Johannes Ockeghem - Le Bon Père

Project Weeks
2011-02-21 - 2011-02-27

Project Week

21 - 27 February 2011

in D - Halle (Saale)


Johannes Ockeghem

le bon père


Cantus Modalis


Prof. Dr. Rebecca Stewart

Martin Erhardt

Milo Machover

Paul Shannon (Assistance)



'Docteur le puis nommer en la science

Et prens tesmoings tous musicien, se

Jamais en fut ung aultre plus parfaict,

Tous exceda et par dictz et par faict.'

[Guillaume Crétin: from his Déploration sur la mort d'Ockeghem]


During what appears to have been a rather long life (1410+ until 1497) which was virtually confined to French, Burgundian and Flemish areas of linguistic and cultural influence, Ockeghem, while adhering to traditional genres (the Burgundian chanson, the cantus firmus mass and the motet) handled both their form


and their techniques with an amazing amount of inventive creativity. Even within the conservative area of mass composition he was acutely aware of the necessity of wedding his supremely subtle melodies, rhythms and contrapuntal textures to the cadence of his quintessentially French-Latin texts and to their expression; he was by far the most skilled practitioner of modal transformation (often for textual and symbolic reasons); he was the first of the continental composers to systematically use the 'new' sonorities of the deeper bass register; and, although he still employed a cantus prius factus in most of his masses, he achieved a degree of melodic equality between all the voices which had been unheard of before him. Lastly, although perhaps more felt than immediately understood, Ockeghem's mastery over and manipulation of metric proportion at all levels was equaled by no other composer before Bach. For these reasons and many more it is with complete justification that the question may be posed: without le bon père would there ever have been the greatest polyphonic period in Western music next to that of Bach? And without that period would there ever have been a Bach?




This second Cantus Modalis Project Week of the 2010-'11 year will be devoted to separate movements from Ockeghem's five 'chanson masses' (to coin an expression) and to the chansons which inspired them. Each mass movement represents a different side of his compositional genius. They are as follows:




Kyrie: Missa Ma maistresse, which is comprised of only a Kyrie and a Gloria, is based on Ockeghem's 3- voice bergerette of the same name. Each section of the Kyrie is built upon another phrase in the Tenor of the refrain. The counterpoint is dense and the chanson material permeates all of the voices.




Gloria: Missa Au travail suis is based on the 3-voice rondeau of the same name which was probably composed by Barbingant rather than Ockeghem. The relationship between the two chansons given above is very close, with material being borrowed from the one by the other. The only problem is: which came first. In stark contrast to his other Glorias that of Ockeghem's Missa au travail suis is straight-forward and almost completely declamatory in character.




Credo: Missa Fors seullement l'atente, which is comprised of a Kyrie, a Gloria and a Credo for five voices, is based on Ockeghem's 3-voice rondeau of the same name. This rondeau, with its unforgettable beginning motif of a descending fourth from 'la' to 'mi', was set to music by at least eleven composers, including Josquin and La Rue. As an obvious illustration of Ockeghem's mature period, in his Credo he employs his voices in every combination from two to five, while constantly varying the two head motifs in accordance with the demands of the cadence and the content of each section of text. According to Jaap van Benthen, the editor of the Ockeghem masses, this Credo might have been conceived as an independent setting.




Sanctus: Missa L'homme armé is set to the popular monophonic chanson rustique of the same name from the early 15th century. Although this melody rapidly became absorbed into a 3-voice polyphonic setting probably by Robert Morton, Ockeghem's treatment, (like most of the ca 50 other polyphonic mass settings) appears to be based more on the original melody than on the 3-voice version. In accordance with the exceptionally high compositional standards which Ockeghem set for himself in his later life this Sanctus is a regular tour de force in which the invitingly open-ended modality of the original chanson melody (is it in g dorian or g mixolydian?) must bend to the will of both the Sanctus text and the tyranny of the other voices.




Agnus dei: Missa De plus en plus is based on the Tenor of a 3-voice rondeau by Giles de Binche (dit Binchois). Unlike his treatment of chanson Tenors in his other masses, here Ockeghem continually transforms the entire 52-note cantus prius factus so that each movement presents it in a different guise rhythmically and melodically. In this Agnus dei only the 'dona nobis pacem' section is free from extensive melodic interpolations.




All five of Ockeghem's 'chanson masses' are found in the beautiful early 16th-century choirbook Vatican Ms Chigi C VIII 234. We will sing from facsimiles copied from this choirbook.






Dr. Rebecca Stewart


29 September 2010


All Dates

  • From 2011-02-21 to 2011-02-27
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