Johannes Ockeghem (c. 1410 - 1497) was the foremost representative of the second generation of Flemish polyphonists. He was considered an exceptionally gifted composer and singer, both during and after his lifetime.
Ockegem was born in Saint-Ghislain near Mons. Although little is known of his early life, he likely received a musical education at one of the churches in Mons. Ockegem began his musical career as a choral singer: in 1443 he sang in the choir of the Onze-Lieve-Vrouw Cathedral of Antwerp and from 1446 to 1448 he sang in the ducal chapel of Charles I of Bourbon in the French Moulins.
From 1451 until the end of his life, Ockegem would work for the French court. First he sang in the court chapel, where he also composed for Charles VII and was compensated handsomely for his efforts. He was named “first chaplain’’, a new title at the time, and in 1459 he became treasurer of the Saint-Martinus Abbey in Tours. After Charles’ death, Ockeghem received ample recognition under Louis XI: from 1463 he could call himself canon of the Notre Dame in Paris, nevermind that he wasn’t physically present in the cathedral, and in 1465 he was even named kapellmeister to the court. He was also allowed to undertake multiple journeys, including to Cambrai where he visited Guillaume Dufay and was named priest. During the last part of his life, he acted in service of Charles VIII.
Ockeghem passed away in 1497 in Tours, after which many works were dedicated to him: for example, Jean Molinet wrote the moving poem Nymphes des Bois that would later be put to music by Josquin Deprez. Without Ockeghem the progress of the following generation of polyphonists, including Deprez and Pierre de la Rue, would not have been possible to the same extent.
16 masses, 9 motets and 22 chansons from Ockegem’s body of work have been preserved. His chansons are generally written for three parts, in his masses/motets four parts are the norm. About half of his (cyclical) masses are based on the cantus firmus. His most well known masses, including the Missa Mi-mi, Missa cuiusvis toni and the Missa prolationum do not follow this technique but are ingenious in other ways. Ockeghem was known throughout Europe for his ability to combine musical expression with technical genius.
A good example of his masterly use of technique can be found in his four part Missa prolationum, where he implements canon technique to its full potential. Most movements feature double proportion canon: here several voices sing imitations of a main melody at different speeds. This allowed Ockeghem to simultaneously use all four time signatures that existed at the time.
Motets and Chansons
Ockeghems motets display even more variety and innovation compared to his masses. In his Salve Regina he innovates by integrating the main melody into the bass, other motets are written in the polyphonic style. He always manages to perfectly harmonize all parts (including the low bass) in his counterpoint.
His chansons are generally based on existing traditions: he wrote rondeaus and virelais, but in his own creative style.
- Missa prolationum, four-parted. Manuscript in the Chigi Codex at the Vatican Library, published by the Americam Musicological Society (AMS) in 1966.
- Missa Mi-mi, four-parted. Manuscript in the Chigi Codex at the Vatican Library, published by AMS in 1966. Available at in the library of Koor&Stem.
- Mort tu as navré de ton dart, four-parted, available in the library of Koor&Stem
- Prenez sur moi, three-parted. Manuscript in the Copenhagen Chansonnier, published by AMS in 1992 and available in the library of Koor&Stem.
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