Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: Johannes Ockeghem and the Oltremontani

We mark the death on February 6, 1497 – 526 years ago today – of the composer and singer Johannes Ockeghem, in Tours, France, at the age of 87 (or so).  He was born circa 1410 in the French-speaking city of Saint-Ghislain in what today is Belgium, about 5 miles from the border with France. 

Anonymous portrait believed to be that of Johannes Ockeghem (circa 1410-1497)
Anonymous portrait believed to be that of Johannes Ockeghem (circa 1410-1497)

The title of this post – “Johannes Ockeghem and the Oltremontani” – employs a Italian word that may not be familiar to everybody: “Oltremontani.”  It’s a word that means, literally, “those from the other side of the mountains.”  The mountains in question are the alps, so in fact, generally, the word refers to people “from the other side of the alps”: from northern and northwestern Europe.  But when used in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, it meant something quite more specific than that: it referred to musicians from what today are northern France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxemburg. 

Johannes Ockeghem was just such an oltremontano, having been born in Belgium close to the northern border of France.

Johannes Ockeghem (circa 1410-1497)

“Born circa 1410, died 1497.”  Back in the fifteenth century, if someone became famous – and at the time of his death, Johannes Ockeghem was famous across Europe – their death date was (and remains) common knowledge.  But for people born in the fifteenth century (and earlier), birth dates and early accounts of their lives before they became famous, well, that’s a different matter entirely.  Generally, we know next to nothing about the birth dates and early lives of ordinary people born in the fifteenth century and before, and that includes Johannes Ockeghem.  In fact, we’re not even sure how he spelled his name.  We use “Ockeghem” today because that spelling came from a document – now lost – in which he supposedly signed his name using that spelling.  But other spellings of his name include Ogkegum, Okchem, Hocquegam, and Ockegham.

Here’s some stuff we do know.  

Johannes Ockeghem was considered by his contemporaries, as he is considered today, to be – along with Guillaume DuFay (circa 1397-1474), Antoine Busnois (circa 1430-1492), and Josquin Desprez (circa 1450-1521) – the greatest and most influential composer of the fifteenth century.  

(For those of us who may not be familiar with the names of the oltremontani Ockeghem, DuFay, Busnois, and Desprez, I would be so bold as to suggest that they were equivalent, in their time, to the Vienna-based quartet of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert. 

In terms of these Renaissance composers’ talent and impact on the history of Western music, I am not exaggerating.)

For reason’s already explained, we know nothing about Ockeghem’s early life.  Like most composers of his time, he almost certainly started his musical life as a church chorister, likely in the city of Mons, a few miles east of his hometown of Saint-Ghislain.

The first documentary mention of Ockeghem’s activity as a musician date to June, 1443, when he is listed as being among the chanteurs – the singers – at the Church of Our Lady, in Antwerp. His initial fame was, indeed, as a singer: he was a basso and was reputed to have a rich, flexible, and unerringly accurate voice.  

He was described by the people that knew him, including the famed humanist Erasmus, as being:

“exceptionally engaging: honest, virtuous, kind, generous, charitable, and pious.” 

Ockeghem’s friend, the cleric Francesco Florio (1428-1484) described him this way in the 1470s:

“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.”

Okay: combine a brilliant singer and composer with physical beauty, a great attitude, and a long life and you have the prescription for success.  

And Ockeghem was nothing if not successful.…

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