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 Okeghem Takes Flight

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Blue Heron is at present very likely the only ensemble in the world to have sung every piece written by the great Johannes Okeghem. Building on this unique expertise, the ensemble will offer a selection of the master’s very best in the context of music by his contemporaries & colleagues at First Church in Cambridge, Congregational, 11 Garden Street, Cambridge on April 13th at 3:00. Tickets HERE. Music Director Scott Metcalfe self-interviews.

How did you first dive into the music of Okeghem and why did you want to perform all of his vocal music? What criteria did you employ to determine the authenticity and completeness?

Okeghem has been an important part of Blue Heron’s repertoire since our very first season in 1999-2000, when we sang a program featuring two of his four motets and a selection of his Mass settings. I always found his music wonderful (not to mention extraordinarily difficult), but it took a while for me to fall completely in love with it.

I think this is a common experience with Okeghem—the music is so complex, so profound, and so subtle, that you don’t fall head over heels in love, but as you hear it and sing it more and more, eventually you find yourself utterly bewitched. And so in the summer of 2013 we were on stage in a concert in Northampton, in another program devoted to Okeghem, and suddenly I thought, this is some of the most amazing music I have ever heard in my life, and I’d like to do all of it! Okeghem was not a hugely prolific composer, so it was a goal one could conceive of attaining. Two years later we launched Ockeghem@600, with the intent of performing every surviving piece in 13 programs over several seasons. Covid slowed things down a bit, but we finished up in March 2023.

As for completeness and authenticity, with Okeghem there is very little doubt about what survives: about a dozen Mass cycles (some partial), four motets, and about two dozen songs. We know the name of a piece or two that has been lost—they are mentioned by contemporary writers—and, on the other hand, there is a small number of pieces ascribed both to him and to another composer that no-one believes are by him. There is also one marvelous five-voice sacred song that is transmitted in just one manuscript, where the ascription has been almost completely obliterated due to the page being trimmed, that has been convincingly attributed to Okeghem by Sean Gallagher, one of the world‘s leading specialists in 15th-century music and musicological advisor for our Ockeghem@600 project.

What makes you so sure you’re the only ensemble that has sung his complete works?

One can’t be completely sure, of course, but it’s a project that no ensemble would undertake casually, and the world of 15th-century music is a small one. I think we’d know. The English ensemble The Clerks recorded all the sacred music in the 1990s, but they didn’t do more than a few of the songs; before them, in the 1980s, The Early Music Ensemble of London recorded all the songs, but they didn’t sing the sacred music.

What have been the most significant challenges and rewards of undertaking such a monumental project over many years?

As part of the process we have created a new complete edition of Okeghem’s music, starting from the original manuscript sources and tested in the laboratory of rehearsal and performance. There were editions available already, but none that was particularly suitable as a practical tool for performance. There are also many decisions that need to be made from the performers’ standpoint: questions of the precise placement of text, or of chromatic alterations made at cadences and in other circumstances, for example, that are not indicated in the sources. These are decisions that would have been made by 15th-century singers in rehearsal or performance, and we wanted to make our own choices.

And there remain many basic questions about how Okeghem’s music was performed in the 15th century: How were his songs scored – for voices or for some combination of voices and instruments? If instruments, which ones? How many singers per part were deployed in the sacred music? What was the pitch? How was the Latin or French pronounced? What was the tempo relationship between meters? Ockeghem@600 was thus not just a performance project, but a research project as well.

Tell us about the new CD and what listeners should take away from it. How does it act as a counterpart to the first CD? Should people listen to them back-to-back?

This new CD (Johannes Ockeghem: Complete Songs, Volume 2) completes our recording of all the songs, of which there are about two dozen. Each individual song is a unique gem, and I think people should listen to them in whatever way pleases them! Listen all the way through, or one at a time, or sample at random – every hearing may reveal something new.

Why a whole weekend of Okeghem? How does putting the music in context with talks, masterclasses, and cuisine add to the musical experience?

The Okeghem Weekend offers listeners a chance to learn more about Okeghem and the music of the 15th century, which is unfamiliar to most music lovers. The talks will touch on the musical world of the 15th century, Okeghem’s biography, his compositional strategies, the transmission of his songs in contemporary manuscripts (including the recently rediscovered Leuven Chansonnier), and how we make performance decisions. The masterclass on Saturday evening will open a window into how one prepares his music for performance. As for cuisine, the Belgian theme at Sunday’s “pub concert” points to Okeghem’s origins in the Low Countries (he was born near Mons and first appears in the historical record as a singer at the Church of Our Lady in Antwerp, both in present-day Belgium) and underlines the fact that composers and singers from this northwestern corner of Europe were preeminent in the continent’s musical life across the entire 15th century.

Has your personal take on Okeghem evolved over the last decade? What have you learned from researching him and his music?

My love for his music has only grown. My first notion about what music to present during Okeghem Weekend was to sing our favorites – but now that we’ve sung all of it, I’m not sure I really could choose on that basis. I can’t think of a single piece that I wouldn’t gladly do again. When we were about halfway through the project, I began to say that once we’d sung it all, the best thing to do next would be to simply start over and do it all again, and I’m not joking. Should we stop listening to Bach just because it has all been done already? Okeghem’s music is every bit as great as Bach’s, and we are much, much less familiar with it.

If someone had never heard Okeghem’s music, where do you suggest they start?

I’d suggest trying one song, one motet, and one Mass – perhaps the song Quand de vous seul, the motet Alma redemptoris mater, and the Missa De plus en plus. We’ll sing all three over the course of the Okeghem Weekend!

What are your plans after the conclusion of your multi-year work with Okeghem? Do you have another large-scale project planned? Or other plans you’d like to share here?

Okeghem will remain central in Blue Heron’s concert repertoire, and we plan to record his four motets (along with the complete motets of his contemporary Johannes Regis) and, I hope, some of the Masses as well. And, as we look forward to our 25th birthday this coming October, we are thinking hard about the next big project, and laying out our programming for several seasons to come. We’ll continue to sing a lot of 15th-century music our audiences have never heard before, and pursue interests in the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries too (Machaut, madrigals, and more). Stay tuned!

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  1. Although not noted in this fine article, the figure in the hooded vestment in the accompanying picture is presumed to be Johannes Ockeghem himself, leading his choir in singing from a single manuscript. This was a frequent practice at the time.

    Comment by Robert Humberston — April 8, 2024 at 2:43 pm

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