Jacob Obrecht: a restless musical mind

Jacob Obrecht, painted by Hans Memling in 1496 (Lebrecht Music & Arts)Jacob Obrecht, painted by Hans Memling in 1496 (Lebrecht Music & Arts)

The generation of composers born around 1450 used to be known as the ‘Josquin-generation’ after their most famous member, but in the last 20 years or so it has been recognised how many of them were creative personalities of quite comparable stature. This generation is significant too in that, for the first time, the number of truly first-rate composers whose fame has survived down to us can no longer be counted on the fingers of one hand: here is a group of musicians to match what Renaissance painting, sculpture and architecture have to offer.

One of the most intriguing and strangely lovable is Jacob Obrecht. I say ‘loveable’ because we know more about him than about most of these contemporaries. He was born in Ghent, probably around 1457/8, the son of one of the official city trumpeters. This musical background must have helped determine Obrecht’s vocation, and after having been trained as a choirboy he began to carve out a career for himself as chapel-master in his homeland’s many cathedral establishments. He seems to have been a restless character, never staying in the same place for very long, partly because his attention to his duties was sometimes found lacking (though to be fair, it’s not clear whether active negligence was ever conclusively proven).

By the time he reached his 30s his fame as a composer had spread throughout Europe, prompting the Duke of Ferrara, Ercole d’Este, to invite him to join his chapel in 1487/8. The arrangement fell through after a year due to Ercole’s inability to secure for Obrecht an ecclesiastical post. The return to the North, to the drudge of daily singing, teaching and administration, must have seemed like a defeat. More than a decade later, Ercole (who seems to have been remarkably persistent) invited him back in replacement of Josquin, who had left earlier in the same year, 1504. On the way Obrecht stopped at the court of the emperor Maximilian, for whom he may have written two of his late masterpieces, the masses Maria zart and Sub tuum presidium. But just as Obrecht achieved what must have been a cherished dream, disaster struck: within six months, Ercole died of plague, his successor sacked him, and he himself caught plague and died in the summer of 1505. It’s a sad story, but one whose known details give us a true sense of a composer’s career. That sense of closeness is emphasised because, uniquely for this period, we even know what he looked like: in the late 1480s he had his portrait made – it still survives, and in true Flemish realist fashion you can even see the stubble on his chin.

Obrecht’s music was praised by one of the great scholars of the music of this period, Gustave Reese, for its sheer loveliness - the sort of language that attests to a powerful quality that is as difficult to put into words as it is palpably experienced. Obrecht has a feeling for rich sonorities, for sensuous lines exuding a powerful sense of direction, and a sense of musical architecture equal to that of his greatest contemporaries. There is also something fantastical about his greatest pieces: the Missa Sub tuum presidium, which has already been mentioned, begins with three voices and adds a voice with each movement. In addition, each new voices introduces a new plainchant tune that is combined with the others, culminating in the seven-voice Agnus dei, the final section of which crowns the work with the appearance of one of the most famous Marian plainchants of all, Regina celi. It’s a fabulous moment, crowning a conception of true boldness and grandeur, all the more striking for the short duration of the individual movements: a strange, many-sided gem. Not surprisingly, it has been recorded more often than any of Obrecht’s masses (twice in the 1960s alone), and although none of these recordings is entirely satisfactory, they each have something to say.

The earliest of these, with choirboys of the Peterskirche, Leipzig and Capella Lipsiensis under Dietrich Knöthe, although not easily available at present and somewhat flawed in terms of intonation, is still worth seeking out because it gives the best account of the piece’s architectural sweep (buy through Amazon). It’s also the only account to use choirboys for the top line (which is practically unchanging in all five movements), which is probably the scoring Obrecht had in mind. Of the more recent, the one by Ars nova under Paul Hillier is clean and comes closest to Knöthe’s account in terms of proportions, and the Clerks’ Group for ASV (buy from Amazon) also includes a number of fine performances of motets otherwise unavailable (on which more later). Like Knöthe’s, the most recent, by Capella de la Torre, features instruments as well as voices, and though tempo decisions are sometimes frustrating (as with the Clerks), the resulting sonic image is frequently compelling (Amazon).  

In fact, Obrecht has faired remarkably well in the period of the sound recording. By the end of the 1960s, at least two other of his masses (which, like Sub tuum presidium, may be counted among his finest) had also been recorded, together with a number of motets. The motets may be the best way to get to know him, for they display even more variety than the Masses (of which more than 30 survive), and range from finely crafted miniatures to splendid, lavishly scored pieces for solemn occasions. David Munrow’s famous Art of the Netherlands set (Amazon) includes one of each (respectively Haec Deum caeli and Laudemus nunc Dominum), while the Clerks’ Group recording mentioned above has his beautiful Mille quingentis written in memory of the composer’s father, the monumental Factor orbis, and the extraordinary (and little-known) three-voice setting of the Salve regina, which is remarkably expansive, lasting over 12 minutes, and with a truly magical ending. The six-voice setting is far better known, and is included on Capilla Flamenca’s superlative recording for Eufoda in a version with choirboys. Another one-off (albeit an indispensable one) is the Orlando Consort’s recording of the splendid Salve crux (part of an anthology of Passiontide music for Metronome – Amazon), perhaps Obrecht’s most impressive and satisfying motet.

Space doesn’t permit a comprehensive review of the recordings of his Masses (more than 30 of which survive), and in truth few of these are on the artistic level that has often been reached in recent recordings of this period. Then again, Obrecht’s music is very demanding vocally, and demands a sure grasp of its architecture (I use the term again), precisely those qualities that take time to acquire, in an age when minimal rehearsal is the norm. Worth a commendation is the series of recordings issued on the Hungaroton label by the Budapest ensemble ANS Chorus under its director, János Bali (Amazon). Most of the ten masses on these four CDs are unavailable elsewhere, and though the pieces are rather uneven in quality, the set constitutes a rare opportunity to sample a large proportion of a composer's output in secure performances by a more than competent ensemble.There are however masses that demand to be heard, in recordings that can be listened to with pleasure.The short-lived Dufay Consort recorded the Missa Ave Regina celorum under Gary Cooper, and gives a good account of the music’s forward energy, thanks in no small part to some robust countertenor singing. In addition to the disc mentioned above, the Clerks’ Group have also recorded the Missa Malheur me bat (Amazon), like some of Obrecht’s Masses a ‘slow burner’ whose qualities disclose themselves more gradually to the patient listener. Two supreme masterpieces exist on CD in a single performance that is either flawed (Missa Maria zart by the Tallis Scholars) or too tentative in its interpretation (Fortuna desperata by The Sound and the Fury). As so often, it’s a matter of consistently judging the correct tempos, which neither of these recordings achieves. The good news, I suppose, is that we can still look forward to fine recordings of these superlative pieces.

I understand that the Binchois Consort is due to record another Obrecht mass, Libenter gloriabor, having toured with it for some time: more considered interpretations can do this repertory no harm. Meanwhile, Capella Pratensis has issued a remarkable CD and DVD of one of the few Obrecht Masses that can be plausibly dated: this is the Missa de Sancto Donatiano, which was probably written in 1487 as a commemoration for a wealthy furrier of Bruges, Donaes de Moor. In addition to an audio CD there is a DVD recreating the memorial service (complete with celebrant and singers in their vestments singing in front of the altarpiece commissioned by Donaes’ widow, which also survives). An accompanying documentary gives perhaps the most information one can easily obtain about the role of music and the life of its singers in the culture of the time. The interpretation itself is perhaps a little staid, making less of the music’s peaks, ebb and flow, as I would wish; but this placid view is not without its charm, and in the atmosphere of a cathedral chapel on a dark autumn evening, it is compelling, and delivered with considerable accomplishment on its own terms. We’re powerfully reminded that Obrecht’s masses deserve to be heard and appreciated as the musical counterpart to the work of the much more famous painters and sculptors whose works were commissioned, after all, for the same purpose as his music.

Obrecht, though a priest like most of his composer and singer colleagues, wrote instrumental music and settings of the popular tunes that he most likely encountered in the streets. Relatively little of this survives, but what there is gives us a different view of the placid-looking man in the painting. Impecunious scholars rub shoulders with women of easy virtue to the general merriment of everyone else. One doubts whether he would have shown much of it to his choirboys, however (pas devant les enfants, indeed!); one piece in particular would probably win the prize for ‘most obscene lyric ever set by a great composer’. I doubt whether Gramophone would let me print it, but the Globe label is fearless and lets it all hang out in the booklet notes for Camerata Trajectina’s recording, in which the more-or-less secular pieces are gathered together and sung with appropriate gusto (Amazon). This truculence is of a piece with a restless musical mind whose imagination and willingness to take risks is remarkably endearing: where Obrecht raises the stakes to their highest pitch, his takings continue to reward and astonish.

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