Johannes Ockeghem (c. 1410-1497)


Johannes Ockeghem - the lucid mystic

The death of the Franco-Flemish musician Johannes Ockeghem, one of the great composers of the 15th century, on 6th February 1497 brought a stream of poems and laments in his honour. The greatest minds of his time, the poet Guillaume Cretin, the poet-composer Jean Molinet and even Erasmus of Rotterdam, wrote of Ockeghem in the highest tones. Erasmus had early expressed himslef in less complimentary terms on the flourishing polyphony of church music, but on the old Flemish master, who was nearly inety, he had to say: "Ergone conticuit / Vox illa nobillis / Auera vox Okegi?" ("Is then silent / The golden voice of Ockeghem?").

It is not conceivable that he was here alluding to Ockeghem's very well paid position as treasurer at the monastery church of St. Martin in Tours? Surely not, since in all the other eulogies the honestty and piety of the composer is underlined.

Ockeghem's pupils, among whom apparently all the great composers of the period belong, Josquin, de la Rue, Brumel and Compére, were invited to compose laments for him and met this request, Josquin even with his absolute masterpiece. The beloved teacher was here described not only as master of all means of musical expression, but at the same time as a wise and learned man, with great knowledge in 'Mathematics, Arithmetic and Geometry, Astrology and, over and above this, Music'.

That Ockeghem was very well versed in these intellectual disciplines is seen also in his great interest in complicated musical enigmas and puzzle games, for example, a whole Mass in which each of the four voices sings constantly in its own rhythm, while two voices sing in canon; similarly in the Missa Prolationum, not to mention the Missa Cuiusvis Toni which can be sung in all four classical modes, whereby the course of the individual parts remains in principle the same, while the whole work will sound completely different.

Yet these skilful intricacies apart, the actual sound of the music must be considered. It remains, with all its extravagant complexity, above all interesting to hear. It is clear that Ockeghem's wealth of imagination knows no bounds. His ideas bubble forth in an almost endless and virtually shapeness stream of luxuriant invention. In this respect there is no music like this. Rhythmically it is extremely variable and of a degree of difficulty that we first find again in a comparable form in our own century.

The music radiates, in spite of its absolute intellectual principles of construction, a marked medieval mysticism, a search fro a religious goal through the incomprehensibility in music, the well-controlled primeval forest of sounds, which come upon the ears and tell of the incomprehensible power of God and the infinite extent and grace of Heaven.

Over and over this, there is a picture of Johannes Ockeghem. Portraits of medieval composers are seldom found and this was painted first twenty years after his death. In spite of that here he stands among his singers, with glasses on his nose, the great, thin and consistently unerring master, reminding the observer that he was in his time almost as well known for his glorious, deep bass voice as for his unique language as a composer.

Bo Holten (English version by Keith Anderson).

Lyrics yet to be typed.






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Last updated: 5th October 2000