The Clerks' Group
May 14, 2000 Program
True treasurer of music and master: Johannes Ockeghem
"I am sure you could not dislike this man, so pleasing is the beauty of his person, so noteworthy the sobriety of his speech and of his morals, and his grace. He alone of all singers is free from all vice and abounds in all virtues." So wrote Francesco Florio in the 1470s about the great Johannes Ockeghem, one of the pivotal figures in 15th-century music, revered for his musical talent as well as his wisdom and virtue. Little is known about the man himself - born probably in Flanders around 1410, he spent most of his career as master of the French royal chapel from 1454 until his death in 1497, singing as well as composing sacred works for use in worship services. Although Ockeghem composed relatively few works over the course of his lifetime - 10 masses, a number of individual mass movements, a handful of motets and 22 chansons - he had a considerable reputation even in his own day for the beauty of his music.
A master of luxuriantly difficult counterpoint and complex rhythmic invention, Ockeghem is most celebrated for his more free-form masses and motets which moved away from the usual style based on a cantus firmus, a melody derived from chant forms. Two examples of this free-form style are heard on this week's program. The Intemerata Dei mater (Inviolate Mother of God) is considered to be one of his finest motets with its contrast of chordal and polyphonic textures. Ockeghem's Requiem, which is the earliest extant polyphonic work in the genre, is an unusual mixture of styles, with the Offertorium being the most sophisticated. Highly challenging for even the most experienced of singers, it showcases not only Ockeghem's extraordinary inventiveness - his exploration of the lower registers, his use of unusual harmonies and melodic expressiveness - but also his ability as a singer, for the elaborate bass part was likely to have been written for himself to perform.
Josquin Des Prez's motet Nymphes des bois, also heard on this program, is Josquin's homage to Ockeghem. It's a mixture of sacred and secular music-the upper voices singing of nymphs and Fates, while the tenor line intones a Requiem chant.