Johannes OCKEGHEM. Missa Prolationum / The Clerks' Group
Jacob OBRECHT. Humilium decus · Jean PULLOIS. Flos de spina · JOSQUIN. Illibata Dei virgo nutrix
Antoine BUSNOIS. Gaude coelestis Domina · In hydraulis


AS&V "Gaudeamus" CD GAU 143

(?) Jacob OBRECHT
1. Humilium decus  [5:57]

Missa Prolationum
2. Kyrie  [4:03]
3. Gloria  [7:10]
4. Credo  [8:24]
5. Sanctus  [3:29]
6. Benedictus  [3:36]
7. Agnus Dei  [5:44]

8. Gaude coelestis Domina  [6:41]
9. In hydraulis  [8:38]

10. Flos de spina  [4:48]

11. Illibata Dei virgo nutrix  [6:51]

The Clerks's Group
Edward Wickham

sopranos: Carys Lane, Rebecca Outram
altos: Robin Blaze, William Missin
tenors: Stephen Harrold, Matthew Vine
basses: Jonathan Arnold, Robert Macdonald

Produced by Jonathan Freeman-Attwood
Engineered by Paul Proudman and ProudSound
Recorded at St. Andrew's Church, West Wratting, 24-25 February 1995



It is a peculiar paradox of Renaissance polyphony that its perceived ‘complexity’ arises largely from attempts to talk or write about it. There is nothing especially complex about hearing and enjoying an Ockeghem mass — provided, of course, that one is familiar with the stylistic idiom. lt is as if the music plays heavily on the mind's capacity to take in a multitude of events happening altogether-at-once, forcing it, by the sheer density of such events, to abandon intensive analytical hearing in favour of a more relaxed ‘global’ hearing. The apparent complexity arises only when one tries to understand this density of events in the linear, one-at-a-time fashion that is inherent in speech and thought. Musical experience itself need not (and probably cannot) involve this cumbersome, linear processing. This may make it perhaps less conscious of everything that is going on, but not necessarily less concentrated.

There are many activities which, with sufficient experience, can be executed virtually effortlessly, yet can hardly be described or explained in words without making them seem excessively complicated: playing tennis, for instance, or even riding a bicycle. In such activities one is forced to let go of conscious control of each split-second decision, and instead has to put one's trust in the mind's ability to act ‘of its own accord’ — perhaps less consciously, but with greater speed, precision, and assurance. In the same way it would be exhausting, and indeed distracting, if one strained to hear and understand every detail in Renaissance polyphony: the sheer saturation of relatively undifferentiated details opens the mind to a broader musical experience than can be processed through the narrow channel of analytic consciousness. And if one takes musical experience in its double sense — as something that is undergone and thereby also acquired — it is possible to see why repeated hearing will make Renaissance polyphony sound less complicated and more transparent, even if one cannot then explain it any better than, say, a tennis player can explain the laws of ballistics.

Johannes Ockeghem's Missa Prolationum (sung here from an edition prepared by Jaap van Benthem) is ‘complex’ in this general sense — so typical of fifteenth-century music — in that its musical events are not structured and organised in ways that we may consciously listen for (say, motivic or thematic processes, or neatly demarcated units), but just happen, seemingly at random. Yet it is complex also in another sense, that one can hardly listen for consciously either. The Mass is, in effect, a canon cycle, progressing, section by section, from mostly double canon at the unison, second, third, and so on, to double canon at the octave. And, to make things more complicated, these canons are not always ‘strict’ in the modern sense. Ockeghem exploits the capacity, inherent in the musical notation system of his time, for notes to assume different rhythmic configurations depending on the metres in which they are sung. Thus it happens that the simultaneous realisations of a single notated melody may differ not only with respect to pitch-level, but also with respect to rhythmic interpretation. The overall procedure is exceedingly complex if one tries to explain it in words, and must have involved a great deal of patient planning and revision on Ockeghem's part. None of this, however, is foregrounded in the musical sound itself, which (if anything) sounds remarkably effortless and unlaboured.

Yet however the music may sound, the complexity of the canon procedures is real, tangible on paper, not merely an artifact of attempts to talk about it. The paradox mentioned earlier has been inverted: while the complexity on paper is genuine, it is now the ‘effortlessness’ in sound that seems to be the artifact, an artifact of aural perception. Nothing illustrates better than this the peculiar fascination that Renaissance music holds for so many listeners and scholars today. If compositions are by definition manifested in two separate domains, notation and sound, Renaissance composers relished exploring the paradoxes between those domains, rather than seeking to streamline their connection. Notation was seen as more than an efficient medium through which to arrive at sound: it was also, in large measure, a conceptual world unto itself. Ockeghem's Missa Prolationum operates in that world, and emerges as an exceedingly complex work to the extent that it does. However, it operates also in another world, and this is how it can be heard on this disc: nothing but the present liner notes hint at the Mass's complexity, and if the foregoing comments should create conscious awareness of anything, it is probably the paradox more than the complexity.

Missa Prolationum is here presented in the context of five motets by contemporary composers. One of these, In hydraulis by Antoine Busnois, is an homage to Ockeghem, written in the first months of 1467. At that time, as the motet text reveals, Busnois was in the service of Charles the Bold, then Count of Charolais, but about to succeed his father as Duke of Burgundy a few months later. In hydraulis was almost certainly written on the occasion of a visit by Ockeghem to the Low Countries, yet apart from the motet itself we possess no documentation on that visit.

The remaining four motets are all found in one manuscript, copied in the mid-1490s for the Sistine Chapel in Rome (MS 15). This is an extremely important source for motet composition in the second half of the fifteenth century, and certainly contains many more musical riches than can be presented on this disc.

The six-part Humilium decus (edited for The Clerks' Group by Henriette Straub) appears without an author's name in the manuscript, yet is very close to the musical world of Jacob Obrecht, especially his Salve crux. It is a Marian motet, based on two cantus firmi: the Magnificat antiphon Sancta Maria succurre, and the tenor of the song Cent mille escus by Firminus Caron. Whether or not Humilium decus is accepted as a work by Obrecht, it must be ranked among the masterpieces of motet composition in the 1480s or early 1490s.

Gaude coelestis Domina was long known as an anonymous work as well, until it was identified recently as the ‘lost’ motet by Busnois that was mentioned in a treatise of the music theorist Johannes Tinctoris, written in 1472-3. This setting must be closely contemporary with Busnois's In hydraulis, with which it shares many stylistic similarities, especially in the second part. The cantus firmus and text have not been identified, yet it seems likely that they were taken from a hymn for a feast of the Virgin, possibly the Seven Joys.

Jean Pullois's four-part motet Flos de spina is much older, probably from the years around 1450. This is one of the most priceless gems of mid-fifteenth-century motet composition, deservedly a very famous work in its own time. There appears to be no cantus firmus: melodic interest is concentrated in the lyrical top voice, the busy figuration in the lower parts giving way to a broader sound only in the approach to cadences. One could hardly think of a setting that would better match the rich poetic imagery of the text (which was taken from a Cantio for the Virgin in Christmastide). On the strength of this work alone, Pullois, who seems to have been a close friend of Ockeghem's, must be considered one of the most gifted composers of his time.

The disc ends with Josquin des Prez's Illibata Dei virgo nutrix, the motet that famously incorporates the composer's name as an acrostic. Like the previous three works it is addressed to the Virgin, yet the plea to her is made here on behalf not of Christians in general, but of a specific professional group: singers. There is indeed evidence that the Virgin Mary was sometimes regarded as the patron saint of singers (e.g. Loyset Compères motet Omnium bonorum plena). Datings proposed for Illibata vary considerably, but the style would seem consistent with a date in the 1470s, a decade in which Josquin is known to have been active at the court of Savoy.

© Rob C. Wegman 1995