Johannes Ockeghem (ca. 1410–1497)

Johannes Ockeghem, a native of Hainaut, earned considerable prominence due to his employment at the French royal court. Beginning in about 1452, before he became a priest, he held several desirable positions (including premier chapelain of the royal chapel and treasurer in the church of St. Martin, Tours) before being ordained and eventually named maître de chapelle by 1465. In 1470, he was included in a diplomatic trip to Spain, which may have involved some extra-musical duties. On his visit to Bruges in 1484, he was honored at the church of St. DonatianSt. Donatian, a Roman by birth, was the bishop of Rheims from 360 until his death in 390…. While he was clearly in favor with Charles VII and Louis XI, he may or may not have had a similar role during the reign of Charles VIII.

Praised also for his pleasant singing voice, Ockeghem composed music with a sharp mind for counterpoint and an artistic sense of subtlety. In addition to his motets and secular works, he wrote at least thirteen cyclic masses, some freely composed and some using cantus firmi(singular: cantus firmus) a Latin term meaning “firm song,” applied to a previously existing melody, usually drawn from the chant or song repertories, used as the basis for a new polyphonic setting. However, only the Missa Ecce ancilla DominiThe Missa Ecce ancilla Domini by Johannes Ockeghem, from which Obrecht quoted in the first Kyrie and Osanna of hisMass for St. Donatian, is based on the concluding segment of a fairly rare plainsong, the long processional antiphon Missus est angelus Gabriel, sung on Sundays during Advent in the rite of Paris. (quoted by ObrechtJacob Obrecht was a South Netherlandish composer known mainly for his substantial output of Mass Ordinary settings in the late 15th century, as well as for his motets and songs… in the St. Donatian Mass) used a pre-existing plainsong melody for the tenor. As in some of his other later works, he chose to modify the cantus firmus to match the texture of the other voices.

Though we cannot be certain that Obrecht encountered Ockeghem on his Bruges visit in 1484, frequent quotation and imitation of Ockeghem’s work in some of Obrecht’s Masses reveal a desire to honor the elder composer, perhaps in expectation of a meeting. In the St. Donatian Mass, Obrecht follows Ockeghem’s example by approaching motivic devices with moderation, employing a far more conservative style than in most of his other works. In addition to references to Ockeghem’s Missa Ecce ancilla Domini in the Kyrie I and Osanna of this Mass, evidence of the Missa Mi-mi can be found in the Agnus Dei of Obrecht’s Missa Sicut spina rosam and in the opening of his Missa de Sancto Martino.

Our primary visual legacy of Ockeghem consists of an illumination of the French Royal Chapel choir, though there is some debate as to which figure is meant to depict the revered composer. It may not be correct to assume that he is the prominently-placed, hooded and spectacled singer who fits the popular notion of the composer’s peculiarities. On the other hand, suggestions that the red-robed, handsomer figure more appropriately matches reports of his appearance and disposition can be challenged by that figure’s generic facial features. The solution to the mystery will require further analysis of his reputation during his lifetime and a fuller understanding of the background of the illumination, made over thirty years after his death.

Select Bibliography:

Fallows, David. “Johannes Ockeghem: The Changing Image, the Songs and a New Source.” Early Music 12, No. 2 (May 1984): 218-30.

Perkins, Leeman L. 2001 “Ockeghem [Okeghem, Hocquegam, Okegus etc.], Jean de.” Grove Music Online. 7 Aug. 2018.

Wegman, Rob C. Born for the Muses: The Life and Masses of Jacob Obrecht. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. See in particular pp. 168-74.

Bloxam, M. Jennifer. “Ockeghem’s Presence in Obrecht’s Masses.” Tijdschrift van de Koninklijke Vereniging voor Nederlandse Musiekgeschiedenis 67 (2017): 103-24.