In 1868, Wilhelm Ambros lauded a number of compositions by Johannes Ockeghem, including the triple canon Prenez sur moy. Emphasizing the expressive qualities of this music, he suggested that its composer had breathed into it a ““singing soul.”” Some decades earlier, Johann Forkel also focused on Prenez sur moy, dismissing it, however, as ““unsingable.”” The present study examines the cultural and intellectual forces that gave rise to these strikingly contradictory assessments.
Enlightenment historians are generally thought to have charted the flow of history according to a progressive paradigm. Late medieval music often fared poorly viewed from this perspective, drawing criticism for its failure to reflect the refinements of modern music. Initially, Forkel toed this line, but his comments about examples of 15th-century music in the Allgemeine Geschichte der Musik also reveal his capacity to strike a relativist pose regarding some of them, and even to offer unqualified praise. The changes in Forkel's position are traced to philosophical writings known to have been part of his library, and to his conviction that the music of Johann Sebastian Bach was superior to that of his own time. Taking that stand surely must have raised questions in his mind about his earlier commitment to the progressive view of history.
Forkel's openness to new historiographical approaches suggests that he, of all Enlightenment writers on music, might have found value in Ockeghem's music, all the more so because he was better informed about Ockeghem's preeminent stature in his own day than anyone else at the time, and owing to his awareness of a current German tradition that regarded Ockeghem as ““the Bach of his day.”” Yet Forkel's deprecation of Ockeghem's music is among the strongest in the literature. His negative stand can be traced to his admiration for a 16th-century tract on teaching music, the Compendium musices by Adrian Petit Coclico, who demonizes Ockeghem as an icon of the scholastic approach to music. Forkel's own commitment to a humanistic orientation in music pedagogy surely led him to view Coclico as a kindred spirit.
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