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Johannes Ockeghem (1410–1497)
by Adam Bruce
Reliable records of Ockeghem’s life are hard to find. What we do know is he was probably a Franco-Fleming, and might have been born in Hanuit. We first hear of him as a singer in the cathedral in Antwerp in 1443, and within a couple of years was employed in the court of Charles I, duke of Bourbon based in the Moulins. He possessed fine diplomatic and political skills and because of that was able to serve under three successive kings of France, an astounding accomplishment for that period.
His first major appointment was in 1452, where he became a singer at the royal chapel of Charles VII, located in Paris, and where was greatly favored in his position and talents and soon became master of the chapel. His service and most of all his position at the royal court continued, uninterrupted, through both the reigns of Louis IX and Charles VIII. He worked at various points both as the treasurer of the Abbey of St Martin in Tours and a Cannon in the Notre Dame in Paris. Although he lived primarily in France, he would travel quite frequently to both Spain and Bruges, which are suspected by scholars to be diplomatic travels for the king rather than for any personal reasons he might have had.
Ockeghem was by no means a musical revolutionary as far as the theoretical advances in the art were concerned, but neither was he a strict traditionalist. His compositions such as his masses and especially his famous Requiem often incorporated new styles and developments in music that were just becoming prevalent during his lifetime. His music is of a flowering and flowing quality, which demanded a different sense of the integration of the melodic line than what had been done in the previous motets of the fourteenth century. In order to create this type of melodic sense Ockeghem was continually forced to write in four voices instead of three and in this sense was on the “cutting edge” of the music of his time.
He enjoyed the favor of much of the royalty throughout most of his life, and also was held in great esteem by his contemporaries, musicians as well as composers. Ockeghem died in 1497 at the age of 87. Substantial services were held in his honor, including a long requiem written by his friend Josquin Desprez which was dedicated to his memory.