Jacob Obrecht


Born: 1450 Died: 1505
In 1480, the Neapolitan theorist Johannes Tinctoris listed Jacob Obrecht (1450-1505) among the contemporary composers who had elevated the practice of music virtually to artistic perfection. In Obrecht's lifetime, the transmission of his music carried his fame across Europe: when the composer was only thirty, and before he had even set foot in Italy, two of his masses were in the repertoire of the Pope's Sistine Chapel choir. In 1487, the powerful Duke Ercole I of Ferrara mounted a strong campaign to recruit Obrecht into his personal service. By all contemporary accounts, Obrecht's compositional skill was known throughout Europe. After his premature death, however, and into our own time, he has remained in the shadow of his famous contemporary Josquin Desprez. Despite the lower trajectory both of Obrecht's career as a singer, and in posthumous publication, he deserves equal consideration as a founding father of the High Renaissance.

Obrecht was born in 1450, the son of a professional trumpeter for the city of Ghent. His early education at a choir school, followed by priestly ordination and the completion, by 1480, of the Master of Arts degree, placed him on an ecclesiastical career track. His first appointment (in 1480) was Choirmaster for the Guild of Our Lady at Bergen op Zoom, followed in 1484 by an election as succentor for the influential Cathedral of Cambrai. But Obrecht returned under a cloud to the Netherlands, hired by the church of St. Donatian's in Bruges while still technically working for Cambrai. His career became a rotating cycle of employments (and some firings) in Flemish churches of Bruges (1485-1491; 1498-1500), Antwerp (1492-1498; 1501-1503), and Bergen op Zoom (1497-1498). Though his music was being performed across the breadth of the Continent, it may be that Obrecht himself had a truly poor singing voice as well as a habit of neglecting his administrative and teaching duties, which together comprised the actual responsibilities of professional musicians in the church. Owing to Obrecht's compositional prowess, however, the Duke of Ferrara finally gave him more lucrative employment in Italy, in 1504; unfortunately, the composer died of the plague there less than a year later.

The centerpiece of Obrecht's compositional output is a series of 30 settings of the Mass Ordinary, written under a number of different structural plans. From the early influence of the fluid music of Busnois and Ockeghem, he strives for a strongly moderated and rationally organized musical process. The facility and clarity of his contrapuntal writing is often highlighted by parallel-tenth motion in the outer voices; the careful elegance of his musical phrases by motivic repetition, and carefully prepared cadences. In this sense, he crafts his musical architectures in a highly tonal idiom, based on the audible progress of vertical harmonies. Obrecht can be fond of "Medieval" and hyper-rationalist constructions, such as music based upon complex frameworks of multiple and simultaneously sounding cantus firmus melodies; at the same time, many of his motets demonstrate a "progressive" concern for the rhetorical emphases in text.
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