Johannes Ockeghem was the most famous composer of the Franco-Flemish School in the last half of the 15th century and an honoured singer, choirmaster, and teacher.
Like many composers of this period, details of Ockeghem’s life are sketchy and lacking much detail. He started his musical career as a chorister, and was employed by the Onze-Lieve-Vrouwe cathedral in Antwerp in 1443 as a “left-hand choir singer (“left-handers” sang composed music, “right-handers” sang chant). Around 1452 he moved to Paris where he served as maestro di cappella to the French court, as well as treasurer of the collegiate church of St. Martin, at Tours. In addition to serving at the French court he held posts at Notre Dame de Paris and at St. Benoît.
He did not travel widely, however he is known to have visited Spain in 1470, as part of a diplomatic mission for the King, attempting both to dissuade Spain from joining an alliance with England and Burgundy against France, and to arrange a marriage between Isabella I of Castile and Charles, Duke of Guyenne (the brother of king Louis XI).
He was not a prolific composer; many of his works have either been lost or attributed posthumously to other composers. Reliably attributed, works include some 14 masses, an isolated Credo, 5 motets, a motet-chanson, and 21 chansons. Thirteen of Ockeghem’s masses are preserved in the Chigi codex, a Flemish manuscript dating to around 1500 and some of his works are included in Petrucci’s Harmonice musices odhecaton (1501), the first collection of music to be published using moveable type. His Missa pro Defunctis is the earliest surviving polyphonic Requiem mass.
Ockeghem would sometimes add borrowed material in the lowest voice, such as in the Missa Caput, one of three masses written in the mid-15th century based on that fragment of chant from the English Sarum Rite. Being a renowned bass singer himself, his use of wide-ranging and rhythmically active bass lines sets him apart from many of the other composers in the Netherlandish Schools. Other characteristics of Ockeghem’s compositional technique include a predilection for varying the rhythmic shape of voices, so as to maintain their independence. He was famous throughout Europe for his uniquely expressive tonal language, technical prowess and insightful use of vocal ranges.
An indication of the renown in which Ockeghem was held is the number of laments written on his death in 1497; among the most famous of the musical settings of these many poems is Nymphes des bois by Josquin des Prez.
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.)
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