Johannes OCKEGHEM. Missa Fors seleument · Requiem / The Clerks' Group
Johannes OCKEGHEM · Pierre de LA RUE · Antoine BRUMEL: Fors seulement


AS&V "Gaudeamus" CD GAU 168

Missa Fors seulement
1. Kyrie  [3:24]
2. Gloria  [5:45]
3. Credo  [7:47]

4. Fors seulement l'attente  [8:13]

Pierre de la RUE
5. Fors seulement  [3:37]

Antoine BRUMEL
6. Du tout plongiet ~ Fors seulement  [12:29]

7. Introitus  [4:32]
8. Kyrie  [4:29]
9. Graduale  [4:52]
10. Tractus  [7:44]
11. Offertorium  [8:21]

Edward Wickham

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

Produced by Jonathan Freeman-Attwood
Engineered by Paul Proudman and ProudSounds
Recorded at St. Andrew's Church, West Wratting, 5-6 May 1996


In the last two decades of his life, an image emerged of Johannes Ockeghem as the “elder statesman” of musicians, as a benign, saintly father-figure, handsome and imposing in physical appearance, mild-mannered, generous and charitable in his attitude; pious, wise and learned in his words. In the twentieth century this image has become highly influential, largely because it seemed attractively consonant with some of Ockeghem's sacred music, which is at times unusually suggestive of spiritual depth, reflective piety, and inward contemplation. No work, with the possible exception of Intemerata Dei mater, exemplifies those characteristics more compellingly than the impressive five-part Missa Fors seulement, a setting generally believed to date from the final decade of Ockeghem's life.
There is in fact a general tendency in the Western high-art musical tradition to typify composers in archetypal literary images: Ockeghem the saintly father, Josquin the irascible genius, Beethoven the titanic hero. (Other composers have been typecast as the perennial child, the effeminate lyricist, the demonic virtuoso, the cold constructivist, and so on). In many cases, however, the number of compositions that actually support such an image turns out to be surprisingly small: the heroic style of Beethoven, for instance, is exemplified by only a handful of works. Yet it is due partly to the enduring attraction of this and similar images that those few works have gained paradigmatic status, have become defining landmarks in our mental map of Western music history: the B minor Mass, Eroica, the Unfinished, Missa Pange Lingua. It is these compositions that tend to be recorded, analysed and discussed over and over again, and (in Renaissance music) it is these that scholars will immediately invoke when declaring other works to be “untypical” of the same composer, or even “spurious” and “inauthentic”.

From this perspective Missa Fors seulement (here recorded on CD for the first time) seems destined to enter our collective consciousness as the very quintessence of Ockeghem. The fifteenth century has left us no other images of the composer that allow us to accept as equally quintessential such works as the early three-part Sine nomine Mass (a setting of exquisite sonorities in high vocal range), or the exuberant five-part motet Gaude Maria virgo (ASV CD GAU 153) — and scholars have been revealingly zealous to remove or keep these from Ockeghem's work list, preserving an image as tidy and one-dimensional as one would expect from a commedia dell'arte character. Missa Fors seulement neatly fits into that image. It is without question a masterpiece, arguably one of the greatest compositions that the fifteenth century has left us. Above all, however, the Mass has what it takes to attain canonic status.

It was commented above that the later image of Ockeghem was literary, and it may indeed be no coincidence that all evidence supporting it comes from circles of literati: men of letters, humanists, poets and rhetoricians, whose panegyrics of the composer are typically flowery, hyperbolic, and riddled with poetic clichés. One example is the well-known eyewitness description by the Italian humanist Francesco Florio, who visited Tours in the late 1470s:

At the entry of the citadel [of Tours] is the royal chapel, where the singers of the king sing Mass and Vespers every day. All the musicians, chosen from throughout the kingdom, are considered excellent, but it is Johannes Ockeghem, the treasurer of the church of St Martin and master of the royal chapel, who excels by virtue of his voice and art, in the same way that Calliope, supported by the favour of Apollo, shines and easily surpasses the Muses. I am convinced you cannot but love this man, so much does he distinguish himself by his handsome stature, so much does he shine by the wisdom of his manner and his words, and also by his gracefulness. He alone of the singers is free from all vice and filled with all virtues, and he alone, like the Phoenix of Arabia, must rightly be honoured and revered.

In several details this description matches the four laments written after Ockeghem's death, in February 1497. The poet Guillaume Cretin, in his notoriously hyperbolic and sentimental Déploration, finds himself transported to the underworld in a dream, and there witnesses heartrending scenes of sadness and grief. Mythical and Biblical musicians like Tubal, King David and Orpheus take turns to lament Ockeghem's death. Then a choir of recently deceased composers honours him by singing — significantly — four of his Masses, including the Requiem featured on this disc. Cretin suddenly wakes up, feeling desperately unable to describe Ockeghem's virtues, at least without the rhetorical skills of ancient writers, or the help of contemporary poets like Chastellain, Molinet, Greban and others. In the end words do not fail him to praise Ockeghem, and he sketches a portrait characterised by piety, humility, charity, learning and (not least) old age. Much of Cretin's imagery returns, almost as if by tacit agreement, in the shorter laments by Molinet (one of which inspired the setting by Josquin) and Erasmus (later set to music by Lupus). Indeed, the portrayal of Ockeghem as the grand old man of music, the “bon père” of composers, the “cantorum pater almus”, is so strikingly consistent that one cannot blame modern scholars for viewing him in these very terms.

Equally consistent with this image, as well as the image that arises from Missa Fors seulement, is the well-known illumination from a 1530s poetry manuscript: it shows a group of nine singers in front of a lectern, of whom one is by far the oldest, and portrayed with the greatest attention to detail: dark and thick-rimmed glasses, a pained expression, jutting chin, wrinkled forehead, and generous curls of grey hair. Everything fits together: the unquestionable quality and profundity of some of his sacred compositions, the saint-like virtues extolled in the poetic tradition, the venerable old man in the illumination — perhaps even the senior musical and ecclesiastical positions we know he held. Yet what sustains the image is ultimately a literary taste, a taste for archetypal images and narratives, which may enhance our appreciation of a select group of works (like the stories surrounding Eroica or the Unfinished), but has little to do with the artistic merits of those works as compared to others.

Missa Fors seulement is based on Ockeghem's famous rondeau (presented on this disc with two arrangements by Pierre de la Rue and Antoine Brumel), material of which is being quoted irregularly and with great freedom. Stylistically its nearest parallel is the motet Intemerata Dei mater: both works explore low ranges, and in both the typically unrelenting “wall of sound” that characterised the 1450s and 1460s Masses (Caput, De plus en plus, Ecce ancilla Domini) has given way to a style defined by textural fluidity and diversity. All these features would suggest a late date, probably not before the 1480s.

The Requiem Mass is one of the great riddles in Ockeghem's oeuvre. Its various movements are so dissimilar in style, notation and scoring that one is almost tempted to suggest that the Mass is an ad hoc compilation of fragments from different requiems. The opening Introitus is kept in a simple style such as was still very common in the late 1440s, and contains some curious unorthodoxies of part-writing (note especially the unblushed parallel fifths on “dona”, right at the beginning). The same is true of the subsequent Kyrie, but thereafter we seem to be drawn into a different musical world. The final Offertory, Domine Jesu Christe, is stylistically and notationally as far removed from the initial Introitus as it could possibly be, and is characterised by a compositional sophistication and melodic intricacy unmatched elsewhere in Ockeghem's sacred oeuvre. Like the preceding Tractus Sicut cervus, moreover, it exhibits an expressive intensity and textural variety that recalls late works such as Missa Fors seulement and Intemerata Dei mater. In all, it is hard to think of the Requiem as the result of a single creative act — nor is there necessarily any reason why we should assume that it was.

Is there any historical truth to the late Ockeghem image, or was it merely a literary cliché that a select group of humanists and poets projected upon him, much like the “genius” stereotype later projected upon Josquin? Sadly, there is no way of telling, since hardly anything is known about the composer personally except as illuminated by the warm glow of contemporary poetic veneration. Other than that, all we possess is a mere skeleton of documentary references: a payee at the royal court, a cleric involved in litigation, a vendor and buyer of property — administrative entities about whom nothing is individual but the name, “maistre Jehan Ockeghem”. Our historical engagement with him is destined to remain like the dream in Cretin's Déploration, and in so many other Medieval narratives: an imaginary journey into a distant realm where image, truth and illusion are all experienced as real, and from which we return never knowing which is which.

© Rob C. Wegman 1997