Johannes Ockeghem : Missa cuiusvis toni
Ensemble Musica Nova
(Aeon AECD0753; 115:06)
I wish that I could understand what is going on here. Johannes Ockeghem (c.1410-1497), the canny old grand-daddy of medieval polyphony, outdid himself with his Missa cuiusvis toni. It is something like a medieval analogue of Bach’s Musical Offering or Art of Fugue: a supremely virtuosic tour de force that jumps head first into the most fiendish compositional difficulties, but nonetheless triumphantly succeeds in making beautiful music.
Let me try to explain — although I’ve little confidence that I can do this properly. Most people know that medieval music was not organized according to our modern musical “keys”; instead, they used what they called musical “modes“, of which there were eight. According to the notes accompanying this disc, to these modes were added four “finales”, called protus, deuterus, tritus, and tetrardus. (Perhaps these are something like cadences?) Each finale, which could presumably be combined with any of the modes (?), produced a musical scale, or “tone”. Thus there were four tones. I hope that is right.
The remarkable thing about the Missa cuiusvis toni is that it can be sung in any of the tones — a fact that would be obvious if our Latin was better (cuiusvis toni = “in any of the tones”). It is notated once, but can be read in four different ways — maybe by doing the medieval equivalent of moving flats and sharps around? — to produce four different settings of the Mass. Of course, they bear certain similarities to one another: the rhythmic characteristics don’t vary between versions, so the timing and order in which the voices enter remains the same. It is the melody and the harmonies that change: in one reading the singers have a certain set of pitches, in another reading a different set, but in both they harmonize. It is really quite amazing.
On this recording Ensemble Musica Nova sing the Mass four times, once in each of the tones, so that we can hear Ockeghem’s achievement in all of its glory. It’s not a small undertaking: each setting runs to about 30 minutes, so the entire project covers two discs. They are a small ensemble of just eight voices, and they are new to me, but they have obviously been at this for a while, for they sing beautifully. They round out their program with Ockeghem’s famous motet Intemerata Dei Mater, and it is a fitting conclusion to a very enjoyable recording.
A YouTube user named dowland58 has put two versions of the Kyrie online. For no very obvious reason he has combined the music with old footage from Venice, but no harm done: