Ockeghem’s passing was lamented by some of the most celebrated poets and musicians of the time: Crétin, his colleague in the court chapel, wrote a lengthy déploration in French; Jean Molinet, perhaps in response to Crétin’s exhortation to join in the poetic expression of grief, wrote similar poems in both the vernacular and Latin. His French lament, Nymphes des bois, was later given a poignant musical setting by Josquin, who may have added a descriptive verse of his own (Lowinsky, 1968). The humanist Erasmus, perhaps at the request of his patron, Henri de Berghes, Bishop of Cambrai, composed a Latin naenia, Ergone conticuit, that was subsequently set to music by Johannes Lupi (seeLupus) (Margolin, 1965). Ockeghem is also included among the musicians for whom supplication is made to the Virgin in Compère’s famous motet, Omnium bonorum plena.
The man described in these various works is exceptionally engaging: honest, virtuous, kind, generous, charitable and pious. Francesco Florio, writing in Tours in the 1470s, long before Ockeghem’s death, declared:
I am sure you could not dislike this man, so pleasing is the beauty of his person, so noteworthy the sobriety of his speech and of his morals, and his graciousness. He alone of all the singers is free from vice and abounding in all virtues.
At about the same time, apparently, Pierre-Paul Vieillot (Senilis), secretary to Louis XI, penned in Latin an epigram and a curious series of epitaphs in honour of the composer in similarly laudatory terms (Strohm, 1997). Crétin, some two decades later, praised Ockeghem’s wise and just administration of his dignity at St Martin, his charitable generosity and his exemplary Christian virtues.
His reputation as a singer of extraordinary skill (Milsom, 1997) and a master among composers was well established during his lifetime. Johannes Tinctoris dedicated to him (and to Busnoys) his Liber de natura et proprietate tonorum of 1476, and the following year, in his Liber de arte contrapuncti, he listed Ockeghem first among the most excellent composers of his generation, those whose works were distinguished by exceptional sweetness and beauty. In his De inventione et usu musice of 1481 Tinctoris also praised Ockeghem’s bass voice as the finest he knew. Florio, similarly, asserted that Ockeghem was superior to all of his colleagues in the royal chapel as both singer and composer. Molinet, who was himself both poet and musician, praised the ‘subtle songs, the artful masses and the harmonious motets’ of Ockeghem, Du Fay, Binchois and Busnoys, placing Ockeghem first among them.
In his elaborate lament Crétin had a personified Musique refer to Ockeghem as her son, the ‘pearl of music’. He put in the mouth of Orpheus the expression ‘flower of musicians’, in that of Pan the epithet ‘pillar of music’ and he caused Tubal, ‘the ancient father’, to praise him for having mastered ‘all the secrets of subtlety’. The poet also spoke of Ockeghem’s ‘elevated style, in which no imperfection is found’. Jean Lemaire de Belges, in a letter published in 1513, credited Ockeghem with having ennobled music just as Crétin himself had enriched and exalted the French language. Nicole le Vestu, in a chant royal written in 1523 for the Rouen puy, described Ockeghem as ‘most learned in the mathematical arts, arithmetic, geometry, astrology and music’; he praised his motet for 36 voices, which he termed a chef d’oeuvre of nature, for its ‘sweetness’ and its ‘delicate harmony’. As late as 1567 the Italian humanist Cosimo Bartoli declared, in his Ragionamenti accademici (published in Venice), that Ockeghem was ‘almost the first in these times to rediscover music, which was nearly dead, just as Donatello rediscovered sculpture’. It is not certain that Bartoli knew any of Ockeghem’s music first hand, but the composer’s reputation was clearly such that the Italian author did not hesitate to place him at the fons et origo of the cultural reawakening that, in accordance with the common historical view of that age, has come to be called the Renaissance.
Ockeghem’s reputation among the composers of his age is perhaps best illustrated neither by the encomia of poets nor the praise of theorists, but by the numerous works of the 15th and early 16th centuries either based directly on an earlier piece of his or quoting substantively from his music in ways both technically and symbolically significant (Jas, Picker, 1997). These include the masses that derive a tenor cantus firmus (and more) from one of his chansons (e.g. Au travail suis, D’ung aultre amer, Ma bouche rit, Malheur me bat) as well as the numerous reworkings of Au travail suis and Fors seulement (Picker, 1981). Of particular significance in this connection for developments in the Low Countries are the borrowings in the masses of Obrecht and La Rue.
As Ockeghem’s music disappeared from the practical sources in daily use, knowledge of his existence, and of his extraordinary contrapuntal skills, came to be transmitted solely by the theorists of the 16th century. Writers from Aaron to Zacconi, and in particular German schoolmasters such as Heyden, Ornithoparcus and Wilfflingseder, commented on the exceptional achievements of the Missa cuiusvis toni, the Missa prolationum and the canonic chanson, Prenez sur moi. This tradition was carried into the 17th century with the publications of the Italian theorists Rossi (1619) and Liberati (1685), undoubtedly long after any of the authors had occasion to hear in performance either those works or others by the 15th-century composer.
This distorted perspective caused Ockeghem’s music to be viewed rather negatively by 18th-century scholars such as Charles Burney and Nicolaus Forkel. Although they appreciated Ockeghem’s contrapuntal genius, they were clearly put off by what seemed to be an excessive emphasis on contrapuntal ‘artifice’; Burney opined that ‘learning and labour seem to have preceded taste and invention’ and Forkel characterized Prenez sur moi as ‘unsingable’. As critics they were clearly insensitive to Ockeghem’s suavitas, the sweetly agreeable sonorities that had so charmed Ockeghem’s immediate contemporaries, fellow musicians and patrons alike.
Not until the 19th century did historians such as A.W. Ambros begin to rehabilitate Ockeghem’s reputation, refuting the negative judgments of the previous age in the light of romantic aesthetics and focussing on his ‘inherent musicality’ and ‘singing soul’. More recent assessments by Pirro (1940), Van den Borren (1948–51) and especially Plamenac (MGG1) have been based on a broader knowledge of Ockeghem’s compositions and a more balanced appreciation of his role in the development of the musical genres and styles of the 15th century. Nevertheless, attempts to define and characterize his contributions have led to strikingly different, even contradictory views (Bernstein, 1994). Ockeghem has been variously seen as the inventor of the imitative style (Riemann, 1907–13), as an arch-cerebralist with little or no interest in musical expression, and as a profound mystic whose music supposedly reflected the religious fervour and the aesthetic attitudes of northern Europe, in particular those of the devotio moderna as espoused by the Brethren of the Common Life, and expressed in the De imitatio Christi of Thomas à Kempis (Besseler, 1931).
Although lacking any historical foundation, this notion has led to the widely held but highly questionable view that Ockeghem’s compositional procedures are ‘irrational’, his melodies ‘unpredictable’ in their rise and fall and his counterpoint without easily discernible contours and seams. Bukofzer (1950) went so far as to assert that Ockeghem ‘renounces with amazing consistency all customary means of articulating a composition: cadences, profiled motives, symmetrical phrase structure, lucid interrelation of parts, imitation, sequences, prominence of one voice over others, and so forth’ (Bernstein, 1997).
It is increasingly clear, Bukofzer notwithstanding, that close study of Ockeghem’s music inevitably reveals the presence and carefully planned use of all of these elements, however subtly treated or – at times – carefully disguised. While certain of the features mentioned are much more in evidence in some works than in others, his composition is invariably grounded in some rational, usually ingenious conception, the most striking examples of which are the Missa prolationum and the Missa cuiusvis toni. In their execution, however, his underlying designs are usually artfully concealed in accordance with two of the principal aesthetic ideals of the period, as articulated, for example, by Tinctoris: subtilitas and varietas. Consequently, the ‘unfamiliar features of Ockeghem’s style’ that, in the words of Bukofzer, ‘baffled past generations’, continue to pose problems for the present as well, and these difficulties will only be resolved by means of a deeper, fuller understanding of the conceptual matrix and the aesthetic ideals that inform this composer’s music generally.