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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 12 Emblems and Dynasties
Richard Taruskin

Ockeghem’s emulation of the original Caput Mass, whoever its author may have been, certainly shows him to have been inclined toward tours de force, for which the French, as we know, had a longstanding predilection. The most famous tours de force in all of fifteenth-century music, in fact, are a couple of Masses by Ockeghem—works with which his historical reputation, for better or worse, is indissolubly bound up.

One of them is called the Missa Prolationum, the “Mass of the Time Signatures.” It is sung in four parts but written in two, both to be simultaneously realized as canons in an ascending cycle of intervals: the first section of the Kyrie is a double canon at the unison; the Christe at the second; the second Kyrie at the third; the Gloria at the fourth; the Credo at the fifth, and so on. The peculiar title advertises the fact that each of the two voices as written carries a double time signature: and when the Mass is actually sung, each of the four voices realizes its note-values according to a different mensuration scheme.

By writing canons in which the voices are in effect singing at different speeds, Ockeghem is able to start with all the voices singing together. When sufficient distance has been achieved between the canonic voices, Ockeghem employs additional notational devices that effectively neutralize the differing time signatures, and the canons proceed as normal ones. Only one little item in the Missa Prolationum, a duo, is truly a “mensuration canon,” in which two parts derived from a single notated line move at different rates of speed throughout. In Ex. 12-7 that duo, the second Agnus Dei, is given in its original notation and in a two-voice realization. The lower voice reproduces the upper voice an octave below and at half the speed, and consequently ends halfway through the written part. This strict little duo, one of the simpler-textured items in the Mass, will give an idea both of its diabolically clever contrivance, and also of the smooth mellifluousness of the result (the truest art, to recall Horace’s famous dictum once again, being the art of concealing art).

The Composer as Virtuoso

ex. 12-7a Missa Prolationum, Agnus II, in the original notation as a single voice

The Composer as Virtuoso

ex. 12-7b Missa Prolationum, Agnus II, realized as a mensuration canon in two parts

The other famous Ockeghem star turn is the Missa cuiusvis toni, the “Mass in any mode.” It is notated without clefs. The singers can decide on one of four different clef combinations, each of which, when supplied mentally, fixes the notated music on one of the “four finals,” (as described by the chant theorists) from D to G. When the final is D, the modal scale will be Dorian; when E, Phrygian; when F, Lydian; and when G, Mixolydian. In Ex. 12-8, the brief opening Kyrie is given all four ways. In order to make the harmony compatible with any mode, “authentic” cadences—impossible in Phrygian because “on the white keys” the “dominant” chord to E is diminished—had to be avoided throughout the Mass in favor of “plagal” ones.

The Composer as Virtuoso

ex. 12-8a Johannes Ockeghem, Missa cuiusvis toni, Kyrie I, pitched on D (Dorian)

The Composer as Virtuoso

ex. 12-8b Johannes Ockeghem, Missa cuiusvis toni, Kyrie I, pitched on E (Phrygian)

The Composer as Virtuoso

ex. 12-8c Johannes Ockeghem, Missa cuiusvis toni, Kyrie I, pitched on F (Lydian)

The Composer as Virtuoso

ex. 12-8d Johannes Ockeghem, Missa cuiusvis toni, Kyrie I, pitched on G (Mixolydian)

As noted above, Ockeghem’s historical reputation rests disproportionately on these Masses “for better or worse,” because not everyone is equally impressed with an elaborate technical apparatus that is seemingly constructed and exercised for its own sake. Charles Burney, the great eighteenth-century historian, captured well the appeal of the high style at its most hermetically “learnèd” when he wrote of the Missa Prolationum that “the performer was to solve canonical mysteries, and discover latent beauties of ingenuity and contrivance, about which the hearers were indifferent, provided the general harmony was pleasing.”3 For Ockeghem’s clique of singers, as for all lovers of puzzles (or, more broadly, the members of any in-group), the notational complexities were not so much perceived to be a burden as their solution was experienced as a reward. To which it only need be added that like any trobar clus, the Masses of Ockeghem, chaplain to the French royal court under three successive kings of the Valois dynasty, were expected suitably to adorn, and in a sense to create, elite occasions. Intricacy of design and facture (“makery,” as the French untranslatably put it) was one means of fulfilling this expectation.

Yet ever since the sixteenth century, when the Swiss music theorist Henricus Glareanus (Burney’s chief source of knowledge about “Okenheim”) illustrated the composer’s work exclusively with these bizarre technical tours de force, Ockeghem has had a reputation for cold calculation that has rubbed off, until quite recently, on his whole era. “These compositions,” Burney sniffed, “are given rather as specimens of a determined spirit of patient perseverance, than as models [worthy] of imitation. In music, different from all other arts, learning and labor seem to have preceded taste and invention, from both which the times under consideration are still very remote.” As long as Ockeghem and his contemporaries were judged by an impressive but unrepresentative sample of their work, the verdict stood. Implicit in that condescending (mis)appraisal is a caution for anyone who would attempt to understand, let alone judge, the past on the basis of its fragmentary remains.


(3) Charles Burney, A General History of Music, ed. Frank Mercer (New York: Dover, 1957), Vol. I, p. 731.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 12 Emblems and Dynasties." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 22 Oct. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-012008.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 12 Emblems and Dynasties. In Oxford University Press, Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 22 Oct. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-012008.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 12 Emblems and Dynasties." In Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 22 Oct. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-012008.xml