top of page

Renaissance Music


1407 Casa di San Giorgio, one of the first public banks, founded in Genoa.

1415 Henry V defeats French at Agincourt. Jan Hus, Bohemian preacher and follower of Wycliffe, burned at stake in Constance as heretic.

1418–1460 Portugal's Prince Henry the Navigator sponsors exploration of Africa's coast.

1420 Brunelleschi begins work on the Duomo in Florence.

1428 Joan of Arc leads French against English, captured by Burgundians (1430) and turned over to the English, burned at the stake as a witch after ecclesiastical trial (1431).

Gilles Binchois, Dutch-Burgundian composer, is born. 
First mention of dulcimer. 
Conrad Paumann born. German Organist and composer. 
Holland becomes the center of music. 
Beginning of first Dutch School. (Gilles Binchois, Guillaume Dufay
Johannes Ockeghem born.
Antoine Busnois born.

Gilles Binchois

Gilles de Binche (called Binchois; also known as Gilles de Bins; ca. 1400 – 20 September 1460), was a Netherlandish composer, one of the earliest members of the Burgundian school and one of the three most famous composers of the early 15th century. While often ranked behind his contemporaries Guillaume Dufay and John Dunstable by contemporary scholars, his works were still cited, borrowed and used as source material after his death.

 by Jan van Eyck (1432). According to Erwin Panofsky, this could be the likeness of Gilles Binchois




Binchois was probably from Mons, the son of Jean and Johanna de Binche, who may have been from the nearby town of Binche. His father was a councillor to Duke Guillaume IV of Hainault, and also worked in a church in Mons. Nothing is known about Gilles until 1419, when he became organist at the church of Ste. Waudru in Mons. In 1423 went to live in Lille. Around this time he may have been a soldier in the service of either the Burgundians or the English Earl of Suffolk, as indicated by a line in the funeral motet composed in his memory by Ockeghem. Sometime near the end of the 1420s he joined the court chapel of Burgundy, and by the time of his motet Nove cantum melodie (1432) he was evidently a singer there, since the text of the motet itself lists all 19 singers in place at that time. He eventually retired in Soignies, evidently with a substantial pension for his long years of excellent service to the Burgundian court.

Music and influence

Binchois is often considered to be the finest melodist of the 15th century, writing carefully shaped lines which are not only easy to sing but utterly memorable. His tunes appeared in copies decades after his death, and were often used as sources for Mass composition by later composers. Most of his music, even his sacred music, is simple and clear in outline, sometimes even ascetic; a greater contrast between Binchois and the extreme complexity of the ars subtilior of the prior (fourteenth) century would be hard to imagine.

Gilles Binchois - Triste plaisir et douleureuse joye

Most of his secular songs are rondeaux, which became the most common song form during the century. He rarely wrote in strophic form, and his melodies are generally independent of the rhyme scheme of the verses they are set to. Binchois wrote music for the court, secular songs of love and chivalry that met the expectations and satisfied the taste of the Dukes of Burgundy who employed him, and evidently loved his music accordingly. About half of his extant secular music is found in the manuscript Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Canon. misc. 213.

Conrad Paumann

Conrad Paumann (c. 1410 – January 24, 1473) was a German organistlutenist and composer of the early Renaissance. Even though he was born blind, he was one of the most talented musicians of the 15th century, and his performances created a sensation wherever he went. He is grouped among the composers known as the Colorists.





He was born in Nuremberg to a family of craftsmen. His musical ability must have become apparent early, for he received an excellent training with the support of aristocratic patrons. In 1447 he became the official town organist of Nuremberg, and the councilors even issued orders for him not to leave without their permission.

As rebellious as he was talented, Paumann left what was probably a stifling environment, traveling secretly to Munich in 1450 where he was immediately employed by Duke Albrecht III as court organist, who also gave him a house. Munich was officially his home for the remainder of his life, although he began to travel extensively.

While exact records of his travels do not remain, they were clearly extensive, and everywhere he went he was greeted with astonishment; his renown as a performer and composer grew. Milan and Naples both made him attractive job offers. His travels in Italy were probably around 1470, when the Milanese Sforza family was beginning to build their chapel into the most impressive singing and composition establishment in Europe: Josquin des PrezLoyset CompèreAlexander Agricola and others were all there; some of them may have heard him play, and may have exchanged musical ideas with him. In Mantua he was knighted; in Landshut he performed for the Burgundian duke Philip the Good; in Ratisbon he performed for Emperor Frederick III. During this time he also had numerous students. Unquestionably his influence had much to do with the subsequent development of a culture of organ-playing and composition in Germany, a tradition which culminated in the 18th century with the work of J.S. Bach.

Paumann's epitaph in the Munich Frauenkirche reads:

“Anno 1473, on the evening of St. Paul's conversion died and was here buried the most ingenious master of all instruments and music, Cunrad Pauman [sic], knight, born blind at Nuremberg, God have mercy upon him.”

Paumann's gift, his disability, his instrument, and his influence are all reminiscent of Francesco Landini, the great Italian composer of a hundred years before.

Fundamentum Organisandi by Conrad Paumann for organ, 1452

Music and influence

Paumann, being blind, never wrote down his music, and may have been an improvisor above all. He has been credited with inventing the system of tablature for the lute in Germany; while it cannot be proven, it seems reasonable both because of Paumann's influence, and because of the ease with which music can be dictated using tablature.

Most of his music is instrumental, and some of it considerably virtuosic. Only one vocal composition survives, a tenorlied Wiplich figur for three voices; stylistically it is so close to the contemporary Franco-Flemish idiom that it follows that Paumann knew the music of the Franco-Flemish composers. Most likely he encountered it on his travels, for instance when he went to Milan.


Johannes Ockeghem

Johannes Ockeghem (also Jean de, Jan; surname Okeghem, Ogkegum, Okchem, Hocquegam, Ockegham; other variant spellings are also encountered) (1410/1425 – February 6, 1497) was the most famous composer of the Franco-Flemish School in the last half of the 15th century, and is often considered the most influential composer between Guillaume Dufay and Josquin des Prez. In addition to being a renowned composer, he was also an honored singer, choirmaster, and teacher.



The spelling of Ockeghem's name comes from a supposed autograph of his which survived as late as 1885, and was reproduced by Eugène Giraudet, a historian in Tours; the document has since been lost. In 15th-century sources, the spelling "Okeghem" predominates.

Ockeghem is believed to have been born in Saint-Ghislain, Belgium. His birthdate is unknown; dates as early as 1410 and as late as 1430 have been proposed. The earlier date is based on the possibility that he knew Binchois in Hainaut before the older composer moved from Mons to Lille in 1423. Ockeghem would have to have been younger than 15 at the time. This particular speculation derives from Ockeghem's reference, in the lament he wrote on the death of Binchois in 1460, to a chanson by Binchois dated to that time. In this lament Ockeghem not only honored the older composer by imitating his style, but also revealed some useful biographical information about him. The comment by the poet Guillaume Crétin, in the lament he wrote on Ockeghem's death in 1497, "it was a great shame that a composer of his talents should die before 100 years old", is also often taken as evidence for the earlier birthdate for Ockeghem.

In 1993, documents dating from 1607 were found stating that "Jan Hocquegam" was a native of Saint-Ghislain in the County of Hainaut, which was confirmed by references in 16th century documents. This suggests that, though he first appears in records in Flanders, he was a native speaker of Picard. Previously, most biographies surmised that he was born in East Flanders, either in the town after which he was named (present-day Okegem, from which his ancestors must have come) or in the neighboring town of Dendermonde (French: Termonde), where the surname Ockeghem occurred in the 14th and 15th century. Occasionally, Bavay, now in the Nord department in France, was suggested as his birthplace as well.

Details of his early life are lacking. Like many composers in this period, he started his musical career as a chorister, although the exact location of his education is unknown: Mons, a town near Saint-Ghislain that had at least two churches with competent music schools, has been suggested. The first actual documented record of Ockeghem is from the Onze-Lieve-Vrouwe cathedral in Antwerp, where he was employed in June 1443 as a "left-hand choir singer ("left-handers" sang composed music, "right-handers" sang chant). He probably sang under the direction of Johannes Pullois, whose employment also dates from that year.  This church was a distinguished establishment, and it was likely here that Ockeghem became familiar with the English compositional style, which influenced late 15th-century musical practice on the continent.

Between 1446 and 1448 Ockeghem served, along with singer and composer Jean Cousin, at the court of Charles I, Duke of Bourbon in Moulins, now in central France. During this service he became the first among the singing chaplains to appear in the court records. Around 1452 he moved to Paris where he served as maestro di cappella to the French court, as well as treasurer of the collegiate church of St. Martin, at Tours. In addition to serving at the French court – both for Charles VII and Louis XI – he held posts at Notre Dame de Paris and at St. Benoît. He is known to have traveled to Spain in 1470, as part of a diplomatic mission for the King, which was a complex affair attempting both to dissuade Spain from joining an alliance with England and Burgundy against France, and to arrange a marriage between Isabella I of Castile and Charles, Duke of Guyenne (the brother of king Louis XI). After the death of Louis XI (1483), not much is known for certain about Ockeghem's whereabouts, though it is known that he went to Bruges and Tours, and he probably died in the latter town since he left a will there. An indication of the renown in which Ockeghem was held is the number of laments written on his death in 1497; among the most famous of the musical settings of these many poems is Nymphes des bois by Josquin des Prez.

Ockeghem probably studied with Gilles Binchois, and at least was closely associated with him at the Burgundian court. Since Antoine Busnois wrote a motet in honor of Ockeghem sometime before 1467, it is probable that those two were acquainted as well; and writers of the time often link Dufay, Busnois and Ockeghem. Although Ockeghem's musical style differs considerably from that of the older generation, it is probable that he acquired his basic technique from them, and as such can be seen as a direct link from the Burgundian style to the next generation of Netherlanders, such as Obrecht and Josquin.


    An illuminated opening from the Chigi codex featuring            the Kyrie of Ockeghem's Missa Ecce ancilla Domini

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 total output of reliably attributed compositions, as with many of the most famous composers of the time (such as Josquin), has shrunk with time. Surviving, reliably-attributed, works include some 14 masses (including a Requiem mass), an isolated Credo (Credo sine nomine), 5 motets, a motet-chanson (a deploration on the death of Binchois), and 21 chansons. Thirteen of Ockeghem's masses are preserved in the Chigi codex, a Flemish manuscript dating to around 1500. His Missa pro Defunctis is the earliest surviving polyphonic Requiem mass (a setting by Dufay, possibly earlier, has been lost). Some of his works, alongside compositions by his contemporaries, are included in Petrucci's Harmonice musices odhecaton (1501), the first collection of music to be published using moveable type.

Dating Ockeghem's works is controversial, as there are almost no external references allowing precise dating, excepting of course the death of Binchois (1460) for which Ockeghem composed a motet-chanson. The Missa Caput is almost certainly an early work, since it follows on an anonymous English mass of the same title dated to the 1440s, and his late masses may include the Missa Ma maistresse and Missa Fors seulement, in view of both his innovative treatment of the cantus firmus, and his tendency to write more and more homogeneous textures later in his life.


Johannes Ockeghem - Missa Au Travail Suis

Ockeghem used the cantus firmus technique in about half of his masses; the earliest of these masses use head-motifs at the start of the individual movements, a practice which was common around 1440 but which was archaic after around mid-century. Two of his masses, Missa Ma maistresse and Missa Fors seulement, are based on chansons he wrote himself, and use more than one voice of the chanson, foreshadowing the parody mass techniques of the 16th century. In his remaining masses, including the Missa Mi-miMissa cuiusvis toni, and Missa prolationum, no borrowed material has been found, and the works seem to have been freely composed.

Ockeghem would sometimes place borrowed material in the lowest voice, such as in the Missa Caput, one of three masses written in the mid-15th century based on that fragment of chant from the English Sarum Rite. Other characteristics of Ockeghem's compositional technique include his liking for varying the rhythmic shape of voices, so as to maintain their independence.

A strong influence on Josquin des Prez and the subsequent generation of Netherlanders, Ockeghem was famous throughout Europe for his expressive music, although he was equally renowned for his technical prowess. Two of the most famous contrapuntal achievements of the 15th century include the astonishing Missa prolationum, which consists entirely of mensuration canons, and the Missa cuiusvis toni, designed to be performed in any of the different modes, but even these technique-oriented masterpieces demonstrate his insightful use of vocal ranges and uniquely expressive tonal language. Being a renowned bass singer himself, his use of wide-ranging and rhythmically active bass lines sets him apart from many of the other composers in the Netherlandish Schools.

Ockeghem died in Tours, France. To commemorate his death, Josquin des Prez composed the motet La déploration de la mort de Johannes Ockeghem, a setting of the poem Nymphes des bois by Jean Molinet. An unusually large number of laments appeared after the death of this great composer. Some of the authors of these poems included Molinet and Desiderius ErasmusJohannes Lupi provided another musical setting.



Antoine Busnois

Antoine Busnois (also Busnoys) (c. 1430 – 6 November 1492) was a Netherlandish composer and poet of the early Renaissance Burgundian School. While also noted as a composer of motets and other sacred music, he was one of the most renowned 15th-century composers of secular chansons. He was the leading figure of the late Burgundian school after the death of Guillaume Dufay.




While details of his early life are largely conjectural, he was probably from the vicinity of Béthune in the Pas-de-Calais, possibly the hamlet of Busnes, to which his name seems to refer. He may have been related to the aristocratic family of Busnes; in particular, a Philippe de Busnes, canon of Notre-Dame in Lens, could have been a relative. He clearly received an excellent musical education, probably at a church choir school somewhere in northern or central France. An aristocratic origin may explain his early association with the French royal court: as early as the 1450s references to him appear there, and in 1461 he was a chaplain at Tours. That he was not entirely a man of peace is indicated by a petition for absolution he filed in Tours, dated 28 February 1461, in which he admitted to being part of a group that beat up a priest "to the point of bloodshed", not once but five times. While in a state of anathema he was foolhardy enough to celebrate Mass although he was not an ordained priest, an act which got him excommunicated until Pope Pius II pardoned him.

He moved from the cathedral to the collegiate church of St. Martin, also in Tours, where he became a subdeacon in 1465. Johannes Ockeghem was treasurer at that institution, and the two composers seem to have known each other well. Later in 1465 Busnois moved to Poitiers, where he not only became master of the choirboys but managed to attract a flood of talented singers from the entire region; by this time his reputation as singing teacher, scholar and composer seems to have spread widely. But he departed in 1466 just as suddenly as he came for no known reason, and the former master was given his old job back. He then moved to Burgundy.

Busnois was at the Burgundian court by 1467. His first compositions there appeared immediately before the accession of Charles as Duke on 15 June, since one of his motets — In hydraulis — contains a dedication to Charles calling him Count. On becoming Duke of Burgundy, he quickly became known as Charles the Bold for his fierce and sometimes reckless military adventurism (which indeed led to his death in battle ten years later). But Charles loved not only war but also music, appreciating and rewarding Busnois for works composed while in his service. Busnois was listed along with Hayne van Ghizeghem and Adrien Basin as "chantre et valet de chambre" to Charles in 1467.

In addition to serving Charles as singer and composer, Busnois accompanied the Duke on his military campaigns, as did Hayne van Ghizeghem. Busnois was at the siege of Neuss in Germany in 1475, and survived (or missed) the disastrous Battle of Nancy in 1477 at which Charles was killed and Burgundian expansion was ended forthwith and forever.

Busnois remained in the employ of the Burgundian court until 1482, but nothing exact is known about his exploits between then and the year of his death. At the time of his death, in 1492, he was employed by the church of St. Sauveur in Bruges.

Works and style

Busnois' contemporary reputation was immense; he was probably the best-known musician in Europe between Guillaume Dufay and Johannes Ockeghem. He wrote sacred and secular music. Of the former, two cantus firmus Masses and eight motets have survived, while many others were most likely lost. He set the Marian antiphon Regina coeli several times. Stylistically, his music can be considered a midpoint between the simplicity and homophonic textures of Dufay and Binchois, and the soon-to-be pervasive imitative counterpoint of Josquin and Gombert. He used imitation only occasionally but skillfully, created smooth and singable melodic lines and had a strong feeling for triadic sonorities, anticipating 16th-century practice.

According to Pietro Aron, Busnois may have been the composer of the famous tune L'homme armé, one of the most widely distributed melodies of the Renaissance and the one more often used than any other as a cantus firmus in Mass composition. Whether or not he wrote the first Mass based on L'homme armé, his was by far the most influential; Obrecht's setting, for example, closely parallels that of Busnois, and even Dufay's quotes from it directly. Richard Taruskin attempts to prove that Busnois' was the model later L'homme armé masses were based upon through a study of the composer's numerological symbology within the work, and by demonstrating that Dufay and others were emulating (or paying homage) to this aspect, among others. David Fallows points out that the complexity of the Busnois mass may indicate that he was actually borrowing from Dufay. 

Rondeau - Antoine Busnois



Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Flower

Il Duomo di Firenze

bottom of page