Johannes OCKEGHEM · Piere de la RUE
Requiem / Cappella Pratensis, Stratton Bull

Challenge Classics 72541


01 - Introitus. Requiem aeternam [4:25]

02 - Kyrie [4:19]

03 - Graduale. Si ambulem [4:28]

04 - Tractus. Sicut cervus [7:25]

05 - Offertorium. Domine Jesu Christe [8:10]

Piere de la RUE

06 - Introitus. Requiem aeternam [4:18]

07 - Kyrie [2:47]

08 - Tractus. Sicut cervus [3:26]

09 - Offertorium. Domine Jesu Christe [6:45]

10 - Sanctus [5:04]

11 - Agnus Dei [3:24]

12 - Communio. Lux aeterna [2:42]

Cappella Pratensis
Stratton Bull

Stratton Bull, superius
Andrew Hallock, superius
Christopher Kale, altus
Lior Leibovici, altus
Olivier Berten, tenor
Peter de Laurentiis, tenor
Lionel Meunier, bassus
Pieter Stas, bassus

Executive producer: Anne de Jong
Recording location: Church of Vieusart (Belgium)
Recording dates: 9-12 June, 2011
Recording producer: Bert van der Wolf
Recorded by: NorthStar Recording Services
Photography: Vincent Nabbe

The Requiems by Ockeghem and La Rue

This recording presents the two earliest surviving polyphonic Requiems, by Johannes (Jean de) Ockeghem and Pierre de La Rue, both among the few major Netherlandish composers of the time not to have spent significant portions of their careers in Italy. Little is known of the early career of La Rue (c. 1452-1518), but from 1492 he served successive rulers in the Habsburg-Burgundian chapel alongside equally distinguished musicians, first under Maximilian, then Philip the Fair (with whom he travelled twice to Spain), and finally, the cultivated and tragic figure of Marguerite of Austria, regent of the Netherlands, for whom many of his most beautiful sad songs were written.

Ockeghem died in 1497; his birth date has been estimated at several years on either side of 1420. He is first documented as an adult singer in Antwerp in 1443, then in the service of Charles, Duke of Bourbon, before entering the French royal chapel in the 1450s. He enjoyed the patronage of Charles VII who nominated his first chaplain to the lucrative position of treasurer of St Martin in Tours, a favour continued under Louis XI. He was held in the highest repute in his lifetime, alongside Du Fay and Busnoys (with both of whom he had direct contacts), Binchois (on whose death in 1460 he wrote a Déploration), Josquin, and other composers less well known to us. Johannes Tinctoris honoured him in two treatises of the mid 1470s; he was much cited by contemporaries and throughout the next century, even after direct knowledge of his music was no longer current. Kindly, benign, pious, and of irreproachable virtue — this is the image that has come down to us. His death was lamented in at least two musical works: Busnoys's In hydraulis and Josquin's Nymphes des bois, adapted from a poem by Jean Molinet enjoining major contemporary composers to lament their 'good father', and in a long poetic Déploration by Guillaume Crétin.

The earliest liturgical chants to receive polyphonic elaboration, in the twelfth century, had been for joyful occasions of the church year; the latest, in the fifteenth, were for seasons of mourning, both the Passion and death of Christ, and human commemoration, for which the Church has abidingly discouraged musical adornment. The earliest polyphonic Requiems are, accordingly, restrained and austere, understated in comparison with the normal musical styles of their composers, in fewer parts, and relatively homophonic. Whereas most Mass Ordinaries composed around 1500 set all five movements on a unifying musical theme or model, early Requiems base each movement on its corresponding chant; while there may be an overall sombre mood, the sections are not thematically unified. In Ockeghem's case, the chants are usually in the superius and only lightly embellished, which already makes for a more archaic effect; in La Rue's Requiem the chant is often in the tenor but permeates the other parts imitatively. Other early settings were composed by Févin (or Divitis), Brumel, Richafort, Prioris, and anonymous composers including some Spaniards. There is no standard practice as to which movements are set. Ockeghem sets the Introit, Kyrie, Gradual, Tract and Offertory but not the Sanctus, Agnus and Communion; La Rue sets the Introit, Kyrie, Tract, Offertory, Sanctus, Agnus and Communion but not the Gradual. The Dies irae, which dominates most later Requiems, was one of the few Sequences to survive the liturgical reforms of the Council of Trent but, of these composers, only Brumel sets it. It was usually omitted in early northern European Requiems, whose texts differ from Roman and southern European traditions, with some variants in the Offertory, and use of the Gradual Si ambulem and the Tract Sicut cervus, instead of Requiem aeternam and Absolve domine.

Each of the present settings is preserved in a manuscript from the famous Alamire workshop (respectively Vatican Library, MS Chigi C VIII 234, and Jena, Universitätsbibliothek, Chorbuch 12). The primacy of Ockeghem's gives it special significance for us, but it did not have a circulation commensurate with his reputation; its transmission was extremely fragile, in a single source and with many anomalies. By contrast, La Rue's Requiem was much more widely copied, in six manuscripts including some from the Bavarian court.

But there was one earlier Requiem which has not survived, by Guillaume Du Fay (d. 1474), whose will prescribed in detail the arrangements for his deathbed and funeral. His polyphonic Requiem was to accompany his own biannual post mortem commemorations, and was requested by others in the ensuing decades. Its afterlife was clearly much more vigorous than Ockeghem's Requiem. In 1501, the Order of the Golden Fleece replaced its weekly monophonic Requiem with Du Fay's setting, described by an ear-witness as being for three voices, sad, solemn and very sweet (una Messa a tre voci, flebile, mesta e suave molto). This implies a texture much sparser than that of his lush four-part late masses, and indeed could well apply to portions of Ockeghem's setting, notably the Introit and Kyrie, to the extent that a few scholars have speculated whether 'Ockeghem's' Requiem could in fact be the 'lost' setting by Du Fay. But this is belied by the richer four-part sections, especially the elaborate rhythms of the Offertory, depicting infernal torments. Indeed, the many stylistic contrasts and anomalies within the Ockeghem Requiem are puzzling, notwithstanding brave attempts to argue their coherence. The ninefold Kyrie, in particular, with its alternating sections in two and three parts, has no precedent in Ockeghem's masses but, apart from the final four-part section, uses a compositional technique favoured by Du Fay and other composers of the previous generation, and shows signs of adaptation from an earlier work. I have tentatively suggested that Ockeghem may have incorporated some portions of Du Fay's setting, adding and substituting sections of his own, including all the four-part sections, and the entire Offertory, which is strikingly different, and much closer to what we know of Ockeghem's style elsewhere. His visits to Du Fay in Cambrai in 1462 and 1464 provide opportunities for the mutual influence that has been detected in their compositions. Ockeghem also visited Cambrai in 1483, just two weeks before one of the commemorations for which Du Fay had stipulated his Requiem. He could have been present, at or even sung in it; the restrained style implied by the description could at the very least have inspired his own setting.

Although Ockeghem's Requiem uses no more than four notated parts at any one time, only a tiny percentage, less than a fifth of the music, is actually in four parts (the final sections of the Kyrie, Gradual and Tract, and two sections of the Offertory). There are rather few sections with reduced scoring in his other masses, making the predominance of two and three-part writing in the Requiem all the more striking. And yet, at least six voices (here, eight) are needed to cope with the various combinations. Notated pitch was not tied to a standard frequency, and low notation may in some cases have been symbolic. Other masses show discrepancies of register; the movements of La Rue's much more homogeneous setting are also notated at different levels. In that case (unlike Ockeghem's) they can be brought closer together by transpositions, the approach that has been taken for this recording.

The Chigi manuscript is the unique source for most of Ockeghem's thirteen mass groupings; it may have been intended as a memorial volume, an only partially successful attempt to assemble his complete works. Some of those masses are patently incomplete, and we know he wrote others that have not survived. The Requiem is an extreme case of problematic transmission. If, like Mozart, Ockeghem had died in the middle of composing his Requiem, Crétin (in the Déploration referred to above) might not have described it as 'exquise et très-parfaicte'; even allowing for funerary hyperbole, this is hardly an apt description of the incomplete and inconsistent work that has come down to us, however beautiful we may find it. But Crétin's testimony cannot be dismissed; he was a musically knowledgeable professional, a cantor at the Sainte Chapelle, a chaplain to François I, and held the position of treasurer at Vincennes, parallel to that of Ockeghem at Tours. (Another reference much later in the poem enjoins choirboys not to improvise florid but only simple counterpoint on the Requiem chant; this probably does not refer to Ockeghem's composition.) The Chigi scribe may have compiled the work to the best of his ability from a miscellaneous assembly of working drafts bearing Ockeghem's name, perhaps even including copies of some sections of Du Fay's Requiem which Ockeghem was in process of amplifying, more in the spirit of homage than of plagiarism. The result shows some signs of being a work in progress. Was his Requiem incompletely composed or incompletely transmitted? It is very uncertain whether Crétin was describing it in the form in which we know it.

La Rue was a generation younger, but his Requiem is probably not much later in date. (His motet-chanson Plorer, gemir, crier/Requiem, based on the Introit for the Requiem Mass, may be a lament on the death of the older composer.) Although all movements are likewise built on their corresponding chants, they make a much more unified stylistic impression than Ockeghem's. There is more imitation and chordal declamation, and some near-canonic duet writing. La Rue's masterly setting is mostly in four parts, but the Tract Sicut cervus is set as two long duets, and some sections of the Kyrie, Offertory, Sanctus and Agnus expand to five.

Given the Church's strictures against musical embellishment for rites of mourning, it is a wonder that they ever received polyphonic settings. This is where it started: these first settings prepared the way for later great cornerstones of the western musical tradition such as the Requiems of Mozart and Verdi.

Margaret Bent