Johannes Ockeghem
Missa prolationum



by musichub USER (10 Reviews)
November 2nd, 2021 | 9 replies

Release Date: 1465 | Tracklist

Review Summary: Part VII: Progressive polyphony; or, the maturation of the Mass

The back half of the fifteenth century was a real boon for any composer with an adventurous side. A new style of composition had commanded the attention of Western musical thought: the cyclic mass, which combined the traditional text of the Mass Ordinary with a recurring melodic motif, called a cantus firmus. These motives, often taken from secular songs, could be found in each section of the mass, unifying the piece in a sense. Such unification was double-layered, however; just as it allowed greater homogeneity, it also encouraged composers to play around with how they treated these different motives, providing a firm base for them to work off of.

Starting around 1440 with the publication of the anonymously-writtwn Missa caput, the rapid popularization of the cyclic mass seems to have spawned a fascination with manipulating mass structure in general. The straightforward melodies of medieval masses were becoming ever more clouded with embellishments as the pieces and their writing became increasingly free-spirited. In a sense,, composers were allowing themselves a piece of center stage next to the piece's spiritual message, an attitude quite contrary to that of the Middle Ages. All glory may still have gone to God, but recognition and agency were now property of the composer, and as evidenced in masses such as the aging Guillaume Dufay's Missa se la face ay pale, composers were more than happy to maximize that agency.

Most-renowned of these late fifteenth century composers was Johannes Ockeghem (c. 1410 - 1497), a chorister and a devotee of the dominant school of compositional thought that was en vogue in and near northern France. Born in part of what is now Belgium, Ockeghem may have been personally acquainted with Gilles Binchois at an early age, and certainly the elder composer left a giant impact on Ockeghem's style. Biographical details are scant, but the chief era of Ockeghem's fame seems to have come during a 20+ year stint in Paris from around 1452 to sometime in the 1470s, where he served in several royal courts and resided at Notre Dame for a time. The bulk of his surviving repertoire, a rather scant collection compared to his colleagues, is masses; 14 of them in all (including the remnants of a Requiem, the oldest on record), and their survival may imply that his fame even at the time was centered around his masses.

Ockeghem's mass settings, like those of Dufay before him, were frequently based around existing melodies, some coming from chansons of his. Where his masses come into their own is in their dispersal of melodic material - his most famous work, the Missa prolationum, is an example of something called a "prolation mass", where a melody oscillates between different voices as in a canon, and is performed at different speeds depending on the voice. A voice that performs the melody faster is said to be an example of an augmentation canon, while a voice that performs the melody slower would be an example of a diminution canon. The high level of mathematical juggling that this type of writing involves makes prolation masses a very rare find in Renaissance repertoire, so almost by nature of its very existence and the comparative renown of its composer, the Missa prolationum typifies the prolation mass genre and stands among the most complex pieces of work from this era.

Even despite its being, in an almost literal sense, a one-of-a-kind composition, the merits of Missa prolationum don't require that sort of context to be appreciated. The piece feels as though it's in a constant state of motion, flowing seamlessly as each of the different parts works its way through the melodic material at its own pace. As with many of his pieces, Ockeghem plays around a lot with vocal range, the entire mass spanning approximately 3 octaves in all (unusually wide for its time, especially given that women singing masses was still a verboten concept and all higher parts were the domains of men). The Sanctus contains one of the most interesting starts to any movement of any mass heard thus far, an extended two-voice duet between bass and tenor that goes on for some time before the other voices enter and transform the space into a lush, all-consuming minor chord. Dynamic shifts are a central part of Ockeghem's music, and for as much as this piece focuses on harmonic difficulty and the juxtaposition of different rhythms, the dynamics make the piece affecting in a way sophisticated voice leading could never manage solo.

Ockeghem's role in the Western canon is seen by many as a transitional role, succeeding the elegance of Dufay and preceding...well, the works to come. But his influence loomed large across the Burgundian school of thought that dominated classical music for much of the Renaissance, and his renown was such that after his passing, people remembered him as "genius" and commemorated him with scores of musical works and poems. For the part of the modern generation, Ockeghem seems best-remembered as an early example of a musician who allowed himself to be caught up in indulgences and explore sides of musical expression that forefathers and cohorts alike wouldn't dare touch. Such spirit makes him a hidden gem of sorts in the canon, if such a thing even exists, and one of the era's most fascinating musical figures.

Hilliard Ensemble (2005):

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user ratings (3)

Comments:Add a Comment 
November 2nd 2021


Album Rating: 4.5

Fascinating composer with a really wonderful body of work if you ever get around to checking more of it out, and you certainly should.

November 2nd 2021



November 2nd 2021


good review and a mostly unfamiliar period of music for me. giving it a listen.
e; it was worth it!

November 2nd 2021


Link to Bandcamp so I can support the artist directly please.

November 2nd 2021


Album Rating: 4.5

"e; it was worth it!"

Glad to hear (:

November 2nd 2021


pos'd - keep em comin!

Digging: Pascal Battus, Anne F Jacques, Tim Olive - Trois Conseillers

November 5th 2021


Great review and such beautiful music, thanks for pointing us in a less usual direction, should be done way more often. Really glad I checked this out.

November 5th 2021


Album Rating: 5.0

First got into Ockhegam when I was reading about how big of an influence he had on Webern's music. Great review, glad this is getting some attention here

November 6th 2021


Album Rating: 4.5

Happy to see this get a few more ratings since the review went up, got some more interesting Renaissance composers on the docket in the not-too-distant future!

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