Born for the Muses: the Life and Masses of Jacob Obrecht.
Jacob Obrecht has found eloquent advocacy for his music in this impressive study of his life and Masses. While Rob C. Wegman builds on previous studies by scholars such as Otto Gombosi, Bernhard Meier, Arnold Salop and Edgar Sparks, he brings to bear penetrating new insights that vividly illustrate for the reader the unique aesthetic properties of Obrecht's Masses.
Wegman regards his book as a `case-study in late fifteenth-century music history' (p. 1), with an essential focus on the transformation of the cyclic Mass from dependence on a cantus firmus to the use of parody technique. He carefully weighs the musical influences on Obrecht from such composers as Ockeghem and Busnois, and then shows where the younger composer moves beyond their styles to carve out an individual musical profile for himself. In the process, Wegman works both old and new biographical information into the narrative, including several recently uncovered documents concerning Obrecht's father and mother, Willem Obrecht and Lysbette Gheeraerts, and the composer's own date of birth (1457/8; based on a beautiful portrait of Obrecht discovered by Dirk De Vos a few years ago and reproduced in colour here), as well as recently established evidence about the earliest dates for manuscript copies of his Masses. In a masterly way, Wegman weaves the many threads of musical and documentary evidence into a coherent and compelling narrative, in prose that is appealingly flexible and direct.
The first three chapters cover Obrecht's early life. While no direct documentary evidence survives concerning Obrecht from 1460 until some twenty years later in 1480, we learn that his mother died about 1460 when he was a very small child, and that he inherited a respectable amount of property from her. Obrecht's father, employed as a trumpeter for the city of Ghent, enjoyed relative prestige and financial stability; indeed Charles the Bold of Burgundy often borrowed the renowned trumpeters of Ghent, and Willem was probably among their number. Wegman speculates that Willem perhaps even journeyed to Naples in the 1470s in the retinue of Antoine of Burgundy when King Ferrante was elected to the Order of the Golden Fleece. In this context, and given the apparent familiarity with Obrecht's music of Johannes Tinctoris (who worked in Naples), Wegman entertains the possibility that Jacob himself enrolled as a student at the University of Naples in the 1470s. Chapter 2 in particular paints a rich picture of the secure career of professional trumpeters in the fifteenth century as represented by Willem Obrecht, and contrasts this with the unsure course of the itinerant singer as chosen by his son Jacob.
Wegman then turns to the evolution of Obrecht's style, from the earliest Masses, placed (on stylistic grounds) in the late 1470s, for example the Missa `Petrus Apostolus'--characterized by a continuous stream of smooth, intricate counterpoint and unemphasized cadences--to a concentrated period of activity in the late 1480s and early 1490s that apparently witnessed the production of the majority of Obrecht's 30 Masses, notably masterpieces such as the Missa Fortuna desperata'. Wegman brings to bear an impressive analytical and critical understanding of the ways in which the various elements of the cantus firmus Mass interact and evolve. He applies subtle and sophisticated insight to the function of the isolated head-motif and its gradual integration into the cantus firmus structure, and he traces as well the shifting interplay between the cantus firmus and its surrounding counterpoint; on the latter point, the discussion of the Crucifixus' from the Missa `Malheur me bat' is exemplary (pp. 239-44). By this time in his full maturity, which Wegman places at about 1490, Obrecht had developed various techniques to focus overall tonal goals, including the careful layout of tonal planes and emphatic cadences that are stripped of all ornament. This stripping down of the old techniques of elaboration to their simplest forms and then redeploying them in a newly focused tonal context constitutes for Wegman one of Obrecht's great achievements. Attention then turns to works such as the Missa `Maria zart' and Missa `Sub taum presidium', whose style places them apart from the discernible achievements of the mature Masses; Wegman suggests that Obrecht may have written these during the last decade of his life, up to 1505, when he died prematurely from plague in Ferrara. He was only 47 or 48, and his creative life span thus emerges as a period lasting just over 25 years. For Wegman the great misfortune is that Obrecht's life was cut short before his music had a chance to evolve beyond the cantus firmus principle to more text orientated approaches such as Josquin achieved with paraphrase technique in the Missa `Pange lingua'. Thus Obrecht's music, so strongly associated with cantus firmus procedures, has been labelled in our own times as conservative.
Wegman believes that the dominating position usually accorded to Josquin is to some extent an accident of history, and, in his desire to open up some critical space for an evaluation of Obrecht's music, he elbows Josquin a bit to one side. While biographical information for Josquin is in fact far more sketchy than it is for Obrecht, it is Josquin's music that has received the lion's share of critical attention in succeeding centuries. Wegman views this as a result of the flourishing reception of Josquin's work in the sixteenth century, as compared to the relative neglect of Obrecht's music. On the other hand, he believes that Obrecht was better known than Josquin as a composer of Masses in the late fifteenth century. He makes much of the early inclusion of Obrecht's name in a list of eminent composers in Tinctoris's Complexus effectuum musices (in a hypothetical version that dates from c.1480; the only manuscript that in fact includes Obrecht's name was copied in his home town of Ghent in 1504; p. 73 n. 10), where the young composer stands alongside Dunstable, Dufay, Binchois, Ockeghem and Busnois. Notable for their absence are other composers active in the 1470s such as Josquin, Gaspar van Weerbeke, Compere and Agricola. Yet given the strained diplomatic relations in the 1470s between King Ferrante of Naples and Galeazzo Maria Sforza of Milan over the issue of Milanese piracy of singers from the Neapolitan chapel, Tinctoris could scarcely have been expected to include the names of Galeazzo's composers in his list. Regarding other contemporary references to Obrecht, it is true that we have several documents, emanating in particular from Ferrara in the 1480s and '90s, indicating Ercole d'Este's interest in Obrecht's Masses and the duke's attempt to secure a benefice from the Pope when Obrecht visited Ferrara in 1487-8. But Wegman incorrectly maintains that there are no statements referring to Josquin as a composer of eminence before 1500 (p. 1). Franchinus Gaffurius's Practica musicae (Milan, 1496) includes a list of eight eminent composers, including men from Galeazzo Maria Sforza's renowned chapel--Josquin, Weerbeke, Compere and Agricola--who were not mentioned in Tinctoris's list in the Complexus effectuum musices. Gaffurius states: `A certain very famous procedure has been instituted in counterpoint in which notes of the baritonans proceed in parallel tenths with those of the cantus, the tenor moving in concord with both. Tinctoris, Gulielmus guarnerius, Jusquin despret, Gaspar, Alexander agricola, Loyset, Obrech, Brumel, Isaac, and other very pleasing composers have often followed this procedure' (Practica musicae, trans. Clement A. Miller, American Institute of Musicology? 1968, p. 144; names are spelt as in Gaffurius's original). Curiously, there is no mention of this passage in Wegman's study, even though Gaffurius includes Obrecht's name as well.
Wegman further discounts the likelihood of Josquin's activity as a composer of Masses before 1490. in view of the lack of sources before this date. The same could be said of Obrecht's music, however, since very few manuscripts containing his Masses can be dated before about 1487. The Siena Cathedral choirbook, which contains Obrecht's Missa `Beata viscera', has been dated by Frank D'Accone to 1481, thus making it the earliest source for a Mass by Obrecht. But Wegman himself questions such an early date for the copying of the choirbook, and believes that the paper-type and copyist's hand indicate a more likely origin in the 1490s (p. 100). On the other hand, Wegman has overlooked a source that testifies to Josquin's early activity as a Mass composer. The L'vov fragments contain two Masses by Josquin, at least one of which, the Missa `L'ami Baudichon', was copied as early as the third quarter of the fifteenth century, as Miroslaw Perz has persuasively argued (`The Lvov Fragments: a Source for Works by Dufay, Josquin, Petrus de Domarto, and Petrus de Grudencz in 15th Century Poland', Tijdschrift van de Vereniging voor Nederlandse MuzieLgeschiedenis, xxxvi (1986), 2651) The Missa `L'ami Baudichon' is reminiscent of Dufay's style and has long been regarded by scholars as one of Josquin's earliest works. Stylistically, it could have been written as early as the 1470s, and it rubs shoulders in the second fascicle of the L'vov fragments with an even earlier work, Petrus de Domarto's Missa `Spiritus almus', which Reinhard Strohm dates to the 1450s (The Rise of European Music, Cambridge, 1993, p. 423). The third fascicle of the L'vov fragments contains Josquin's Missa `L'homme arme sexti toni', and the works in this fascicle seem to have been copied in the late fifteenth century.
Both Josquin and Obrecht composed Masses on a polyphonic Italian song, `Fortune desperate', and Wegman's view of Obrecht as the foremost composer of Masses about 1490 prompts him to give that composer pre-eminence as the creator of the first Missa `Fortuna desperata'. Gombosi originally recognized a direct connection between the two works: several bars of shared music occur in the opening of Obrecht's `Osanna' and in Josquin's final Agnus Dei. Obrecht's Mass appears in sources by 1491, and Wegman suggests that Josquin's Mass takes Obrecht as its model. But as Gombosi, Osthoff and Sparks, among others, have pointed out, the fully mature style of Obrecht's Mass, with its clear tonal organization and emphatic cadences, suggests that it is the later work, while Josquin's heavy reliance on ostinato and intricate motivic work strongly indicates an earlier date of composition.
Regarding Obrecht's use of melodic sequences, I hear them somewhat differently from. Wegman. Other commentators such as Nanie Bridgman have found lengthy sequences in Obrecht's music to be excessive, citing as an example a passage near the beginning of the Gloria from the Missa `Aye regina celorum' (p. 211). Wegman proposes that the sevenfold sequence in bars 14-23 of this movement expresses a witticism: `Few listeners ... would have expected the device [sequence] to occur at such an important and carefully prepared moment as a cantus-firmus entry. After the buildup of fourteen bars it could only have the effect of a witticism. On paper that witticism may seem rather poor, since the entire sequence can be seen there at one glance. Evolving in time, however, there is an obvious element of suspense involved. That, indeed, seems to be the point of the passage ... The passage is of course striking and unprecedented, but nevertheless incidental, typical not so much of the composer's perceived contrapuntal laxity as of his musical sense of humour' (p. 212). The passage certainly does contain an element of suspense, but rather than interpret it as an example of Obrechtian wit, why not take it seriously as an instance of what Glarean called the `maiestas' of Obrecht's music? The sequence-in a sensitive performance, at least-pulls the listener along with an inescapable effect of inevitability. A marvellous tonal shift occurs with the introduction of E[unknown text] (the flattened seventh of the F tonality) in the second limb of the sequence, while the succeeding limbs reinstate Et. Then at the seventh statement both the outer voices reassert E[unknown text] and land on it squarely before shifting back to E[unknown text] in the last (varied) statement. This final limb of the sequence blossoms forth from the strict pattern and expands upward through an ascent to E[unknown text] and finally to a climactic cadence on F at bar 23. The effect is one of shifting harmonic colour and sheer power as the conflict between E[unknown text] and E[unknown text] steadily plays itself out over the unrelenting melodic progress of the phrase. In addition, Obrecht ultimately resolves the hemiola conflict between the (as transcribed) 6/4 pattern in the outer voices and 3/2 in the inner voices: in the last limb the outer voices collapse into the 3/2 of the inner parts. The eighth limb thus releases a tremendously taut spring of harmonic and rhythmic energy.
The Missa `Regina! celi'is thought to have been lost (pp. 342-3), but it seems worth suggesting that the 1503 Innsbruck payment to Obrecht for a Mass by this name perhaps refers to a work that has in fact been preserved,the famous Missa `Sub tnum presidium'. The closing Agnus Dei prominently features the `Regina cell' chant at three different points where the voices are exposed and the tune is clearly audible. The court official who recorded the payment could simply have referred to the Mass by naming the most prominent and familiar chant that a listener would hear as the work came to its conclusion.
Wegman's book is beautifully produced, and includes a map, figures, and illustrations of documents, as well as an especially welcome and generous supply of music examples reproduced from the new Obrecht complete edition. For its depth of thought on the analytical and critical issues concerning Obrecht's music, and for its sympathetic and newly documented treatment of his life, the book stands as a landmark in scholarship on fifteenth-century music. Some of the ideas are provocative and invite discussion; but this is just the kind of dialogue encouraged by Wegman as a means to keep Obrecht's music alive in our own time. With the appearance of Wegman's brilliant study and the nearly completed volumes of the new Obrecht edition, I look forward to many new, and newly informed, performances--both live and on recordings--as well as to further critical engagement with the music of this fascinating composer.
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|Publication:||Music & Letters|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Nov 1, 1995|
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