Sunday, January 22, 2006

Defending Ockeghem from his devotees

It's time to let Ockeghem be Ockeghem again.

For a long time, the "complexity" gang has summoned Johannes Ockeghem up as an essential figure in a reading of musical history where composers are emphasized for the complexity of their works.

Now, I've just read something by a critic-and-composer-who-shall-not-be-named, who probably would go to great lengths not to identify himself with the complexity crowd describing a "Johannes Ockeghem, who smoothed over all seams in his music for an absolute minimum of contrast"

How do these two views add together? On the one hand, Ockeghem is a composer who has left us with a few major pieces based on rather sophisticated musical ideas -- combining several meters or modes, and by making extremely long melodies that are essentially unpredictable in their contour or in the succession of note durations. No motives, sequences, very little repetition. On the other hand, those melodies are indeed smooth and the tight ensemble character is only broken by small local peaks in the melodic curves or a bit of ficta-induced variety from time to time. Ockeghem succeeds in a remarkable balancing act between the unpredictable and the continuous. In his L'homme Armé Mass, the cantus firmus is not sung continuously. Instead, it comes in and out of the piece, disappearing and then suddenly reappearing, as if it were just another tributary, adding to the mainstream of sound without punctuating it dramatically. This is music full of contrast, but think of the kind of contrast that you see at twilight; it's compressed in absolute value, but within that compression the relative peaks are startling, and the details vivid if fleeting. My early music teacher, Shirley Robbins, described Ockeghem as sounding "like chocolate."

I recommend the three volume collected works of Ockeghem, it's just the kind of thing for anyone who likes to sing or play music that rewards both the mind and the senses. I don't have the complete works of many composers in my home library, but this one was essential to have.

1 comment:

Teutsch said...

I was also a student of Shirley Robbins. ;nbsp I remember six years ago when Shirley also acquired the complete works of Ockeghem. ;nbsp In fact, much of my recorder training came from these works. ;nbsp When were you in Claremont?

I'm enjoying the blog!