Melanie Spiller and Coloratura Consulting

Escapades in Early Music, Writing, and Editing

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

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