Text and Music as ‘Spiel’, Ockeghem’s Chanson L’aultre d’antan

Originally published in:
International Journal of Musicology 2 – 1993, pp. 61-83

Text and Music as ‘Spiel’ – Humour in Ockeghem’s Chanson “L’aultre d’antan”

“Dufay the Reader”2 is the title of Don M. Randel’s important paper about several of Dufay’s Chansons. Randel has convincingly shown that Dufay must have been a careful reader of his chanson texts. The forms of these texts are in no way only rigid schemata, limiting the composer where he could have expressed himself more musically. On the contrary, they provided an ideal frame for a rich variety of sound games, syntax, grammar, rhythm, etc. The contents, too, are only at first sight unvaried or presented in poetically restricted ways. The seeming rigidity of the poetic forms is the very precondition for the variability of the presentation of the contents. In light of this variability, the formal structures acquire a meaning far beyond their outward schemes of rhyme and rhythm. The criteria in Randel’s analysis, such as “tension, relaxation, climax
density, focus, texture, pace, contrast, articulation, tone, register”3 are valuable not only for Dufay’s secular music but for Ockeghem’s, too. Another of Randel’s observations should be emphasized as well: Any expectation of a direct depiction of the contents or a “romantic” representation of a general mood will be mostly disappointed. To counter this view, Randel offers that of “Dufay the reader”, who explored “the poetry of grammar and the grammar of poetry”4 and transposed that poetical grammar to his chansons. As a consequence, Randel seeks parallels of this subtle relation between music and text. Although I agree with Randel’s sensitive approach to the poetical structure of text and music, I cannot follow him in his analysis of parallels between them.