Johannes OCKEGHEM. Missa Caput / The Clerks' Group
Johannes OCKEGHEM. Ma maistresse · Missa Ma maistresse
anonymi from Trent 88 · Venit ad Petrum (sarum chant)


AS&V "Gaudeamus" CD GAU 186

Missa Ma maistresse
1. Kyrie  [2:42]
2. Gloria  [6:08]

3. Ma maistresse  [6:30]

an., Trent 88
4. A solis ortus cardine  [7:30]
5. O sidus Hispanie  [2:45]
6. Gaude Maria  [6:14]

Sarum chant
7. Venit ad Petrum  [2:01]

Missa Caput
8. Kyrie  [3:12]
9. Gloria  [7:36]
10. Credo  [8:15]
11. Sanctus / Benedictus  [8:03]
12. Agnus Dei  [6:22]

Edward Wickham

sopranos: Carys Lane, Rebecca Outram
altos: Robin Blaze, Patrick Craig, William Missin
tenors: James Gilchrist, Matthew Vine
basses: Edward Wickham, Jonathan Arnold, Robert Macdonald

Produced by Jonathan Freeman-Attwood
Recorded by Paul Proudman / ProudSound
Recorded in St. Andrew's Church, West Wratting, 6-7 November 1997
Designed by Studio B, The Creative People
Cover: The Washing of the Feet, originally drawers from a chest storing silver (tempera on panel)
by Fra Angelico (Guido di Pietro, c.1387-1455); Museo di San Marco dell'Angelico, Florence /
Bridgeman Art Library, London/New York


That two such markedly different masses as Missa Ma maistresse and Missa Caput could be composed by the same man is as much a comment on the ever-eccentric, ever-innovatory nature of Ockeghem's polyphony as it is on the rapidly changing musical landscape of the fifteenth century. Indeed, if there is one characteristic which seems to link Ockeghem's masses, it is eccentricity. A series of the complete works of any composer inevitably forces some pieces of music into awkward intimacies, but there is little comparable to either of these masses in any of Ockeghem's surviving oeuvre. To make all things new might have been Ockeghem's motto.

Missa Ma maistresse probably dates from late in Ockeghem's compositional career (a career which, if the surviving works are any indication, ended perhaps as much as 15 years before he died). Based on material from Ockeghem's own song, this mass goes far beyond the traditional practice of integrating only the tenor from the model: here the mass is suffused with quotations, reworkings and parodies of the song material, because of which it has been named among the first "imitation" or "parody" masses. Only two movements survive from what was surely a full-length mass, but they reveal a lighter, sunnier aspect to Ockeghem's style, a style which has so often been regarded as demanding and cerebral. In particular, the rhythmic density of the writing, and the amount of almost incidental detail in the lower voices create textures of infectious vitality. In this, as in its protoparodic nature, the mass might closely resemble the five-part Missa Fors seulement, another apparently late work, but that here the higher vocal ranges require a different configuration of ensemble.

Ockeghem's concern with varying choral textures, and exploiting the aesthetic potential of vocal scoring is apparent throughout his work. Rarely more so, however, than in Missa Caput, a setting as peculiar, enthralling and controversial as any in the Renaissance. The opening bars of the Kyrie fall upon the ear like a series of detonations, none of them expected, each of them with its own power to shock. The reason for this lies in the puzzle Ockeghem has set his singers. A superficial glance at the manuscript sources for the mass would reveal what looks like a traditional vocal layout: the tenor part, carrying the cantus firmus line, lies beneath the superius on the left hand side, and opposite lies the contratenors altus and bassus (sometimes also described as tenor secundus). The arrangement of clefs appears the same as a number of contemporary four voice masses. But this happy family of voices is rendered dysfunctional by a canon which demands that the tenor cantus firmus be sung an octave lower. Now out of range of the average tenor, the basses take on the responsibility of the cantus firmus, and the tenor moves over to sing the tenor secundus.

The cantus firmus of Missa Caput is derived from the long melisma on the word "caput" which appears at the end of the antiphon Venit ad Petrum. For centuries a mystery, the provenance of this melody was finally tracked down by the scholar Manfred Bukofzer to England, and the Sarum chant tradition. The chant became known to continental composers through an anonymous mass which employed the same melisma, the mass itself was hugely influential on a circle of Northern European composers, a circle which Ockeghem, during his time at Antwerp, might well have been a part of. As a traditional tenor cantus firmus the Caput melisma is awkward, but as the bass part it is downright obtuse. Part of the pleasure of repeated experience of the mass, whether through listening or singing, is the appreciation of how Ockeghem negotiates the challenges which he has set himself. In the days before modern editions, and editorial intervention in musica ficta, the pleasure of working out puzzles must have also provided an attraction to singers. There are no exclusively correct answers to many of the ficta puzzles presented by Missa Caput, and one imagines that each performance in the fifteenth century was different. This recording presents only one possible set of answers.

To discuss Missa Caput merely as a musical mind-twister, however, would be severely to misrepresent it. It is a work whose style has been described as quintessentially Ockeghemian: the long, apparently illogical lines, the often dense, dark textures. To hear it is to hear Ockeghem at his most challenging and bizarre. In particular, much has been made of Ockeghem's avoidance of cadence, a feature which — it is said — gives the music a timeless, seamless quality, other-worldly, irrational, mystical. It is natural for us to want to fit Ockeghem's music — as we do so many other artists' works — into an image which is attractive to us now. Here we have a declension of adjectives leading us from a distinct stylistic trait — the avoidance of cadence — to an indistinct psychological tag — "mystical": a declension which has been recited all too often. Ockeghem's mass writing is full of rhetorical power, and is constantly charged with a dynamic which pushes the musical argument forward. In the case of Missa Caput this argument is structured by the cantus firmus, which remains unaltered throughout. And far from avoiding cadences, the mass seems to be cadencing all the time, anywhere and everywhere. If there is a sense of timeless stillness, it is only like the spinning top which spins so fast that it appears motionless. Or to take an analogy contemporary to Ockeghem, it is like Nicholas of Cusa's sphere which rotates at infinite velocity, so that each point on the surface is everywhere at the same time.

The three anonymous works on this recording can be found in the manuscript Trent 88, also the earliest source of Missa Caput. A solis ortus cardine is a hymn setting in which the melody is carried, in an elaborated form, in the upper voice. As was common in the first half of the century, Trent 88 provides two arrangements of the polyphony, one for three and one for four voices, the latter presumably a later re-working in order to satisfy a developing taste for four part music and the exploitation of the bass voice. On this recording we have given both versions. O sidus Hispanie is a motet in honour of St Anthony of Padua: another treatment of this text, attributed to Dufay is transmitted next to this one in Trent 88, and despite their very different characters, this joyful 5-part setting may also be by Dufay, who had a particular veneration for St Anthony. Gaude Maria is the most modern of these three works, in format and structure resembling the mass composition of the Caput era. The tenor carries the plainchant Meditatio cordis, linking it to a mass in the later Strahov Codex which uses the same tenor material. Indeed, it has been suggested that this motet is the missing Kyrie from that mass, with a contrafactum text inserted. If this is so, then it is very likely that the composer of Gaude Maria and the Strahov mass was English, since continental scribes often excised or altered the Kyries of English masses because of their trope texts, which did not conform to continental liturgical practise.

© Edward Wickham, 1998