Johannes Ockeghem Biography

(Flemish Composer and Singer of Early Renaissance Music)

Born: 1410

Born In: Saint-Ghislain, Belgium

Johannes Ockeghem (also Jan Hocquegam) was a prominent composer of the Franco-Flemish School, most reputed as the main exponent of its Second generation during last half of the 15th century. He is often looked upon as the most distinguished composer after Guillaume Dufay and before Josquin des Prez. Besides etching his name as a remarkable composer, Ockeghem was also revered as a teacher, choirmaster and singer. He served at the court of Charles I, Duke of Bourbon in Moulins and later at the French court for Charles VII and Louis XI respectively. Some works of Ockeghem are lost while many earlier attributed to him are presently presumed to be composed by others. Reliably attributed works of the virtuoso that are still extant include around 14 masses, 13 of which are preserved in the Chigi codex; 1 motet-chanson; 5 motets; and 21 chansons. Some of his works also finds place in Petrucci's Harmonice musices odhecaton. Ockeghem earned repute across Europe for his expressive music and technical prowess. His noted works include two of his musical settings of the Ordinary of the Mass, namely Missa prolationum and Missa cuiusvis toni, The former which comprise entirely of mensuration canons is possibly the most extraordinary contrapuntal achievement of the 15th century. Many laments were composed to commemorate death of this legend including Josquin’s motet La déploration de la mort de Johannes Ockeghem.

Quick Facts

Died At Age: 87

Born Country: Belgium

Composers Belgian Men

Died on: February 6, 1497

place of death: Tours, France

Childhood & Early Life

Johannes Ockeghem was born sometime between c. 1410-1425 in the Walloon city Saint-Ghislain in Netherlands (presently in Belgium). While his exact birth date remains unknown, dates as early as 1410 have been suggested on the basis of the probability that he knew senior composer Gilles de Binche (called Binchois) of the Burgundian school, in Hainaut till the time the latter relocated to Lille from Mons in 1423. Ockeghem possibly studied with the senior composer and was at least closely associated with the latter at the Burgundian court. While not much is known for sure about early life and education of Ockeghem, many suggest that he did his early studies in music in Mons, as the town had at least two churches with competent music schools. His association with Binchois was conjectured from the funeral motet he composed in the memory of Binchois in which he not only imitated the style of Binchois, but also revealed some useful information on the latter’s life. The lament that French poet Guillaume Crétin wrote on Ockeghem's death in 1497, where Crétin regretted the death of Ockeghem before the composer attained the age of 100, is also often considered evidence while reckoning the earlier birth date of Ockeghem.

Although the spelling Okeghem mostly finds place in 15th-century sources, an autograph presumably that of the composer spelled his title as Ockeghem. The autograph survived till 1885, and was reproduced in Tours by French doctor and historian Eugène Giraudet. The document was however lost thereafter. According to documents dating back to 1607, found in 1993, Jan Hocquegam hailed from Saint-Ghislain in the County of Hainaut. This corroborates with the information found in 16th century documents and thus put forward for consideration that although earliest facts about Ockeghem are found in records in Flanders, he was a native speaker of Picard.

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Like many other composers of his time, Ockeghem commenced his career in music as a chorister. In June 1443, he was inducted at the Onze-Lieve-Vrouwe cathedral in Antwerp, as a left-hand choir singer and was supposed to sing composed music (while the right-handers sang chant). This marks as the first actual documented record of the composer. Franco-Flemish composer Johannes Pullois was a colleague of Ockeghem there and the latter probably sang under Pullois’ direction. Ockeghem possibly became acquainted with the English compositional style during his tenure at this church.

From 1446 to 1448 Ockeghem served with French or Flemish singer and composer Jean Cousin and eleven other singers at the court of Charles I, Duke of Bourbon in Moulins, presently in central France. During such tenure Ockeghem’s name featured in the court records as the first singing chaplain.

Ockeghem relocated to Paris sometime around 1452 and was inducted as maestro di cappella in the French court. He also became treasurer of the collegiate church of St. Martin in the city of Tours. During his tenure there Ockeghem got introduced to French composer and poet Antoine Busnois who was appointed a subdeacon there in 1465. Busnois penned down the motet In hydraulis in Ockeghem’s honour sometime before 1467.

Ockeghem first served at the French court under King of France Charles VII and thereafter under the latter’s son and successor Louis XI. He also served at Notre Dame de Paris and at St. Benoît. In 1470, he became part of a diplomatic mission for Louis XI and travelled to Spain in an attempt to discourage Spain from joining hands with England and Burgundy against France, and to arrange a matrimonial alliance between Louis XI’s brother, Charles, Duke of Guyenne and Isabella I of Castile.

Musical style of Ockeghem was notably different from that of the older generation, however it is likely that he acquired his basic technique from them. Some of his works were lost while many earlier considered to be those of the virtuoso are presently presumed to be of other composers. Thus the count of reliably attributed works of Ockeghem has decreased with time, as seen in case of many other distinguished composers of that time, including Josquin. The reliably attributed works of Ockeghem include 14 masses (including a Requiem), 5 motets, a motet-chanson (a deploration on the death of Binchois), an isolated Credo (Credo sine nomine), and 21 chansons. The music manuscript Chigi codex originating in Flanders includes thirteen masses of Ockeghem and presently finds place in the Vatican Apostolic Library. His music is also included in the anthology of polyphonic secular songs titled Harmonice Musices Odhecaton. The collection of chansons printed by Italian printer Ottaviano Petrucci in 1501 in Venice emerged as the first book of polyphonic music that was printed using movable type and remained influential in disseminating the Franco-Flemish musical style.

It is difficult to date Ockeghem's compositions due to lack of external points of reference. His Requiem, a polyphonic setting of the Roman Catholic Requiem Mass (the Missa pro defunctis), that is noted as one of the most famous and often-performed compositions of the virtuoso, is considered as the earliest extant polyphonic requiem mass, as a possibly earlier work composed by Dufay has not survived. The movements of Ockeghem's Requiem differ considerably in style, and all use a paraphrase technique for the original Sarum chant, a feature not usually seen in the composer’s work. The mass has five movements for two to four voices. It was either composed for the funeral of Charles VII in 1461 or following the death of Louis XI in 1483.

Ockeghem was influenced by the musical setting Missa Caput of the Roman Catholic mass that was originally done by an anonymous English composer and dates back to the 1440s. Ockeghem’s version of this mass was also known to be based on the same cantus firmus on which the original one is based. Innovative treatment of the cantus firmus by Ockeghem as well as the increasingly homogeneous textures noticed in his later works gives inkling that Missa Ma maistresse and Missa Fors seulement were two of his later compositions.

The technique of cantus firmus was used by the composer in almost half of his masses of which the earliest ones used head-motifs at the beginning of the individual movements. The motto mass Missa Mi-mi composed by Ockeghem was based on his own chanson, Presque transi. Likewise Missa Ma maistresse and Missa Fors seulement were also based on chansons written by Ockeghem. All other masses of Ockeghem were possibly freely composed and not borrowed from other sources. Two such notable ones include Missa cuiusvis toni and Missa prolationum. While the former was designed in a way that it may be sung in any of the Dorian, Phrygian, Mixolydian or Lydian modes by writing the music sans any clefs or key signatures; the latter consisted entirely of mensuration canons and was probably the first multi-part work that was penned down with a unifying canonic principle for all its movements. Missa prolationum is recognised as possibly the most remarkable contrapuntal achievement of that period. These two technique-oriented compositions however also showcase the uniquely expressive use of vocal ranges and tonal language by the composer. The wide-ranging and rhythmically active bass lines used by Ockeghem distinguished him from several other composers of the Netherlandish Schools.

Reputation, Death & Legacy

Ockeghem earned fame across Europe for his expressive music and remarkable technical prowess and went on to influence composers like Josquin and the following generation of Netherlanders.

King Louis XI died in 1483 and little is known for sure about life and career of Ockeghem after that time except that he went to Bruges and Tours, and died on February 6, 1497, possibly in Tours as he left a will there. The repute and fame he earned during his lifetime can be gauged from the unusually large number of laments that were produced to commemorate his death. One of the most notable ones includes Nymphes des bois, also known as La Déploration de Johannes Ockeghem composed by Josquin. The elegy set by Josquin was written by Jean Molinet. The piece that is in five voices includes the funeral text Requiem Aeternam as a cantus firmus. Josquin mimics Ockeghem’s contrapuntal style in the first of the two parts of the piece that is counted among the best-known works of Josquin as well as among the most haunting and moving memorial works ever written. Another noted lament was Johannes Lupi’s musical setting of Ergone conticuit written by Desiderius Erasmus.

See the events in life of Johannes Ockeghem in Chronological Order

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