversary of the death of Johannes Ockeghem, chaplain, courtier and 15th-century music's most mysterious master

So who was Johannes (or Jean, or Jehan) Ockeghem (or Okchem, Okeghem, Okenheim or Ogkeguam)? To be sure, few scribes conceived of standardised spelling before the spread of printing. What we cannot be so sure of, for all his fame, is much else about his biography or character.

Scholars have conjectured his birth at various times between 1410 and 1430, though the early 1420s now seem likeliest, and in the French-speaking area of Flanders around Mons. It is possible that he studied with the chanson composer Gilles Binchois, on whose death in 1460 he composed an affecting deploration. There is also evidence that, in an era when a composer needed to be a good singer to get on, he preserved even into old age a bass voice of exceptional quality and power. In 1450 he was taken into the service of Charles VII of France as principal singer-chaplain, apparently holding the post for some 47 years, through the reign of Charles's son into that of his grandson. The facts that he was soon appointed treasurer of the largest abbey in France, at Tours, and later sent on what may have been diplomatic missions to Spain and Flanders, suggest that he became a valued royal counsellor. Such accounts of his personality as survive are united in praising the charm of his person and the seemliness of his conduct, and his passing, just 500 years ago yesterday, drew not only a Latin lament from Erasmus proclaiming him "Prince of Music", but a memorable deploration from the greatest of his successors, Josquin Desprez.

What did he look like, this paragon? The only likely depiction is to be found in an early 16th-century manuscript now in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, showing a group of singing men around a lectern. The most imposing of these, in a long brown gown, is evidently older than the rest, for grey curls peep from his cowl and he wears what appear to be a primitive pair of tinted spectacles. Since these details are so specific and the accompanying poem concerns an Ockeghem canon for no less than 36 voices, it has long been assumed that this figure is he - though not all scholars have been convinced, and the illustration must have been painted a good 20 years after his death.

Nor is the monster canon the only Ockeghem item that has almost certainly failed to come down to us. Writers of his own time name at least four subsequently lost masses, and compared with the output, for instance, of his older friend Guillaume Dufay, his worklist seems slender: 22 courtly chansons, nine motets and 13 undisputed mass settings, not all of them encompassing the complete text, but including the earliest surviving Requiem - unless Dufay's possibly still earlier setting ever turns up. Whether Ockeghem wrote vastly more than this is another matter. It could be that his manifold court duties restricted his creative life. It could even be that certain notorious scores actually took a quite exceptional time to compose.

For if one thing dogged his reputation among theorists and music historians over the next four and a half centuries, it was the belief, unwittingly fostered by Renaissance panegyricists, that his output was devoted to arcane and, by implication, dry-as-dust feats of formal counterpoint. In fact, aside from the enigmatically notated so-called puzzle canon Prenez sur moi vostre exemple, which performers had to solve before they could sing it, this charge rests upon just two of his masses. One of them, the Missa cuiusvis toni - or mass "in any mode you like" - is written in such a way as to make harmonic sense when sung in any one of four differently constituted scales.

The other is the famous Missa prolationum: a mass composed entirely in canons on a grand scheme of expanding intervals from unison in the opening Kyrie up to octave in the Osanna towards the end. Nor are these ordinary, round-like canons with each voice coming in with the same material in sequence. Rather, each movement begins with a double canon in which the two upper voices unfold the same melody at differing rates, so that one part gets progressively ahead of the other, while the two lower voices simultaneously pursue another canon on a different melody and in a different tempo ratio. No wonder that 18th- and 19th-century scholars, who had no opportunity of actually hearing these works, tended to regard them as prodigies of pedantry. Only through performances and recordings of the last decade or so has it become evident that, for all its internal complexities, the supreme achievement of the Missa prolationum is how serenely resolved it all sounds.

Indeed, once one realises that the work makes sense without any consciousness of its contrapuntal techniques, it may be found easier to follow than much of Ockeghem's more freely composed music. If he cleaved to any constant principle to set beside the steady stylistic evolution of the older Dufay or the perfecting of a "classical" Renaissance manner of the younger Josquin, it was his seeming compulson to avoid the obvious - whether by eliding conventional cadences in his bar-to-bar textures or by refusing to tackle the same compositional problems twice from one work to another.

For instance, a number of the masses invoke the unifying device of a cantus firmus - a pre-existing chant or melody repeatedly run through successive movements to create a structural link. Yet Ockeghem's usage varies from the directness of the five-voice Missa `Fors seulement', just finely recorded by the Clerk's Group on ASV (CD GAU 168), in which the cantus strides through the Credo almost like a baroque chorale prelude, to the surging and syncopated Missa `Mi-mi', in which the cantus is so diffused it has only recently been spotted at all. In the Missa `De plus en plus', newly released in a radiant recording by the Tallis Scholars (Gimell 454 935-2), a cantus drawn from a Binchois chanson underpins the full four-voice sections, but much of the structure is sustained by freely composed duets and trios, exemplifying Ockeghem's penchant for asymetrical and endlessly self-generating melody that some commentators have called mystical, even oriental.

Yet, compared with such ecstatic expansiveness, the other mass on the Tallis disc could hardly be more compressed and laconic. Built on a far more splintered cantus from a chanson possibly by Ockeghem himself, the Missa `Au travail suis' seems to shift and shuffle its textures every few bars in response to the text, its second Agnus touching on that love of deeper, denser, more elegiac vocal texture than any previous composer which one recognises as another recurrent feature of his music. Yet, if all these contrasts suggest a complex, restless sensibility, a hearing of the earlier sections of the Requiem reminds one that he was equally capable of a transfixing simplicity.

Despite the haunting beauty of his sound, it would be idle to pretend that Ockeghem is an easy composer. Because of his irregular or introverted processes, it is not always obvious what to listen out for; the ear has, as it were, to "learn" his pieces passage by passage through many rehearings before their individuality fully emerges. Yet here, at least, we live at a fortunate time. Recent developments towards greater "accessibility" in new music and "authenticity" in the classics notwithstanding, perhaps the most remarkable manifestation of the past two or three musical decades has been the ever-rising skill and conviction by which our scholarly performers of early music have succeeded in restoring such hitherto remote historical figures as Machaut, Dunstable and Dufay to the status of great composers we feel, once more, we can genuinely understand.

At last, and all in a rush, that process seems to be catching up with Ockeghem - and not only in a flurry of new recordings. Last night, an international Ockeghem Conference in Tours reached its climax with a performance of the Requiem. That same work can be heard at noon today when John Milsom completes his lucid exposition of Ockeghem as Radio 3 Composer of the Week (repeated next week at 11.30pm). On 23 February, R3's Spirit of the Age will look into Ockeghem's canonic puzzles and, in April, the young Ockeghem scholar Fabrice Fitch will be publishing a major new study. Where true art is concerned, it seems we can still find renewal - even after 500 years n

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