Peter Sellers once impersonated Alec Guinness giving a cryptic interview
to the BBC. The topic was a new play titled "Smith" about
a nonexistent medieval mystic named Fazhab Al-Barashadan Hashid. "Hashid
was probably one of most influential men in the Persian Gulf during the
early part of the thirteenth century," Sellers explained, in Guinness's
halting purr. "It's a fascinating study of a man a man who died
as he lived in the early part of the thirteenth century."
After several minutes of this verbal perambulation, the interviewer impatiently
broke in: "What kind of a man was Fazhab El-Barashadan Hashid?" "Well,
he was a mystic," Sellers said. "That is one of the reasons he called
himself Smith. What sort of a mystic he was ... remains a mystery."
There are many mysterious mystics to be found in the art of the late middle ages and early Renaissance. However immediate their ideas, images, or sounds, their history is often little more than a tangle of weird names. In no field is the lack of information quite so infuriating as in music of the fifteenth century. As we listen, we sense that a tremendous phenomenon is underway: music is being taken over by a tight cadre of composers from the Low Countries, particularly the Flemish regions of France and Belgium. The sound described collectively as the Franco-Flemish style is rich, deep, strange, complex. The technique is polyphonic, which means that many voices are twining together, mimicking each other in precise sequences or in fantastic variations. But the composers are mostly ciphers. Histories of the period resemble a secret meeting of the Knights of the Templar: let us now convene Ockeghem, Obrecht, Desprez, Isaac, Brumel, Manchicourt, Gombert, and Clemens Non Papa. Such names lurk everywhere in record stores these days. As recordings of mainstream classical repertory have tapered off, those of medieval and Renaissance music have strangely multiplied.
On the face of it, the popularity of Renaissance polyphony looks like an epiphenomenon of the well-documented fad for Gregorian chant. But polyphony is a little too dense, a little too busy, to produce the spiritual trance that chant is said to induce in young listeners. After spending some time with this music, you begin to notice myriad idiosyncrasies: you come in contact with distinct, flesh-and-blood personalites, who are inching their way out of the anonymity of medieval tradition. Granted, the idea of a compositional voice had not yet been fully formed in the fifteenth century; even experts have trouble telling these composers apart. Still, the recordings and itinerant performances by groups such as the Tallis Scholars, the Sixteen, and Chanticleer give glimpses of an extraordinary musical community: composers competing against each other, learning from each other, picking up fashions and dropping them, sharpening their sense of self, ascending to maturity and sublime old age.
Musical history often has us wondering why concentrated talent comes from a constricted place. Think of Austria in the late eighteenth century, or, for that matter, the Mississippi Delta in the early twentieth. In the case of Flanders, it makes sense to follow the money. The Dukes of Burgundy, who had capitalized on the chaos of the Black Death and the Hundred Years' War to build a wealthy new empire in the Low Countries, lavished money on local musicians. Great patrons of the next century Louis XI in France, Lorenzo the Magnificent in Florence, the Dukes of Ferrara bought up the same talent. Scattered documents dispel any idea of the Franco-Flemish composers as a band of fleshless musical priests. In one letter, a kind of scout for the Duke of Ferrara rates Josquin Desprez against Heinrich Isaac: "It's true Josquin is the better composer, but he composes when he wants to, not when one wants him to, and he is asking for 200 ducats while Isaac will come for 120." The Duke an ancestor of the terrifying lord in Browning's "My Last Duchess" chose Josquin.
The dukes had ears, and they heard new things. The dominant fourteenth-century style was ars nova, a bright, nervous affair of spiky rhythms and florid ornaments. But a new sound arrived from England one concentrated on triad-based harmonies and staggered counterpoint. John Dunstable and Leonel Power wrote masses in which a "cantus firmus" a pre-existing chant that the audience already knew wound its way through the voices of the chorus. This they used to unify disparate movements of the Mass. The earliest Flemish masters, Guillaume Dufay and Johannes Ockeghem, borrowed the English innovations and wrote masses that took on the splendor and solidity of Gothic cathedrals. The cantus firmus was a buttress for a big structure: it could be worked over, subdivided, sped up, slowed down, put in reverse. The listener could follow its progress and become involved in a composition of a half-hour's length. Also, the motion of the melody through upper and lower voices gave a sense of height and depth, of nearness and echoing distance. To make another analogy, the spatial effects of Flemish Renaissance music seem to parallel the meticulous landscapes that appeared in the background of portraits by Van Eyck and Memling.
Ockeghem died in 1497, which means that early-music ensembles have been marking the five-hundredth anniversary of his birth. A dozen or so recordings variously by the Tallis Scholars (on Gimell), the Clerks' Group (on ASV), the Oxford Camerata (on Naxos), the Orlando Consort (on DG), and Schola Discantus (on Lyrichord) have appeared in the last few years. You are advised to listen first and read the liner notes later. The liner notes will involve you in the issue of Ockeghem's "complexity," his double canons, his imitations, his "diminutions of mensuration," and so forth. Even those writers who de-emphasize the complexity somehow make the lack of complexity seem complicated. Ockeghem used to be vaguely name-dropped in musical histories as a mathematical genius who created insoluble puzzles of counterpoint. When scholars later found that he seldom obeyed any regular system, commentators backpedaled into descriptions of his of course mysticism. The musicologist Leo Treitler writes acidly of this kind of interpretation: "Puzzlement over Ockeghem's music [was] transformed into one of its leading characteristics."
Ockeghem did indulge in games, but he was not cerebral. He was one of the first great sonic sensualists. He unleashed continuous, cascading sound. Where Dufay before him and Josquin after him gave elegant shape their phrases and cadences, Ockeghem blurred the line between the end of one phrase and the beginning of another. Everything overlapped; the fabric became seamless. Ockeghem also pressed the music downward in register. His "Missa Fors Seulement," based on a doleful, nearly Wagnerian chanson about the longing for death, is anchored deep in the bass. The low, dark tone of this music is, again, something new. Ockeghem was an emotionalist, probably a pessimist, perhaps the first composer in Western history who sent listeners into the comforting bourgeois province of melancholy. This quality is heard best in the spontaneous-sounding, richly voiced recording by Schola Discantus. Almost as good is the disc by the Clerks' Group, on which the Mass sits beside its parent chanson and two later elaborations by Pierre De La Rue and Antoine Brumel; at the end comes Ockeghem's Requiem, the earliest extant piece of its kind.
According to his adoring obituaries, Ockeghem was a kindly, unassuming man. Who knows? Maybe he was a mean son of a bitch. Certainly he earned deep respect from his younger contemporaries. Even the arrogant Josquin wrote a memorial to him. The interesting thing is that while Ockeghem's methods were widely copied, the overall sound of his music didn't take hold. Josquin made polyphony more crisp, more songful. Composers like Pierre De La Rue and Antoine Brumel echoed Ockeghem's sonic blur but also simplified their textures when the assignment required it. Then, composers in the next generation, those born around 1500, seemed to take a second look at the old master. The Franco-Flemish style had begun to fade in comparison with brilliant new developments in Italy; still, the conservative cast of Ockeghem's style attracted new acolytes. Indeed, old-school polyphony would never die out: composers from Beethoven to Stravinsky and on to contemporaries like Arvo Pärt and Alfred Schnittke have borrowed its intellectual allure.
One Ockeghemite who has resurfaced impressively on recordings is Nicolas Gombert, who worked on and off in the court of Charles V. His career was interrupted when he was found to have violated one of his choirboys and was exiled to the high seas on a trireme galley. The physician-philosopher Hieronymus Cardanus recorded the case, saying it illustrated the virtues of corporeal punishment: "Gombert composed, with his feet in chains, those swan songs with which he earned not only his pardon by the emperor but also a priest's benefice, so that he spent the rest of his life in tranquility." Tranquility is not the quality one attaches to Gombert. He writes polyphony of unsettling force; he is so intent on keeping his voices in uninterrupted motion that he overlooks (or perhaps seeks out) searing dissonances along the way. Certain of his pieces are marked by bass-heavy textures that outweigh even Ockeghem's "Fors Seulement." On a spellbinding, deep-toned disc by the Huelgas Ensemble, on Sony Classical, there is a chanson called "Je prens congie" "I think of the loves I must leave behind" that rotates eerily for five minutes through the same minor chord. Two discs on Hyperion, with a fine English group called Henry's Eight, give a broad view of Gombert's peculiarly intense sacred music.
There are other gems from the later days of the Franco-Flemish school. The impeccable Tallis Scholars have recorded "Missa Maria Zart" by Jacob Obrecht, who outdid Ockeghem in subdivisions and recombinations of the cantus firmus. Anyone who thinks that either serial complexity or extreme duration is a twentieth-century creation has not heard this beautiful monster of a piece. The same group has an older recording of Brumel's "Earthquake" Mass so named for its derivation from the Easter plainsong, "And the earth shook" in which twelve voices spill over one another in mesmerizing waves. Those who grow exhausted by the outer eccentricities of Franco-Flemish school can always return to Josquin, who stands out for his lyric grace, unerring sense of balance, and operatic way with words. Indeed, the single best introduction to the era may be the Hilliard Ensemble's survey of Josquin motets on Virgin Classics. The last work on the disc is the "Déploration" for the death of Ockeghem, in which Josquin generously interwines his own name with the names of his rivals: "Josquin, Brumel, Pierchon, Compère / Weep great tears from your eyes." You have to listen hard to hear Ockeghem's name, a little earlier: his syllables melt into notes, and the notes are like shafts of light in a dark room.
The author is music critic of The New Yorker magazine. This article first appeared in The New Yorker in June 1998, and is reproduced from his website "The Rest Is Noise" (www.therestisnoise.com) with permission.