Music is the art which is most nigh to tears and memories—Oscar Wilde

Johannes Ockeghem

Birthdate: Unknown (assumably between 1410 and 1430).

Ockeghem was one of the most famous composer of the Franco-Flemish School in the last half of the 15th century. He was also an honored singer, choirmaster, and teacher. He was famous for his complex lines and polyphonic structures.


Ockeghem is believed to be have been born in Saint-Ghislain, Belgium. Just like many composers in his period, details of her early life is lacking, however some documents indicate that he studied music in a cathedral school and started his career as a chorister. Ockeghem was one of the first musicians to appear as a singing chaplains in the royal courts around the early 1450’s. From 1446 to 1448, Ockeghem served along with composer Jean Cousin at the Duke of Bourbon Court in Moulins. Johannes was known to have juggled between various offices apart from serving the courts of Louis XI and Charles VII.

Music and influence

Ockeghem was not a prolific composer, given the length of his career and extent of his reputation, and some of his work was lost. Many works formerly attributed to Ockeghem are now presumed to be by other composers.

Ockeghem’s surviving musical output is relatively small, comprising a mere 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, and an emphasis on complex and expressive bass lines. This emphasis on lower textures opened up a new world of structural possibilities for Renaissance composers, and Ockeghem’s compositions exploit these potentials in a variety of ways.

His perception of difficulty, as well as the unique texture of his works, is due in part to his emphasis on long lines which gradually unfold with the formal development of a piece.

Death and legacy

Ockeghem was said to have died a natural death post retirement on February 6, 1497.

Although his works were not very prolific during his existence, they started becoming prominent later. He died in Tours, France and one of his close friends and colleagues, Josquin Des Prez composed a motet to commemorate the death of the legend and called it ‘La deploration de la mort de Johannes Ockeghem’.

Alma redemptoris Mater

The plainchant “Alma redemptoris mater”—one of the most beautiful and memorable melodies in the entire Gregorian corpus, with its graceful opening melody arching through an entire octave—serves as structural foundation for Ockeghem motet. Ockeghem’s writing in Alma redemptoris mater is typical of the finest of fifteenth-century Franco-Flemish polyphony; his rhythms are often asymmetrical, his cadences elided, and his melodies proceed with motivic independence. The four voices, in a fairly high tessitura, spin out their individual melodies in a never-ending tapestry of variation.