I retreated to the 1400s yesterday in search of some respite from the relentless run of depressing news around the world, relieved to immerse myself in some of the sounds of a world in which disease was a mortal fear and social disorder lurked just around the corner. Not much changes.
I needed to get away from things for a while, aurally at least, and dug out a couple of discs of Ockeghem Mass settings from the shelf, the Requiem and the Missa L’Homme Armé. Ockeghem was the leading composer of his day, long-lived too, and represented a stylistic link between the music of the late 1300s and the music of Josquin which, in turn, leads us to Palestrina.
Ockeghem is unique, though, an intellect who delighted in musical puzzles, such as the Missa Cuiusvis Toni, which could be performed in any of the church modes, or the Missa Prolationum, which is in double canon throughout. I performed the latter in concert with the heroic Occam Singers, and I still think that it is the trickiest thing I have ever put in front of a choir.
Part of that difficulty is due to the extraordinary rhythmic complexity of these pieces, something one of the Occams described to me as “like free jazz”, and it is certainly true that nothing of its ilk would be seen again until the twentieth century. However, Ockeghem also freed the bass line from simple harmonic plodding, probably because he was a fine bass singer and wanted to be able to enjoy himself.
What is in no doubt is that the singers with whom he worked must have been fantastically talented, for his music is highly demanding and, lest we forget, they were not performing from scores either, yet his pieces remain as testament to what can be achieved through practice, patience and persistence. Also, let this little musing serve as a reminder that many fantastically talented musicians (and others in the creative fields) are currently sitting around with nothing to do and nothing to look forward to, and nary a mention of the arts from those in charge. Just saying.