Johannes Ockeghem: Biography & Requiem

Instructor: Charis Duke

Charis has taught college music and has a master's degree in music composition.

Johannes Ockeghem was a Franco-Flemish composer of the early Renaissance. This lesson will discuss what is known of his life and works and the importance of the Requiem.

Going to the Chapel

Imagine that you're in church in 1475. The building is immense, the vaulted ceiling so high you can barely see it. The spires stretch toward the heavens. The stained glass windows depict saints and saviors. Everything around you is intended to bring your mind to God. Then the music starts, a music so beautiful and serene that you think you've finally entered heaven. That was composer Johannes Ockeghem's job: to help you find heaven.

Obscure Beginnings

Johannes Ockeghem
Portrait of Johannes Ockeghem

The early years of Johannes Ockeghem are lost to time. We know that he was born in Saint-Ghislain, Belgium. Estimates for the year of his birth range from 1400-1430, but most scholars have settled upon 1410 as a nice average. It is also unknown what kind of education and musical training he received. Two of Ockeghem's compositions mention the composer Gilles de Binche (Binchois) in a manner that suggests they were at least acquaintances, if not friends. Binchois could have been Ockeghem's teacher, but no one knows for sure.

Ockeghem was a talented singer who received acclaim for his fine bass voice. The first record we have of Ockeghem is as a singer in the cathedral choir of Notre Dame in Antwerp in 1443. Two years later, he was singing for Charles I, Duke of Bourbon. By 1451, he was listed with the chapel singers for Charles VII, King of France. Ockeghem was appointed premier chaplain (head or lead singer) by Charles VII and retained that position through the reigns of two more kings. This meant a nice bump up in salary for Ockeghem. He appears to have been financially comfortable all his life.

Cathedral of Notre Dame, Antwerp, where Ockeghem sang
Photo of Notre Dame Antwerp

Ockeghem may have been a musician at court, but he had some other unusual duties as well. In 1470, he traveled to Spain to arrange a marriage between Isabella of Spain and Charles, Duke of Guyenne. He was not successful. It is interesting that a singer would have been entrusted with this job. It may imply a close relationship with the King of France.

Ockeghem's Music

A very small number of Ockeghem's scores still exist, and there is a great deal of debate about how they should be counted. By one reckoning there are 15 Catholic Masses, 22 chansons (French songs about topics such as love and chivalry), and four motets (sacred songs in Latin). Ockeghem's style is marked by very long polyphonic vocal lines. Polyphonic music has more than one melody sung at the same time. This creates a dense texture with voices weaving in, out, and around each other.

Ockeghem was also notable for his unification of the sections of the Mass. The Catholic Mass has several parts, at least five and possibly many more depending upon the service, and it was common for composers to set each part individually, as a standalone piece. Ockeghem used melodies and ideas as a thread running through all sections of the Mass, tying them together musically.

The Requiem

The Requiem Mass is a Mass sung at a Catholic worship service honoring one who has died. It is often called the Mass for the Dead. Ockeghem's Missa pro Defunctis is the earliest surviving example of a polyphonic Requiem Mass. Prior to this Mass, individual sections of the Requiem had been set polyphonically. For example, if your loved one had died and you wanted a Requiem sung, you could choose the Kyrie from composer A, the Credo from composer B, the sequence from composer C. With Ockeghem's Requiem, the entire Mass came from one pen. The composer Guillaume Dufay may have written an earlier Requiem, but if he did, it has not survived.

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