Johannes Ockeghem

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Johannes Ockeghem (c.1410-1497) was one of the most innovative, enigmatic and above all, respected composers of the fifteenth century. Along with his contemporaries, Guillaume Dufay & his pupil Josquin Desprez, he was part of a group of composers who were most influential in shaping the music of the early Renaissance.

Johannes Ockeghem (wearing glasses) together with members of the choir

Ockeghem was born in the French-speaking province of Hainaut, in the town of Saint-Ghislain. 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 fine bass voice. After his death, a famous poem by Guillaume Cretin (set to music by Josquin Desprez) Deploration sur la mort D'Ockeghem 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 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, with an emphasis on complex and expressive bass lines.

Today Ockeghem is best known for his masses, his ability to integrate large-scale forms, and above all for his technical wizardry, interleaving complex lines within convoluted polyphonic structures, some of which have the appearance of intractable puzzles for all but the most accomplished musicians. These include his incomparable Missa Prolationum, constructed entirely in canon; his Missa Cuiusvis toni, designed to be performable in any of the available modes.

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