Johannes Ockeghem (ca. 1425-1495) was a Netherlandish composer who spent most of his creative life at the French court.
Johannes Ockeghem was born in the Netherlands, possibly in Hainaut. Nothing is known about his early years, although he undoubtedly studied music in one of the cathedral schools for which his homeland was justly famous. The earliest document concerning his activity places him among the more than 50 singers in the choir of the Church of Our Lady in Antwerp in 1443/1444. This is also the only reference to his activity in the Netherlands.
In 1448 Ockeghem appeared on the list of 13 singers employed by Charles, Duke of Bourbon, then residing in Moulin. By 1452 Ockeghem's name was first in the list of singers in the chapel of Charles VII of France. He was to serve the French kings for more than 40 years. By 1454 he was premier chappelain and dedicated a book of music, presumably his own, to the king. Records of gifts from the king for this collection and for a single chanson are preserved. References to his activity at court are preserved, unfortunately with little or no mention of particular compositions. Thus, the chronology of his output remains a problem.
The high esteem in which the kings of France held Ockeghem is demonstrated by the positions they secured for him. He became treasurer of the Abbey of St. Martin of Tours, one of the richest abbeys of the time, whose abbots had historically been the kings of France. He was not required to reside there, possibly because of the desire for his musical services at court. In 1465 he also received the title maistre de la chappelle de chant du roy. During the remainder of his life he left France only for a short journey to Spain in 1470 and Flanders in 1484.
Ockeghem's fame was not limited to the country of his patrons. Sometime before 1467 his contemporary Antoine Busnois composed the motet In hydraulis, which praises Ockeghem. Johannes Tinctoris, leading theorist of the time and active in Naples, dedicated his Liber de natura et proprietate tonorum (1476) to Ockeghem and Busnois and named Ockeghem as the most famous musician of his time in the prologue to his Liber de arte contrapuncti (1477). Erasmus of Rotterdam wrote a lament on Ockeghem's death.
For a composer of this renown, a surprisingly small number of works have been preserved. These include 20 chansons, 10 complete Mass Ordinaries, 3 incomplete Mass Ordinaries, a Requiem Mass, and no more than 10 motets. Although his works are now seen in a more accurate light, Ockeghem's reputation was formerly based on the knowledge of only a few, atypical works which emphasized complex compositional procedures. The Missa prolationem, a series of mensuration canons, and a 36-voice canonic motet were among the first works to come to the attention of scholars. Although each is a tour de force in contrapuntal artifice, they are not typical of his general style.
Ockeghem's output is better characterized by other works, which demonstrate his rhapsodical, asymmetrical melodic style and a general avoidance of pervading imitation. All voices are of equal importance and of similar and eminently vocal character. In contrast to his contemporary Jacob Obrecht, with whom his name is often linked, Ockeghem seemed to consciously avoid clear cadences and their articulating effect. This avoidance of clear phrases and an asymmetrical melodic line have been compared to the mysticism of certain religious movements of the period. Ockeghem also frequently used the lowest part of the vocal range, which resulted in a very dark sound. These are the features that best characterize his work, not the contrapuntal complexity of a few exceptional compositions.
Ernst Krenek, Johannes Ockeghem (1953), is a succint biographical and critical study. A thorough discussion of Ockeghem's life, works, and times is found in Gustave Reese, Music in the Renaissance (1954; rev. ed. 1959). Manfred F. Bukofzer, Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Music (1950), and Donald Jay Grout, A History of Western Music (1960), have good discussions of Ockeghem and are recommended for general background.