Johannes OCKEGHEM. Mi-mi / The Clerks' Group
Johannes OCKEGHEM. Salve Regina · Alma redemptoris mater
OBRECHT. Quod chorus vatum ~ Haec Deum caeli · BUSNOIS. Victimae paschali laudes · ISAAC. Angeli, Archangeli


AS&V "Gaudeamus" CD GAU 139

(c. 1410-1497)

1. Salve Regina  [8:51]
(ed. John Milsom)

Missa Mi-mi
2. Kyrie  [2:20]
3. Gloria  [6:56]
4. Credo  [8:41]
5. Sanctus  [3:38]
6. Benedictus  [2:35]
7. Agnus Dei  [6:10]

8. Quod chorus vatum ~ Haec Deum caeli  [5:46]

(d. 1492)
9. Victimae paschali laudes  [6:03]

Heinrich ISAAC
10. Angeli, Archangeli  [7:10]

11. Alma redemptoris mater  [5:17]

Produced by Paul Proudman & Proudsound
Recorded by Paul Proudman & Proudsound
Recorded in St. Andrew's Church, West Wratting, 11-12 April, 1994
Designed by Studio B, The Creative People
Cover illustration: “Homage to King Charles” Bibliotheque de Toulouse / Bridgeman


If Johannes Ockeghem had set out to write music that would persistently elude and escape modern analysis, he could not have been more successful than he in fact is. Musicologists have long agreed that Ockeghem's sacred musical style is best described in negative terms — that is, by denying it the formal properties that are more obviously present in other composers' scores. Missa Mi-mi is a good example: no cantus firmus, little or no imitation, very few cadences, no clear sectional divisions, little or no textural changes, and so on. The same is true, with few exceptions, of the motets Salve Regina and Alma redemptoris mater. At the same time we need only listen to the music itself to recognise that these, of all settings, are vintage Ockeghem. What then is typical about them, if first and foremost they are not this, not that, not anything?

Musicologists have agreed that Ockeghem's ‘writing-by-denial’ must somehow have been inspired by spiritual idea. Intuitively one feels inclined to agree with this: his sacred musical style is traditionally regarded as perhaps the most reflective, inward and spiritual of the fifteenth century. And no hearing of his masses and motets — particularly after listening to, say, Dufay, Busnois or Obrecht — will make that statement seem even a little exaggerated. But how can Ockeghem's apparent avoidance of musical articulation be consistent with (or explained by) his evident spirituality?

It was assumed until quite recently that Ockeghem's masses and motets were musical expressions of fifteenth-century mysticism, and might have been associated with the movement known as devotio moderna. The mystics' trance-like experience, in this view, might have paralleled intense musical experience, the emphasis in both being away from rational analysis. But objections to this hypothesis have been raised equally often: first, that the adherents of the devotio moderna, for all their spirituality (or rather, because of it), despised polyphonic music as ‘secular’, and second, that they encouraged a lifestyle of poverty which Ockeghem (as wealthy treasurer of the church of St Martin at Tours) hardly exemplified.

But ‘denial’ was not the teaching of mystical writers alone: in fact, it was almost a commonplace in medieval scholastic philosophy that God himself can only be known through denial (or alternatively through revelation, as related in the scriptures). That is to say: all that can be known positively through experience is the world, but God can be known only negatively, by eliminating characteristics of the world. The medieval cosmos was finite, but God was infinite; the world was changing, but God unchanging; the world consisted of many creatures and things, but God was single and undivided.

Was Ockeghem's music then somehow an expression of what God was thought to be? That seems unlikely: the Missa Mi-mi is finite, evolving in a limited span of time, continually changing, and consists of a multitude of (well-arranged) notes. But in the medieval view, of course, the world itself (with which Mi-mi shares all these characteristics) was an expression of God. And if music cannot convey directly what God is, at least it can express something about him in the way he expressed himself in Creation.

This idea had a long pedigree. A key principle of medieval aesthetics was Aristotle's dictum that ‘art imitates nature’. Music was seen as a ‘higher’ art than others in that it could imitate nature more abstractly, more fundamentally. Where a painter or sculptor had to be content to represent objects literally as they were, the musician was able to represent their underlying principles of harmony, diversity, change and compositeness. He was, in fact, able to imitate God's very act of creation, as described in scripture: God had arranged everything ‘with sweetness’, and ‘had ordered all things by measure, number and weight’ (Wisdom viii.1 and xi.20). Which art but music could represent sweetness (in tone production and consonance), measure (in rhythm), number (in notes), and weight (in pitch)?

It was another commonplace in medieval philosophy that qualities which existed one and undivided in God could exist in the world only in a multitude of fragmented ways: in variety. It is no coincidence that a major music theorist of Ockeghem's time should stress the importance of variety as an aesthetic principle. Ockeghem perhaps went further than most contemporaries in stepping up this variety to an extreme point. No musical moment in his works is ever identical to the next: duplication (imitation or repetition) is rigorously avoided. So, indeed, is everything that might constrain the exuberance of variety in multitudes of musical details (e.g. cadences, sectional divisions, textural changes). This is the positive message that modern analysis can only read as negative. Where the analyst habitually looks for musical unity (rather than variety), Medievals believed that perfect unity exists in God alone, and that mortals cannot know his beauty except in a kaleidoscopic variety. Ockeghem's music, then, testifies to God's glory, but does so indirectly, by representing the principles that govern his Creation.

Compared to this, Antoine Busnois's motet Victimae paschali laudes is considerably more articulate. Based on the famous Easter sequence (which it would have been designed to replace in liturgical celebrations), it states the melody with little ornamentation, and (at the beginning) repeats whole blocks of musical material. This is a more obviously functional setting, less ‘difficult’ than Ockeghem's music, and of more direct appeal for that very reason. The same is true of Jacob Obrecht's motet Haec Deum caeli, based on the second verse of the hymn Quod chorus vatum. The chant melody permeates all voices causing an amount of ‘duplication’ between parts, which creates tight unity, but also signals a retreat from Ockeghem's extreme variety.

Heinrich Isaac is one of the most unjustly neglected composers of the late Middle Ages. Like Obrecht he was a man of exceptional musical ability, writing music of unparalleled skill and artistry. Like Obrecht, too, there are always unexpected sides to his musical personality, making the continued recording of both their music a genuine voyage of discovery. Angeli, archangeli is a glorious six-part motet for the feast of All Saints. The cantus firmus is not taken from the liturgy of that feast, but, strangely, from Binchois's famous song Comme femme desconfortée, in which a courtly lady laments her misadventure and expresses her desire to die. The combination seems puzzling, unless one assumes that Isaac composed his motet for a specific Virgin-Martyr, even though his text names no saint in particular. The motet was extremely popular in its day, and there is no reason why it should not become a favourite today.

© Rob. C. Wegman 1994