Composer Spotlight Lent IV: Johannes Ockeghem

March 24, 2017 Comments Off on Composer Spotlight Lent IV: Johannes Ockeghem

The choral music scheduled at St. Luke’s for the Fourth Sunday in Lent (March 26th) will include:

  • Johannes Ockeghem  – Missa Cuiusvis toni
  • Pierre de Manchicourt – Hic est panis 

– Blog Editor

Johannes Ockeghem was the greatest musician of the late fifteenth century.  On this judgment both the modern historian and the composer’s contemporaries concur, for no one enjoyed greater prestige among practitioners, patrons and students of music in the Renaissance.  To Desiderius Erasmus, the greatest of the northern humanists, Ockeghem was the “Prince of Music”.  To Antoine Busnois, foremost composer at the court of Burgundy, he was to be compared only with Pythagoras, the legendary inventor of the art.  To a whole generation of Netherlandish musicians – Josquin, Brumel, La Rue among them — he was the “Maistre et bon Pere”, in some cases a teacher, and for all a model.

Ockeghem’s greatest achievement as a composer was the unprecedented feat of creating extended polyphonic compositions that were not based on a discernible pre-existent scaffold, whether Gregorian chant of secular song.  The absence in some of his works of a so universally relied-upon structural device as a cantus firmus has made Ockeghem’s music difficult to analyze.  To compose music so “free” and “inspirational” is a task of great difficulty, demanding an inexhaustible richness of invention and technique.  As a result, Ockeghem’s music is unique in the body of Renaissance polyphony.

The Missa Cuiusvis toni is a work of compositional brilliance in another respect as well.  The mass is intended to be sung in any of the four modes.  (A rough analogy would be a piece of nineteenth-century music that could be played in either C major or C minor.)  There are no clefs in the part books, so it is up to the performers to sort out the tonality.

Pierre de Manchicourt was born in Béthune in about 1510.  Most of what we know of his early years comes from title pages of his publications.   He became director of the choir at Tours Cathedral in 1539, master of the choirboys at Tournai Cathedral in 1539 and maître de chapelle there later that year.  Manchicourt was appointed to the coveted position of master of Philip II’s Flemish chapel in Madrid in 1559 and remained there until his death in 1564.  Manchicourt’s early motets show the influence of Ockeghem and Josquin; his mature style is close to that of Gombert and Clemens non Papa, combining eloquent and finely wrought melodies with constantly varying imitative techniques.  St. Luke’s Choir released a recording of the music of Manchicourt, including this motet, on the MSR label in November. The recording is available on our website and at the Parish Office.

For additional listening on Johannes Ockeghem:

Here is link to the Kyrie from his Missa Prolationem

The Sanctus from the Missa L’homme arme

This is an interesting video about Ockeghem:


–  David Shuler, Director of Music

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