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All in a Dei's Work

The medieval -- and mercenary -- genius of Johannes Ockeghem

Ockeghem: front row, first on right

The following article appeared in the April 30, 1999 issue of OC Weekly:

Music is the living soundtrack of history. Wherever there’s war, famine, depression or persecution, there’s usually a musician around to capture the mood of the day. But smart players go where the money is. So from early times on, as the balance of power has shifted from genocidal theocracies to conniving kingdoms to grasping robber barons to self-absorbed corporations, the best musicians hopped jobs to churn out tunes for despotic popes, despotic potentates and despotic CEOs (Even in the democratic age of “people’s” rock, there’s usually a multinational media conglomerate hovering somewhere in the background).

Which brings us to Johannes Ockeghem. Hardly anyone today recognizes the name of this 15th century Flemish composer, let alone knows how to articulate those guttural syllables (let’s just say it’s pronounced OCK-eghem and doesn’t particularly rhyme with anything). Yet in a lifetime book-ended by Joan of Arc’s military campaigns and Columbus’ New World explorations, he quietly fluttered near the centers of power in medieval France like a fly on the palace wall to write the music that defined the age.

This Monday, two early music vocal groups - the female quartet Anonymous 4 and the six men of Lionheart - join up at the Irvine Barclay Theatre to sing Ockeghem’s works. It’s a rare glimpse at a neglected 500-year-old giant and a chance to hear what Gothic music sounded like - the first time around.

“Ockeghem really revolutionized the sound of liturgical polyphony in evening out the importance of the lines,” says Susan Hellauer, the fast-talking music historian of Anonymous 4. “There’s a constant weaving of the voice parts over each other, so it sounds like this river of sound flowing along, and it’s absolutely mesmerizing, both to sing and to listen to.”

“He seems to really know the voice so well,” concurs baritone Jeffrey Johnson of Lionheart. “It’s like ‘singer pie.’ The more that I’m around this music, the more I find I that can’t get away from it. Each vocal line almost feels like its own chant. There is a deep spiritual, sort of mysterious overtone in it.”

The genesis of the partnership between the two groups dates back to 1991 - before Lionheart existed and while Anonymous 4 was still struggling to build its identity as a medieval women’s chorus.

“We missed singing Renaissance polyphony,” Hellauer recalls. “We used to get a kick out of doing it, but to do Renaissance, you need to have male voices. This program is a throwback to three we did with hired male singers.” The first of these was an all-Ockeghem concert, which was followed up with two more of Flemish choral music. But by that time, Anonymous 4’s international reputation was taking off with its recording of “An English Ladymass,” and the mixed chorus collaborations stopped for awhile. Meanwhile, with Gregorian chant growing in popularity, some of the men who had sung with Anonymous 4 came together in 1993 to form Lionheart.

“Four of the six founding members of Lionheart were in that original Ockeghem concert,” Hellauer says. “So we were very gratified and watched them succeed and grow into a wonderful, cohesive, amazing ensemble. And then we thought, ‘You know what? Let’s try this again now using Lionheart.’”

Their program Monday night is structured like the celebration of a Roman Catholic mass from the 1400s. The five movements of the Ordinary (Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus, Credo and Agnus Dei) are from Ockeghem’s "Missa Mi-Mi." Per ancient custom, the singers will interpolate some motets to the Virgin Mary and traditional French chants at key points in the mass. The concert ends with a Lament for Ockeghem that Josquin Desprez, his most illustrious pupil, wrote in honor of his late teacher.

The leading composer of the day, Ockeghem was a prominent bass singer (which is part of the reason Lionheart's Johnson says likes singing Ockeghem's bass parts) and a key figure in the Burgundian school of choral music that filled cathedral vaults in Paris, Reims, Cambrai and Tours. Per medieval mindset norm, he injected his music with intricate puzzles of modal and canonic writing that defies modern analysis. His soaring melodies were at once a bridge to the coming Renaissance and the last gasp of Gothic art in France and Flanders. And in the fluid complexity of his counterpoint, you can almost hear the mystic “voices” that summoned Jeanne la poucelle on her evangelical call to arms.

“While Ockeghem was doing all of this and peacefully having his career and writing his music,” says Hellauer, “Joan of Arc was being burned at the stake. That’s what he heard on CNN.”

In fact, Ockeghem (who didn't come of age until some years after Joan made her exit) didn’t need CNN to keep up with world politics. He was court composer to three of the ugliest kings who ever forged a modern state. Charles VII - notorious for wimping out on Joan - eventually drove out the English with his free bowmen and signed the armistice to the Hundred Years War. His successor Louis XI lived like a pauper, ruled like Machiavelli’s "Prince" and turned a loose confederation of feudal lands into the most powerful nation in Latin Europe. And finally, there was the quixotic Charles VIII who invaded Italy to repossess Naples but trudged back home with nothing to show for his trouble but pestilence, V.D. and the Italian Renaissance.

Ockeghem himself was part of the royal entourage to Spain that tried unsuccessfully to negotiate a political marriage between Louis’ brother and Isabel of Castile (Ferdinand of Aragon made her a better offer). “If you’re the crème de la crème,” says Hellauer, “someone with obvious talent like Ockeghem goes where the money is. In his neighborhood, he happened to fall into working for a king who just plucked him as ‘the guy I want working for me.’”

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