Ockeghem was one of the most respected composers of the fifteenth century, and along with Guillaume Dufay & Josquin Desprez, one of the most influential composers of the early Renaissance. Ockeghem was born in the French-speaking province of Hainaut, in the town of Saint-Ghislain, according to recent definitive research. It had at one time been surmised that he was Flemish, but in any event, all of modern Belgium was then within the Duchy of Burgundy. Estimates for the year of his birth vary considerably from 1400 to c.1430, but written sources from the period indicate that he was a very old man by the time of his death in 1497.
He was premier chaplain to three kings of France, as well as holding the prestigious position of treasurer at the great cathedral and monastery of St. Martin de Tours. During his lifetime, Ockeghem was known for his personal refinement and fine bass voice. After his death, a famous poem by Guillaume Cretin (set to music by Josquin Desprez) praised his character, skill, and influence. He was long identified as one of the fathers of Renaissance music, his influence finally fading only years after his death.
Ockeghem’s surviving musical output is relatively small, comprising a mere handful of motets, several masses, and a couple of dozen secular chansons. His style is marked by a careful handling of vocal ranges in a primarily four-voice texture, and an emphasis on complex and expressive bass lines. This emphasis on lower textures opened up a new world of structural possibilities for Renaissance composers, and Ockeghem’s compositions exploit these potentials in a variety of ways.
Ockegham: Missa pro Defunctis (Kyrie)
Today he is best known for his masses and his ability to integrate large-scale forms in ways which were as unparalleled then as they are now. By the sixteenth century, Ockeghem was known primarily as an accomplished technical master, famous for his complex lines and polyphonic structures, which had the appearance of intractable puzzles for all but the most accomplished musicians.
Ockegham: Deo gratias (36-part canon)
This perception of difficulty, as well as the unique texture of his works, is due in part to his emphasis on long lines which gradually unfold with the formal development of a piece – a development accomplished by a carefully executed structural plan which includes the supression of cadential features in one or more voices at otherwise “planned” cadences. Ockeghem’s reputation as a purely technical master was also earned by the relatively long survival of his more intricate polyphonic explorations as textbook sources. These include his incomparable Missa Prolationum, constructed entirely in canon; his Missa Cuiusvis toni, designed to be performable in any of the available modes (catholicon); and his chanson Prenez sur moi, which is both a strict canon and a catholicon.
Ockeghem: Missa Prolationum
Ockenghem: Missa Cuiusvis toni, Kyrie in Re
Ockenghem: Missa Cuiusvis toni, Kyrie in Mi
However, Ockeghem’s music is by no means dominated by these technical features (and even in these works, the result is astonishing). His contrapuntal language is extremely varied and complex, largely abandoning the simpler fauxbourdon style of Dufay, but not resting exclusively on the pervasive imitation characteristic of Josquin and the successive continental masters. Today, Ockeghem is regarded not only as one of the pioneers of Western polyphony, but as one of its supreme masters of both lyrical and contrapuntal invention.
~Todd McComb (from All-Music Guide, 6/94; revised 4/99)
Josquin: Josquin des Prez’s Nymphes des bois/La déploration de la mort de Johannes Ockeghem, written in 1497; the composer’s homage to his great predecessor.