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Archive for July 2012

Composer Biography: Johannes (Jean de) Ockeghem (ca1420-1497)

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Johannes Ockeghem holds an odd place in music history. You see, a lot of books talk about Ockeghem or really, Ocheghem’s music, in comparison to whomever they’re describing, but few actually delve into Ockeghem himself, at least not in my collection of 50 or so books on Medieval and Renaissance music. They often cite a phrase or twelve, but then spend the rest of the discussion on how Josquin, Obrecht, or Dufay would have done it differently. He seems to have set the standard to which they all aspired, but no one’s willing to define that standard. They say things like “in the style of Ockeghem’s subdued intensity” and “what is already different from Ockeghem is the emphasis on strict imitation and on rhythmic and melodic repetition.” Lots and lots of books wax enthusiastic but few say anything useful about the great man himself.

This, of course, made my little sleuthing heart go all a flutter. It took a lot of itty bitty details to collect much of anything, but here you have it.

In the 15th century, the big cities for musical training and compositional innovation were Antwerp, Bruges, Cambrai, Lyon, and Paris, all either in France or present-day Belgium. (The borders were different back then). Many were born in Belgium, then called Flanders, before heading for France. These great cities were later joined by Rome and Venice to become the Big Deal Cities where musical innovation and composition was happening, and being studied and documented. If you were anyone in music, you lived in one of these cities at some point.

Because there wasn’t such a thing as a professional musician then, many singers were also servants, administrators, clerics, or other church officials. Musicians of the court were primarily instrumentalists, or minstrels raised in musical families and trained through the apprentice system.

Ockeghem was born in Flanders somewhere between 1410 and 1430 (records are better for deducing birthdates at this time than documenting actual dates) and considered himself a Fleming, not a Walloon. Walloons were French-speakers and Flemish were Dutch-speakers. Lots of interesting political stuff surrounds these language choices, but it’s a digression, so I’ll resist.

It’s important to know this because Ockeghem didn’t write poetry in his native language, although some say that he wrote in Picard (a sort of French/Walloon offspring). Instead, he wrote in Latin and French. You’ll figure out why as you read along.

Esteemed for the 13 Masses he wrote and the handful of chansons and motets, he was also much respected for his bass singing voice. He was a student and, later, a teacher, to some of the greatest innovators in European music, and when he died, Jean Molinet wrote a poem and Josquin dez Prez (biography to come) wrote the music to the most famous of them, portraying Ockeghem as the “good father” of the next generation (which included Josquin, Pierre de la Rue, Antoine Brumel, and Loyset Compere).

He’s believed to have been born in Saint Ghislain, which is now in Belgium. It’s also possible that he was born in East Flanders because there is a town there with a similar name, Okegem. Spellings weren’t stable back then, so this could easily be a variant of Ockeghem.

Ockeghem trained in a province of Hainaut in North-eastern France called Dendermonde, which is now a suburb of Brussels in Belgium, and for Hildegard fans, a reason for happiness. (Monks from Dendermonde heard Hildegard’s music and requested a copy. Because it was in an itty bitty abbey in Belgium, the manuscript survived a bunch of wars and fires, and is one of two surviving copies of Hildegard’s music made during her lifetime. The originals that she would have sung from herself are lost.) As he matured, Ockeghem served in Antwerp and spent several years in Paris with the chapel of Charles I, duke of Bourbon. He was closely identified with the French royal court, and served three kings over more than 40 years.

He was a Royal Chapel member from 1451, first as chaplain from 1454, and then master of the chapel from 1465. He was given the honorary title of Treasurer at the royal church at St. Martin, in Tours, in 1458, and he became a priest around 1464. (Remember that bit above about being a servant or a cleric?)

He kept in touch with Guillaume Dufay (c1397-1474), Gilles Binchois (c1400-1460), and Antoine Busnois (or Busnoys, c1430-1492), and other huge names from his region, and seems to have been liked and respected far and wide. At one point, he traveled to Spain on a diplomatic mission for King Louis XI in 1470 or thereabout. He doesn’t seem to have ever gone to Italy and his music shows no Italian influence.

He was a singer at Notre Dame in Antwerp in 1443. The choir there was in two parts: 24 people well-versed in singing polyphony and 24 who sang only plainchant, and he sang in the more skilled group, singing polyphony. Happily, there was an increase in funding for choirs in the late 14th century and they were quite large bunch.

By 1452 or 53, he was at the French court, where he spent the rest of his life as singer, composer, and choir master in Tours.

His music and life were less cosmopolitan than that of Dufay (c1397-1474, who was his contemporary and far more widely traveled and popular).

In comparison to other composers of his time and fame, he didn’t produce a huge quantity of music. It’s hard to date most of them, and many works originally thought to be Ockeghem have turned out to be attributable to other composers from the same period.

He is believed to have written 13 Masses plus a Requiem Mass, at least five motets, and 21 chansons. All of these were widely performed, distributed, and imitated in his own time, and he is thought to have profoundly influenced the next generation of composers, those fellows that I named above.

The Masses he wrote, typical now as well as then, were performed by singers-only. His chansons are for three voices, mostly higher despite his own bass voice, and use specific structural forms, especially the rondeau form (a four-stanza poem that repeats both in melody and lyrics in a particular pattern). The chansons were enormously popular. As a singer himself, he must have imagined how the voices would fare when he was writing the music, and it was probably as much a pleasure to sing them then as it is now.

He’s famous for smooth and arching melodies, syncopations, strong consonance, careful dissonance, and prominent thirds and sixths that hearkened to the previous generation of composers. Also, he included newly developed features, such as melodies that required a longer breath, increased amounts of imitated musical gestures and phrases, equality among voices (meaning no predominating melodies with accompaniment), and frequent duple meters (things in two instead of three or four).

Just as would be true from ancient times to the present day, melodies and themes were shared among composers, especially among Dufay, Busnois, and Ockeghem. They often used the same cantus firmus (like a very slowly sung chant that declares a kind of theme from the beginning to the end of a piece while the other voices dance and wiggle around it).

Most of Ockeghem’s Masses are in four voices, which was not unique to him, but wasn’t particularly common yet. The voices often displayed conspicuously wide ranges—two octaves across several voices! There were especially wide ranges in the lower voices (Ockeghem was a bass, remember, and probably quite accomplished). He combined voices here and there as trios and duets within the context of four voices, providing color and shape.

Seven of his Masses include the cantus firmus element in the tenor (which is where most composers put it), but with changes in the rhythm and additional notes. The requiem Mass is all plain chant, and the rest are “motto” Masses, which means that they were unified by a common motif both across the voices and throughout the piece.

Two Masses can be sung in any of the non-plagal modes (see my blog on Musical Modes: Part 1, Church Modes for more on what that means) by reading the clef in any of four positions, and using musica ficta (accidentals or notes outside the mode or scale) to avoid tritones (three whole steps, perhaps from F to A#. Or you could think of them as six half-steps. Either way, then and now, these are considered “difficult” to hear and to perform). Ockeghem had strong opinions about modes and refused to have more than one or two F-sharps in the upper voices and no B-flats at all in the bass, which creates some surprising harmonies. (The B-flat was considered the “devil’s note” for quite a few centuries, including in Bach’s time. If I can find enough about it, maybe I’ll write a blog about that someday.) His melodies went largely step-wise up or down, with few skips greater than a third. His cadences were frequently elided or overlapped by other voices, creating a continuous sound and flow. It’s part of why they’re so fun to sing. He did like the element of surprise, though, and some pieces have unpredictable melodies that add a kind of brooding mysticism.

Ockeghem’s 13 Masses are collected in a lavishly ornate manuscript called the Chigi Codex and are in the Vatican’s treasure trove today.

When he died in Tours, France in 1497, there were several elegies written for him, the most famous of which is from Josquin des Prez (biography to come), called La déploration de la mort de Johannes Ockeghem, and was based on the poem Nymphes des bois by Jean Molinet. He was clearly well liked and respected.



“The History of Western Music,” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca

“A Dictionary of Early Music; from the Troubadours to Monteverde,” by Jerome and Elizabeth Roche

“Concise Oxford History of Music,” by Gerald Abraham

“The Pelican History of Music, Volume 2: Renaissance and Baroque,” edited by Alec Robertson and Denis Stevens, Penguin Books, London, 1973

“The Notation of Polyphonic Music 900-1600,” by Willi Apel, The Mediaeval Academy of America, Cambridge, 1961

Written by Melanie Spiller

July 30, 2012 at 2:09 pm

Composer Biography: Odo of Cluny (c878-942)

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You know how there are some things that seem like they’ve always existed, like running water, or paved roads, or sharp knives? Well, once upon a time, someone came up with those ideas. Odo of Cluny (also Oddo, Odon, or Eudes) is the clever fellow who named the musical notes after letters of the alphabet. In his original version, he used all capital letters and all the letters A-Z, and then started over again with lower-case letters. They didn’t have any instruments that could play more notes than that, so he didn’t have to come up with more. (That’s right, the piano didn’t exist yet, and neither did the organ, harpsichord, virginal, or any other melodically percussive instrument. There were harps, but they tended to be small, only 22 strings or so, not the big extravagant things you see in the orchestra pit. But I digress).

Odo was also the first to identify the note B-flat. That’s right, no one had identified it before. They’d made the sound, but remember, solfeggio hadn’t been invented yet either (see my blog, Composer Biography Guido D’Arezzo) so they just noticed that a certain interval was occasionally not where they thought it would be.

Odo used a rounded B (called b rotundum) for a flatted note and a square-edged B (called b quadratum) for a natural, shapes that have persisted into modern music notation. Isn’t that nifty?

It’s impossible to tell if the B-flat was an innovation of the 9th or 10th century; we only know that it was documented then. There’s some evidence of E-flat and F-sharp, but there’s no documentation of it, beyond the obvious modality of the music itself.

Odo was the son of a feudal lord at Deols, near Le Mans, and got his early education at the court of Fulk the Good, who was the Count of Anjou, and William the Pious, who was duke of Aquitaine. Other sources say that Odo was the son of a nobleman (although they don’t list his rank) who lived in Alsace. Even others say that he was the son of a knight. You can pick, if you like.

Odo joined the monastery at St. Martin of Tours as a cleric (back then, this was like a deeply religious layperson, not a monk or priest), then went on to study in Paris under Remigius of Auxerre. He became a monk in about 909 (rather late, as he would have been about thirty years old), then became a priest, and finally a superior of the abbey school in Baume, whose founder and abbot was the first for the shiny new Cluny abbey, in 910. Odo went with Abbot Berno to Cluny, and brought his book collection of about 100 books. The library later grew to be one of the richest and most important in Europe, but during the religious conflicts of 1562, the Hugenots sacked the abbey, destroying or distributing the books far and wide. Some of those that remained were burned in 1760 during the French Revolution.

At any rate, Odo became abbot when Berno died in 927. He was the second in a long string of famous abbots. And he was a busy fellow, as you will see.

Odo visited Italy several times between 936 and 942, and founded the Our Lady on the Aventine monastery in Rome during those trips. That monastery and the other Cluniac monasteries from Odo’s reform efforts lived under the Rule of Benedict, but because the male Cluniac houses enjoyed a certain opulence, it was not thought that the more meager nunneries were cost-effective and they continued the tradition of earning their own keep. But among the men, Odo’s reforms led to less agrarian and more political structures for the Cluniac abbeys. This new organization left the monks free to devote themselves to prayer and study because the work of running the abbey was left to laypeople and servants. The monks ate and dressed very well, true to their noble births, and you can see that it would be appealing—if you were male and inclined to the monastery—to join the Cluniac string of houses.

Cluniac Reform, headed by Odo, was about restoring the arts and caring for the poor. The main complaint needing reform was corruption, especially buying offices and having concubines. (The Catholic church if you read its history, seems to struggle with this sort of thing off and on since its inception.) At the time, Benedictine monasteries were largely supported by a local lord, who acted as a patron, and sometimes made demands from the monasteries, like for cheese or wine production, as payment for land use. Odo’s reform made control less secular, so that the Rule of St. Benedict could be enforced. The first reformed monastery was in Aquitaine, and reported directly to the pope, a control that was largely theoretical, as Rome was a pretty good distance and there wasn’t any Internet or telephone. There were more than a thousand Cluny monasteries by the 12th century.

But I digress. Again.

Odo was Abbot of Cluny in Burgundy (now France) from 927 until his death in 942. During his abbacy, there were more than 82 donations of land to the Cluny monastery, making the monastic properties huge as well as hugely important to the region.

Odo seems to have enjoyed an interest in music, and he took it upon himself to contribute to the massive effort being undertaken (since Pope Gregorius had first ordered it in the 6th century), and he took part in documenting the forms that certain music was to take, such as the antiphons.

Odo wasn’t an innovator, for the most part, though, and his writings followed on what Aurelianus (in about 850) wrote about how the modes should be relevant mostly at the ends of certain pieces (such as the offertory, gradual, etc., which are movements from the Propers) and at the beginnings of others (such as introits, antiphons, communions, more songs from the Propers), and to which Regino added (in about 890). Regino suggested that singers concentrate their attention on the beginnings of antiphons, introits, and communions, and the opposite for responsories, when the singer should focus on the ends rather than the beginnings. Odo said that the singer should focus on the psalm tones (where the drone lives, in context of the moving notes of the chant), and that the singer should take their cues about how to begin the chant from how it ends. These were three very different ways to approach the same music, it seems.

Odo created a seminal tonary, which is a collection of liturgical chants organized around their mode or psalm tones. Today’s most-used books organize around the time of year and a complete Mass’ music, or around what part they play—so all the introits are grouped together, all the communions, and so on.

Some music historians attribute the invention of the monochord or organistrum (used in the 10th-12th centuries, like an early hurdy-gurdy and later vilified by Michael Praetorius) to Odo. I don’t know if he invented it or not, but he certainly used the it to teach music. It was a kind of mechanical drone instrument that used a rotating wheel (cranked by hand) against a single string, the note of which could be adjusted by moving a bridge, and a drone tone, fixed and unaltered and left open. Yup, you could play an open fourth or fifth on it. But harmony, polyphony, and accompaniment hadn’t been invented yet, so it’s likely that they used this device to provide “home” notes to help the singers stay on pitch and not something more wild.

Odo’s work as a reformer was recognized by the pope, and he was sent as a political emissary when peace was arranged between Hugh of Arles (who was big on promoting his family members and leaving his people to starve) and Alberic I of Spoleto in about 909 or 910.

People didn’t take credit for writing new music back then, but they did take credit for writing about music. Odo probably wrote the Diologus de musica (or it might have been written by his student), which contains the earliest use of the modern scale’s  letters (called the Oddonic letters), examples of anomalous chants, and a detailed explanation of the ambitus (the spectrum of notes) of the various modes.

Odo is credited with inventing the term “cantus planus,” which was a device used in the plagal modes (these are lower in pitch and dip lower in their melodies than authentic modes—for more on this, see my blog, Musical Modes, Part 1, Church Modes) to refer to the fact that the melodies themselves floated below the surface of a mode. This means that you can hear the scale of the mode in the song, even though the song doesn’t necessarily tiptoe up and down the scale of the mode. It gets in your ear, like one of those jingles that goes round and round in there. The cantus planus is also thought to apply to polyphony, where the chant lies underneath the added melodies on a simple plane.

Odo also commented on the Moralia of St. Gregory, wrote a biography of St. Aurillac, wrote three books of moral essays called Collationes, a few sermons, and an epic poem on the redemption, called Occupatio. He was a pretty busy fellow.

He is thought to have written 12 choral antiphons, all in honor of St. Martin of Tours. But there’s no way to verify this, because folks didn’t sign (or copyright) the music they wrote back then.

There’s only one contemporary biography of him, called the Vita Odonis, by John of Salerno. Guido D’Arezzo based some of his thoughts on Odo’s work. (You can read more about my pal Guido in my blog, Composer Biography: Guido D’Arezzo)



“Gregorian Chant,” by Willi Apel, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1990

“The Concise Oxford History of Music,” by Gerald Abraham, Oxford University Press, New York 1979

“The Notation of Polyphonic Music, 900-1600,” by Willi Apel, The Mediaeval Academy of America, 1953

“Music in the Middle Ages,” by Gustave Reese, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1940

“Temperament, The Idea the Solved Music’s Greatest Riddle,” Stuar Isacoff, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2001

“Music, Body, and Desire in Medieval Culture, from Hildegard of Bingen to Chaucer,” by Bruce W. Holsinger, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 2001

Written by Melanie Spiller

July 16, 2012 at 5:16 pm

Composer Biography: Carlo Gesualdo (c1560-1613)

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Don Carlo Gesualdo’s noble Naples family acquired the principality of Venosa in 1560. He was born around that same time and was an actual prince (as you will discover, only in title. His personality left a little to be desired and was totally off the Disney script). His uncle was Carlo Borromeo, who later became a saint, and his mother was Girolama, the niece of Pope Pius IV. Carlo came from a seriously well-connected and ridiculously wealthy family, and it’s no wonder that he may have felt a little entitlement here and there.

He was a late-Renaissance lutenist, and also played the harpsichord and guitar. From all records, it seems that other than a couple of marriages and a few offspring, he was interested in little other than music. He had few friends and was prone to excesses of food and libation.

But let’s pause for a moment and consider his marriages. Today’s soap operas have nothing on young Carlo.

In 1586, 26-ish Carlo married his first cousin Maria d’Avalos, the daughter of the Marquis of Pescara. When she began a secret love affair with Fabrizio Carafa, the Duke of Andria, she was able to hide it from Carlo for about two years, although everyone else seemed to know. On October 16, 1590, at the Palazzo San Severo in Naples, when Carlo was supposed to be away on a hunting trip, the two were sufficiently indiscreet that Carlo, who’d made wooden copies of the keys to the palace, caught them in bed and murdered them.

He left their mutilated bodies for all to see in front of the palace. Because he was a nobleman, he could not be prosecuted (imagine!), and to hide from the relatives of his wife or her lover, who were likely to want revenge, he fled to his castle at Venosa.

There’s plenty of information about the murders, and it’s clear that Carlo was aided by his servants, who might also have participated in the murders, but who, at the very least, made the copies of the keys. The story goes that Carlo, as he repeatedly stabbed his wife, shouted “She’s not dead yet!” The Duke of Andria died of many deep sword wounds and a shot to the head. When he was found, he was in Maria’s night dress and his own clean clothes were left neatly folded by the bed.

Many poets, such as Torquato Tasso in Naples, wrote salacious verse about the murders. You can see that the story lends itself nicely to such efforts.

After the murders, reports differed. Some say that he also murdered his second son by Maria, who was an infant, because he looked into the child’s eyes and doubted his paternity. (By one report, he swung the infant around until the breath left his body). Some sources say that he murdered his father-in-law as well, in self-defense when Papa d’Avolos sought revenge for his daughter’s murder. But Carlo had hired a bunch of body guards to protect himself, so this seems improbable.

His second wife, Leonora d’Este, was niece to Duke Alfonso II of Ferrara, and they married in 1593 or 1594. This was a fortuitous marriage in that it gave Carlo contacts with the musical circle of Ferrara and through them, he met the poet Tasso, who became a friend. Ferraro was the home of the d’Este court and one of the centers of progressive musical activity, most notably the madrigal, which became Carlo’s stock in trade.

The new couple moved back to Carlo’s estate in Venosa in 1597. One has to wonder if Leonora was a little nervous about the arrangement.

Back in Venosa, Carlo set up a group of resident musicians, a kind of academy, to sing his own compositions in the privacy of his own home. No other composers were invited to participate, and he rarely left his castle, making music most of the time. He did a lot of composing during this period, as most of his music was published between 1603 and 1611.

But still, his new marriage was bad news. She accused him of abuse, and the Este family tried to obtain a divorce for her. She spent a lot of time away from the estate (and you can’t help but wonder what kind of jealous psychosis that set off), and there are records of Carlo’s angry letters to her at Modena, where she often went to stay with her brother. One contemporary wrote “she seems to have been a very virtuous woman for there is no record of his having killed her.” Heh. Wry.

When Carlo’s second son by his second marriage died in 1600, he had a large painting commissioned with images of his son, his second wife, and his uncle Carlo pictured underneath some angelic figures. It tidily implies familial bliss in with a nice death threat hanging over them all.

It’s likely that he studied with Pomponio Nenna, a renowned madrigalist in Naples. He studied with other iconic musicians in Venosa, too, including the nobleman lutenist Ettorre de la Marra.

His visits to Ferrara and his friend Tasso linked him to the “mannerist” madrigalists of northern Italy. This was a style committed to humanism and naturalism and was popular across all the arts. Other mannerists that you might have heard of include Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, and Michelangelo in his early works.

Gesualdo wrote six volumes of five-part madrigals that were published starting in 1594. He also wrote two books of motets, a book of responsories, and a few keyboard works. There are three distinctive categories for his music: sacred vocal music, secular vocal music, and instrumental music.

His music is distinctive. The melodies vary wildly from fast to slow, and the harmonies are like chromatic scales (all the notes including the half steps, not just a major or minor scale) against the melodies. There’s a lot of passion in the work, and his experiments with chromaticism foreshadow the music that came much later—in the 20th century!

For lyrics, he was fond of contemporary poetry that had strong images, and which he dramatized and intensified with the music. He made sharp contrasts between diatonic (the eight notes of a scale, say, all the white keys between one C and the next on the piano) and chromatic (the 12 notes between one C and the next, including all the black keys). He played with the concepts of dissonance and consonance, waffled between chordal and imitative textures, and used slow-moving and active rhythms against one another. He particularly seemed to enjoy breaking up poetic lines to isolate certain words with the music.

He harbored certain obsessions, and a lot of Carlo’s  music features the words love, pain, death, ecstasy, and agony. Word painting was common at the time, although Carlo kind of took it a bit further than most. The texts he chose are closely wedded to the music, and in each piece, certain individual words are made considerably more conspicuous than the rest.

Unlike other composers of the time, Carlo expected all lines to be sung. Other composers of his time doubled or replaced a voice with an instrument. Yah, that might be part of what I like about his music. He knew what a voice could and couldn’t do, and he wrote for it.

Carlo’s work was occasionally imitated by composers such as Sigismondo d’India and Girolamo Frescobaldi in terms of polyphonic (multiple interesting melodic lines) madrigals. The chromatic nature of his compositions wasn’t heard again until the late 19th century. I suppose in one sense, he’s not the father of the twelve-tone system, but he’s certainly an ancestor.

For the most part, Carlo Gesualdo fell into obscurity until the late 20th century and when there was a resurgence of interest in the madrigal form.

Late in life, Carlo suffered from depression, possibly caused by a combination of guilt about the murders and the isolation he inflicted on himself. There are records about him ordering his servants to beat him daily, and he also tried to obtain various religious relics that were thought to help with mental disorders. Efforts to obtain absolution for his crimes through the church were unsuccessful.

Carlo died in isolation, at castle Gesualdo in Avellino, three weeks after the death of his son Emanuel, his first son by his first wife. Some biographers suggest that his second wife murdered him.

He was buried in the chapel of Saint Ignatius in the church of the Gesu’ Nuovo in Naples. The sepulcher was destroyed in the earthquake of 1688 and the rebuilt church covered over the tomb. They left the burial plaque visible, though.

Several novels and more than a handful of operas have been written based on his life. There was a short TV film made about his life (“Death for Five Voices”), and there are rumors of a biopic yet to come. Interestingly, 21st century jazz musicians consider him one of their own, and have um, re-interpreted the madrigals from books I, IV, and VI of his publications.



“A Dictionary of Early Music: From the Troubadours to Monteverdi,” by Jerome and Elizabeth Roche, Oxford University Press, New York, 1981

“A History of Western Music,” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, Claude V. Palisca, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2010


Written by Melanie Spiller

July 4, 2012 at 12:00 pm