Johannes Ockeghem

(c.1425 - 1497)

Franco-Flemish composer. Ockeghem was born in the village of St. Ghislain (near Mons, Belgium) in the diocese of Cambrai, but his date of birth is unknown. Long ago Fétis thought he was born around 1430, assuming that he was a choirboy in Antwerp in 1443; Plamenac suggested 1425, then later agreed with Riemann and Van den Borren, who picked 1420; Leeman Perkins wrote in 1980 that he must have been born closer to 1410, since he was thought to have lived about 90 or 100 years.

It is unknown where got his training as a musician. Lack of any documentary evidence is only compensated for by two compositions in which Ockeghem refers to the composer Gilles de Binche (Binchois), for more than 30 years a distinguished member of the Burgundian court chapel of Duke Philip the Good. Shortly after Binchois' death in 1460, Ockeghem composed Mort tu as navré de ton dart, a lament whose text suggests personal acquaintance with Binchois. Presumably earlier is Ockeghem's polyphonic mass setting based on the Tenor of one of Binchois' most famous chansons: De plus en plus se renouvelle. Probably composed for a Marian feast, it is the Sanctus section of Ockeghem's mass which seems to reveal the composer's intention. The first 27 notes of Binchois' Tenor are presented in a compound triple time (tempus perfectum cum prolatione maiori [ ] - like 9/8), but sung in a slow tempo against the other voices. In Binchois' chanson these 27 notes form a lower counterpoint in 6/8 (tempus imperfectum cum prolatione maiori [ ]) against the melody to which the first three lines of the original rondeau text are sung:

De plus en plus se renouvelle(Ever more and more,
ma douce dame gente et belle my sweet lady, kind and lovely,
la voulenté de vous veir. the desire to see you renews itself in me.)

The first appearance of Johannes Ockeghem in the surviving records is the year (1443-1444) that he spent as a vicaire-chanteur (an adult singer in the cathedral choir) at Notre Dame in Antwerp. Two years later he was singing in the chapel of Charles I, duke of Bourbon, whose wife was the sister of Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy. It is possible that he had gone there directly from Antwerp. He remained at least two years until he moved to his next known position, the chapel of Charles VII, king of France, where he is named in the list of singers in 1451. Among the chaplains (singers in the chapel) who are not priests, he is already listed premier chapelain by 1453.

From that date onwards, there exists documentation of various rewards made by the king for offerings of what may have been Ockeghem's own compositions: "ung livre de chant" (1454) or "ung chanson bien richement enluminée" (1459). However, he must have rendered much greater service to be nominated in 1459 as trésorier of the Abbey of St. Martin in Tours, of which the French kings were hereditary abbots. This function made Ockeghem first in rank among the administrators of the vast royal property in and around that city, and secured him a considerable annual income. But already in April 1461 he was released from the obligation to reside in Tours; apparently his function as trésorier gave him sufficient status to become a reliable official at the French court, which was always en route between the various royal estates.

Ockeghem remained at the royal court after Charles VII died, serving Louis XI after 1461 and Charles VIII after 1483. Under Louis XI, Ockeghem became Maistre de chapelle de chant du roy (1464), a title renewed by Charles VIII in 1483. In that capacity he developed into a highly prolific composer of polyphonic mass cycles, of which thirteen have been transmitted in a single manuscript, copied around 1500, and now preserved in the Vatican Library (MS Chigi 234). During the early 1460s the young Flemish composer Antoine Busnoys apparently refined his musical abilities in Tours with Ockeghem; his famous motet In hydraulis hails Ockeghem as the successor of Pythagoras and "a true image of Orpheus." In 1462 and 1464 Ockeghem visited the Chapter of Notre Dame in Cambrai, and stayed in the house of the great composer Guillaume Dufay. In spite of his residence in Tours, Ockeghem was a canon of Notre Dame in Paris from 1463 to 1470. He must have been ordained a priest in Cambrai some time before 1472, during a visit to Dufay. He is still mentioned in court documents in 1488, when he was present for the foot-washing ceremony of Holy Thursday.

(In documented travels to Spain in 1470 and to the Low Countries, visiting Damme and Brugge (August 1484) Ockeghem may well have assumed a double role: as both the highly esteemed composer, traveling with his fellow chapel singers, and the experienced, trustworthy official, representing the interests of the French royal court.)

Because of his great age, he probably spent his last years in retirement. He died on February 6, 1497.

Ockeghem's output was comparatively modest in size: ten complete Masses, some partial Masses and single movements, and also the earliest extant polyphonic Requiem, a handful of motets and 22 chansons. His best music can be found in the Masses, many of which are preserved in the 'Chigi Codex', a lavishly ornate manuscript in the Vatican Library. In some he followed the cantus firmus technique of Dufay's late Masses, but others are written, sometimes ingeniously, without any pre-existent musical material; the Missa Prolationum, for instance, consists of a series of mensuration canons. But such structural ingenuity, far from being drily academic, is beautifully and artfully concealed in an almost timeless flow of counterpoint that is the hallmark of Ockeghem's style. The comparative paucity of cadences creates a floating effect, but the ends of sections are marked by intricate rhythmic climaxes. He wrote for a choir whose four parts were equal in importance and often rather low in range, but hardly developed the idea of imitation, soon to be so important. His chansons are more conventional in style, in three parts with the focus on a melodious top line.

Where Dufay's music impresses us by its grace, soaring majesty, and formal clarity, Ockeghem presents an entirely different musical personality: moody, flamboyant, enigmatic. In common with so many composers of the era, Ockeghem was trained as a singer. His deep bass voice was greatly admired and may explain his fondness for exploring previously unnavigated subterranean registers. A characteristic aspect of Ockeghem's music is its integration of old medieval techniques of hidden structures into the new contrapuntal Renaissance style. One notable example is the use of canon in his Missa Prolationum (Mass of the Time Signatures). Each movement of this four-part piece contains two different canons sung simultaneously, with each part moving at a different speed. No less astonishing are his Missa Cuiusvis toni(Mass in any mode) which may be sung in any one of four modes, and the motet Deo gratias,a canon for four nine-part choruses (thirty-six total parts). Yet despite the enormous technical feat involved in composing such works, Ockeghem created music of contemplative vastness and inward rapture.

Links to other related sites:

A Partial Johannes Ockeghem Discography  |   Page from an Ockeghem Mass  | IIID: The Netherlanders to Ockeghem