Johannes OCKEGHEM. Missa L'homme armé · Missa Sine nomine a 3 / The Clerks' Group
Robert MORTON. Il sera pour vous ~ L'homme armé · Philippe BASIRON. Salve Regina (attr. Ockeghem)


AS&V "Gaudeamus" CD GAU 204

(d. 1475)
1. Il sera pour vous ~ L'homme armé  [2:24]
soprano CL, tenors, bass EW

(c. 1410-1497)
Missa L'homme armé
soprano RO, altos RB WM, tenors, basses
2. Kyrie  [2:05]
3. Gloria  [4:42]
4. Credo  [6:42]
5. Sanctus and Benedictus  [6:39]
6. Agnus Dei  [5:36]

Philippe BASIRON
(d.c. 1497 / attrib. Ockeghem)
7. Salve regina  [4:52]
altos RB LB, tenors, basses JA EW

Missa Sine nomine a 3
soprano CL, alto LB, tenors
8. Kyrie  [2:43]
9. Gloria  [4:34]
10. Credo  [6:04]
11. Sanctus and Benedictus  [6:42]
12. Agnus Dei  [4:32]

Edward Wickham

Soprano: Carys Lane, Rebecca Outram
Alto: Robin Blaze, Lucy Ballard, William Missin
Tenor: Tom Raskin, Matthew Vine
Bass: Jonathan Arnold, Robert Macdonald, Edward Wickham

Produced by: Jonathan Freeman-Attwood
Recorded by: David Wright/Gemini Sound
Recorded in: St Andrew's Church, West Wratting, 1 & 23 February 1999
Designed by: Studio B, The Creative People
Cover: Charles, Duke of Burgundy from the Rules and Ordinances of the Order of the Golden Fleece,
courtesy of the British Library/Bridgeman Art Library, London/New York


From the outset of his compositional career, Ockeghem seems to have been intent upon innovation. His earliest surviving four-voice mass — Missa Caput (recorded by The Clerks' Group on ASV CD GAU 186) — announces its revolutionary principles in the astonishing opening bars: under the guise of a traditional four-voice scoring he turns the ensemble on its head, driving the cantus firmus into the bass and producing the low sonorities which are to be a hallmark of Ockeghem's vocal writing.

Missa L'homme armé is likely to date from the late 1450s — only a few years after Missa Caput — and some of the same techniques can be found here. In the Credo and Agnus Dei movements Ockeghem again instructs the tenor to transpose the tune, so that a rearrangement of vocal forces is necessary. But in many other of its features, Missa L'homme armé is a very different composition from its predecessor. True to form, Ockeghem never stays still.

The character of the mass is defined throughout by the cantus firmus f it might even be said that in no other mass is Ockeghem's polyphony so controlled by the nature of the borrowed material. As a cantus firmus, the Caput melisma — extracted from a long section of Sarum chant — is awkward and prolix. Not so the L'homme armé tune, which is compact, rhythmically well-defined and — perhaps most importantly — full of cadential promise. Wringing a strong cadence out of the Caput melisma requires great ingenuity: the L'homme armé tune offers them up on a plate. And so, while Missa Caput is seen as the quintessence of Ockeghem's "seamless" style of polyphonic composition, Missa L'homme armé is regarded as contained, controlled and, perhaps, less inspired.

There is only so much truth in these caricatures. Certainly the music is arranged into shorter paragraphs than is common in Ockeghem's music: individual phrases are often shorter, and these phrases are defined both by textual and harmonic cadences. Ockeghem's polpyony in this form is easier to understand on a first listening. Yet this is not always the case. The first section of the Gloria is a dense polyphonic jungle, and reminds one that this is also the composer of Missa Fors Seulement, for whose Gloria one needs a map and compass. More importantly, in Missa Caput and Missa L'homme armé — respectively, Ockeghem's most and least opaque four-voice masses — we find on display a common approach to the task of what one might call the narration of the cantus firmus.

Only the most attentive listener will be able to follow and remember the twists and turns of the Caput melisma as it winds its way through Ockeghem's earlier mass. But for those prepared to put in the hours, the rewards are great. As the contours of the tune become more familiar with repetition through the five movements, so Ockeghem's skill in re-telling the tune with variations becomes more apparent. In Missa L'homme armé the story is much easier to remember. Originally — it has been assumed — some kind of street-cry, either ironic or horribly real, to warn the citizenry of a town to arm against an invader, L'homme armé is a simple, catchy tune. It blazes a trail through Ockeghem's polyphony such that we rarely lose sight of it. By the time we reach the third petition of the Agnus Del, therefore, the composer has established a set of expectations which he then inventively and dramatically plays upon. The narrator in this culminating movement is the bass, who sings the tune in note values which — relative to the surrounding music — sound augmented. The tune is flattened at crucial moments and interpolated with commentary by the upper voices. And the final statement, taking the bass to low G, embodies that paradox in all great stories which are re-told endlessly — that something expected can take one thrillingly by surprise.

That this "narrative" approach to cantus firmus treatment is truly innovative does not, sadly, provide any more than another hypothetical reason to support the claim that Ockeghem composed the very first L'homme armé mass. Claimants to this particular distinction include Dufay, Busnois, Caron and Regis, and there are good cases to be made for most of them. The tune does not survive in its raw, monophonic form, but one of its earliest appearances in polyphony is in the rondeau Il sera pour vous, which has been attributed to the Burgundian composer Robert Morton. The text refers to Morton's colleague at the Burgundian court, Symon le Breton, whose chivalric aspirations are underlined — or mockingly undermined — by the tenor and contratenots rendition of L'homme armé. In the final verse of our performance here, we have used a later version of the song, expanded to four voices to satisfy a later demand for music with low contratenor.

The attribution of Missa Sine nomine for three voices to Ockeghem has been the subject of much speculation, and must remain under suspicion. It is associated with Ockeghem in its only complete source which dates from the 1490s, at least 40 years after the work's composition; and such is the stylistic disparity between this and Ockeghem's other works — be they three or four part — that doubts are valid. On the other hand, one should judge the work in the light of what has already been said about the changing face of Ockeghem's music. It is by no means inconceivable that Ockeghem could have penned the work in his youth, in a style which is more borrowed than his own. Even as a piece of juvenilia, Missa Sine nomine is an attractive and engaging work.

Nor is it the case that there are no features in the mass which could be regarded as Ockeghemian. In the midst of the uncharacteristically strict imitation, there are also many instances of that technique of imitation by free association which has given Ockeghem his reputation as an "irrational" composer. Again, it is the Agnus Dei where the writing is shown at its best: melismas on "mundi, miserere nobis" both mimic and re-invent melodies remembered and re-echoed from other voices. This is fine three-part writing, whomever it is by.

Firmly in the category of "dubia" is the Salve Regina, which is also — and more convincingly — attributed to Philippe Basiron, a composer who moved in the orbit of Ockeghem and who may have been deprived of the honour of this attribution as a result. The chant here appears in all four voices at various times, though it is the top two voices who are responsible for most of the contrapuntal activity.

© Edward Wickham, 2000