In an ambitious project dubbed “Ockeghem@600,” the Renaissance choir Blue Heron. directed by Scott Metcalfe, is performing the complete works of Johannes Ockeghem (ca. 1420-1497) over the course of several seasons, culminating in 2020-2021 when they will celebrate the 600th anniversary of the composer’s birth. The concert on Friday evening, March 3rd, at the First Church, Congregational in Cambridge featured songs and sacred works by a close network of singer-composers working in France and the Low Countries during or shortly after Ockeghem’s long career.
The practice of poetic and musical citation goes back at least to the troubadours. Reflecting neither plagiarism nor a lack of inspiration but rather a combination of emulation and competition, citation was a form of homage much appreciated by performers and in-the-know audiences. Judging from the number of citations and adaptations of pre-existing songs and polyphonic works, this practice was still flourishing during the Renaissance. Friday’s program opened with Ockeghem’s song “Fors seullement l’actente que je meure” (Save only the expectation that I shall die). One of his best-known and most widely circulated songs, it served as the basis not only for his own Missa Fors seullement but for a number of compositions by other composers as well. The text, a woman’s lament at losing her lover, takes as its first line a quotation from an earlier generation: the Complainte on the death of his lady by the French poet Alain Chartier ((ca. 1385-1430). Ockeghem’s song combined three voices — superius or cantus (countertenor Martin Near), tenor (Megan Chartrand), and contratenor (tenor Sumner Thompson) — in a sinuous interweaving of perfectly matched independent melodic lines, each part retaining its distinctive vocal color. In fact, the song’s tenor, consistently higher than the superius, was the part most often used by later composers as a cantus firmus. Matheus Pipelare (ca. 1450-ca. 1515), active in the Hapsburg-Burgundian Low Countries a generation after Ockeghem, transposed Ockeghem’s tenor (sung by Owen McIntosh) down a 5th to end on D instead of A. He then composed a new voice above this cantus firmus and added two more below it (tenor Sumner Thompson and bass David McFerrin). Although Megan Chartrand’s light soprano floated at the top, all four voices melded as equals in the contrapuntally dense four-voice complex. Ockeghem himself rejoined the citation game in a new Fors seullement that pitted (ironically?) an entirely different, politically-tinged complaint in a male voice against the lovelorn female lament of his earlier song. He transposed the high tenor of the original song down a 12th to the bass range of a low contratenor (Paul Guttry), coordinating it with the added upper parts (Megan Chartrand and Jason McStoots) through occasional melodic imitations. Pierre de la Rue, an extremely prolific member of the next generation who was associated with the Hapsburg-Burgundian court, is probably the composer of a five-voice sacred song, “Maria mater gratie” (Mary, mother of grace), found only in a songbook copied for the widowed and famously melanchcolic Marguerite of Austria (1480-1530), duchess of Savoy and regent of the Netherlands. In this sumptuous and beautifully decorated manuscript, the four voices of the prayer — superius, tenor, contratenor, and bassus — are notated on two facing pages. Across the bottom of these two pages, a fifth voice, labelled “Bassus 2” was copied on two smaller staves. Only the word “In diapason” (down an octave) identifies this voice. In fact, it is the tenor of Ockeghem’s lament transposed down an octave to a position above the Bassus. David McFerrin sang the full text of Ockeghem’s rondeau to this part, while the other voices sang the prayer to Mary for intercession in the hour of death. However strange, even shocking, this permutation of sacred and secular might seem nowadays, 16th-century performers and audiences would not have perceived the juxtaposition as blasphemous.
In his notes, Scott Metcalfe suggested there might even be a Christocological interpretation of the line “Fors seullement l’actente que je meure:” the weeping woman understood as Mary at the foot of the cross. This could explain Ockeghem’s incorporation of the song tenor as a cantus firmus in his Missa Fors seullement. Part I of the rondeau became the tenor cantus firmus in Kyrie I and Christe; in Kyrie II, the cantus firmus continued in the contratenor part. The dense five-voice texture, in which motives from the song are also worked into the free polyphony, is relieved by sections for three or four voices. In a bit of word painting, the Gloria words “misererere nobis” (have mercy upon us) are sung by a trio of the three lowest voices, the higher voices returning at “Tu solus altissimus” (You alone are the Most High). Perfect ensemble and precise tuning allowed us to relish the melodically logical but harmonically pungent clashes between B-flat and B-natural in the approach to cadences on A. The Credo, sung after the intermission, calls for different voice parts — two trebles, two tenors, and a bass, and employs a more traditional cantus firmus technique than the Kyrie and Gloria. In this movement, the entire melody of the song tenor is placed in the higher of the two tenors as a cantus firmus, and numerous duos and trios vary the contrapuntal texture.
In 1453, the city of Constantinople fell to the Turks, a terrible blow to western Christianity. On February 17, 1454, Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy, convened the Knights of the Golden Fleece to a grand banquet in the city of Lille, exhorting them to join a new crusade to win back the Holy Land. Chroniclers described the event in lavish detail. At one point, a young boy appeared, singing the top part of a song while riding on the back of a white hart, who sang the tenor. The song was “Je ne vis onques la pareille” (I have never seen the equal) by the Burgundian court composer Gilles Binchois (ca. 1400-1460). Apparently the “hart” or stag, a symbol for Christ, was a four-legged creature made up of two men disguised by a drapery. The text of the song, a rondeau employing the language of courtly love, is addressed to a “gracious lady” who is surely Our Lady herself. The rondeau, which includes a low contratenor part, was sung with a fine sensitivity to its undulating rhythmic subtleties by a well-attuned trio consisting of Martin Near, Owen McIntosh, and Paul Guttry.
According to Professor Sean Gallagher, Binchois probably wrote his song expressly for the Banquet of the Oath. Like Ockeghem’s “Fors seullement,” it became widely known and was frequently employed as the basis for new polyphonic pieces. Alexander Agricola, who joined the Hapsburg-Burgundian court in 1500, wrote two four-voice Credo settings based on Binchois’s song. Blue Heron performed the second of these, which uses the song melody as a tenor cantus firmus in a rhythmically lively texture of exuberant contrapuntal complexity. The final work on the program, with all eight singers taking part, was the four-voice Marian antiphon “Salve regina mater misericordie” (Hail queen, mother of mercy) by the Flemish composer Johannes Ghiselin, also known as Verbonnet, who worked in France and Italy before returning to the Netherlands. Reminiscent of the practice known as alternatim, the odd-numbered verses of Ghiselin’s antiphon cite the plainchant melody, alternating with free polyphony in the even-numbered verses. The second verse, beginning “Vita dulcedo et spes nostra” (Our life, our sweetness, and our hope) opens with the superius of “Je ne vis onques la pareille” quoted literally in the top part.
By surrounding Ockeghem’s music with that of his contemporaries and successors, Scott Metcalfe and Blue Heron are providing us with historical context for music from an area of northern France and the Hapsburg-Burgundian lands whose cathedrals and collegiate churches trained the singer-composers in high demand in Italy, Spain, and elsewhere throughout the Renaissance. Further context was offered by Professor Sean Gallagher in an engaging and informative pre-concert lecture, as well as by Scott Metcalfe’s excellent program notes. The program booklet itself is exemplary: clearly printed texts and translations, a list of Ockeghem’s works, a chart lining up Ockeghem’s career with events of his time — all designed to bring this multifaceted composer out of obscurity and into our present-day consciousness.
Virginia Newes, who lives in Cambridge, was Associate Professor of Music History and Musicology at the Eastman School of Music.