It’s astonishing how little we know, or can intuit, about the most illustrious musician of the 15th century. With a sonorous bass voice, a succession of prestigious jobs, and a collection of devotees, Johannes Ockeghem dominated elevated musical culture in Europe for nearly half a century, until his death in 1497. But what sort of man he was, what he looked like, or how much music he wrote – these things fall in the blanks between surviving traces. A manuscript illustration from decades after he died shows him (or someone who might be him) as a sage with deep lines and white curls emerging from beneath a clerical hood, singing with a choir of much younger men. His right arm reaches out to touch another open-mouthed singer, probably to keep the pulse by tapping on his colleague’s arm. This intimate scene of nine artists huddled in a gothic chapel, reading from the same manuscript page, nicely evokes the rarefied world in which he lived and worked.
The courts and cathedrals of early Renaissance Europe organized music into three categories that ranged in prestige. All the forms demanded immense sophistication, not just to compose, but to sing and appreciate, too. The lowest of these three high levels was the secular chanson, often an exquisitely crafted love song based on an existing popular tune, with a text in French (rather than Latin). Though Ockeghem’s “Ma bouche rit” (“My mouth laughs, but my thoughts weep”) is often performed by one singer with accompanying instruments, the three lines intertwine, and points of imitation, in which one voice echoes another, glint in the contrapuntal flow. Ockeghem was a master at making complexity sound sprightly and straightforward, a balance that the Orlando Consort strikes, too, in an all-vocal recording that includes a batch of spectacularly intricate chansons. In the sprightly “S’elle m’amera,” Ockeghem stirs together borrowed and original melodies, a little like a hip-hop artist paying tribute to another by sampling a recognizable riff.
One step up the ladder of musical prestige comes the motet. Only a handful of these devotional pieces with Latin texts are reliably attributable to Ockeghem, but what a phenomenal half hour of music that is! (Almost all of it is contained on the Hilliard Ensemble’s luminous collection of his sacred music.) “Ave Maria” is a hymn of praise to the Virgin Mary, yet the bass and upper parts slide down the scale, giving the opening phrases a plaintive, almost lugubrious quality. You can imagine the composer, with his celebrated basso voice, savoring the dark texture and rich low tones. The glory and joy lie in the ceaseless flow of melody, the piling up of vocal sound, and the expressive harmonic subtleties that keep each phrase spilling into the next.
The culmination of musical culture in Ockeghem’s day was the mass, and he was the undisputed master of it. An unvarying set of liturgical texts (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei) is set to music of sublime intricacy and powerful unity. In each section, the tenor – literally, the “holder” of a fixed foundation melody – intones a Gregorian chant or chanson tune, while the other voices weave around him. Ockeghem’s 13 surviving masses form the highest mountain range in the landscape of late 15th-century music. Often, as in “Missa l’homme armé”, he based his works not on liturgical melodies but on popular songs – sometimes songs that he himself had written. He composed the earliest known polyphonic requiem mass, and in a frenzy of sublime gamesmanship, composed a mass, the “Missa prolationem,” entirely of intricately worked-out canons.
Today, we hear these masses as monumental multi-movement concert works, the Renaissance counterpart of the 19th-century symphony, but in Ockeghem’s time, the different sections were threaded together with prayers, chants, hymns, and other polyphonic works. Hearing a mass in isolation is like prying a statue from a church’s niche and placing it in a museum. We venerate the artwork by stripping it of context. Fortunately, Ockeghem’s music is sturdy enough to withstand such violent uprooting.