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Also called Okekem, Okenghem, Okegnan, Ockenheim. Contrapuntist, founder and head of the second Netherland school (1450-1550), b. about 1430, presumably at Termonde, in East Flanders; d. 1495. After serving as a choir boy at the cathedral of Antwerp (1443-4), he is said to have become the pupil of Gilles Binchois and Guillaume Dufay. He entered Holy orders, and in 1453 assumed the post of chief chanter at the Court of Charles VII of France, where he became choir-master. At the expense of the king, he visited Flanders and Spain, but most of his time was spent in Tours where he acted, by royal appointment, as treasurer of the church of St. Martin until his death. At first he followed his predecessors and teachers in his manner writing, but eventually introduced the principle of free imitation in the various voices of his compositions. Previously the strict canon was the ideal contrapuntal form, but he introduced the practice of allowing every new voice to enter freely on any interval and at any distance from the initial note of the original theme. The innovation was epoch making and of the greatest consequence in the development of the a cappella style. The new principle inaugurated an unprecedented era of activity with Okeghem's disciples, chief among whom were Josquin Desprèz, Pierre de la Rue, Antoine Brumel, Jean Ghiselin, Antoine and Robert de Fevin, Jean Mouton, Jacob Obrecht, etc.
Numerous fragments of his work are contained in the histories of music by Forkel, Burney, Kiesewetter, and Ambrose, while in the Proske Library of the Ratisbon cathedral are preserved his "Missa cujusvis toni" for four voices and a collection of "Cantiones sacrae" for four voices. His contemporary, Guillaume Cretin, wrote a poem on the death of Okeghem, in which he mentions that Okeghem produced the greatest masterpiece of his time-a motet in canon form for thirty-six real voices. While the belief in the existence of such a monster production was kept alive by tradition, it was feared that it had been lost. In his "Quellenlexikon", Robert Eitner expresses the opinion, shared by Michel Brenet, that the supposedly lost work is contained in a volume "Tomus III psalmorum", printed in Nuremberg in the sixteenth century by Johannes Petreius. Hugo Riemann reproduces the work in his "Handbuch der Musikgeschichte", I, ii. While the composition requires thirty-six voices, more than eighteen are never active simultaneously. The only words used are "Deo gratias" and there are no modulations from one key into another-probably to maintain as much clearness as is possible under the circumstances. Riemann doubts whether the composition was intended to be performed by vocalists; he thinks that it was to be played on instruments or perhaps to serve as a exhibition of the master's surpassing skill.
Barbure, Jan van Okeghem (Antwerp 1868); Thoman Deploration de G. Cretin sur le trepas de Jean Okeghem, musicien (Paris 1864); Brenet, Jean de Okeghem (Paris, 1893); De Marcy Jean Okeghem (Paris, 1895).