Jacob Obrecht Biography

(Former composer of masses, motets and songs)
Jacob Obrecht

Born: 1457

Born In: Ghent, Belgium

Jacob Obrecht was a Flemish distinguished composer of masses, motets and songs widely recognised as the most acclaimed composer of musical masses in Europe of the late 15th century. His fame was only eclipsed following his death by one of his contemporaries, Josquin des Prez. Style of Obrecht‘s earliest compositions on musical masses closely reflect that of French composer and poet Antoine Busnois. Obrecht was also a scholar and clergyman who possibly had a series of brief appointments, most of his which were in Flanders while two were in Italy. He made his first trip to Italy accepting invitation of Duke Ercole d'Este I of Ferrara who was mesmerised by his music. Obrecht’s second visit to Ferrara was however not as pleasing as the first one because the Duke died after his second visit following which he became unemployed. Although it remains unknown as to what capacity Obrecht stayed in Ferrara, he died there during the outbreak of plague. Respected by both his fellow composers and patrons, Obrecht largely wrote sacred music including masses and motets besides some chansons. His multi-dimensional compositional style included both modern and archaic elements. The wide-arching melodies and long musical phrases of his masses, which are mostly for four voices, display his great appreciation for and typify the music of Johannes Ockegheml. Obrecht mostly employed a cantus firmus technique for his masses and showcased a wide variety of moods and techniques in his motets. One of his masterpieces, the four-voice mass Missa Maria zart is counted among the longest polyphonic settings of the Mass Ordinary ever written.

Quick Facts

Died At Age: 48


father: Willem Obrecht

mother: Lijsbette Gheeraerts

Born Country: Netherlands

Composers Dutch Men

Died on: June 30, 1505

place of death: Ferrara, Italy

Cause of Death: Plague

Childhood & Early Life

Jacob Obrecht (also Hobrecht) was born in Ghent in either 1457 or 1458 as the only son of Willem Obrecht and Lijsbette Gheeraerts. His father was a Ghent city trumpeter. Obrecht lost his mother at a tender age in 1460. His father passed away in Ghent in 1488. The motet Mille quingentis, which may have been penned down by Obrecht himself, laments his father’s demise and mentioned that the Sicilian Muses wept when his father was carried off by the Fates.

Although not much is known about early education of Obrecht, it is likely that he learned to play the trumpet as his father and hence must have learned counterpart as also the way to extemporize over a cantus firmus.

It is possible that he knew French composer and poet of the early Renaissance Burgundian School Antoine Busnois, at the Burgundian court, and if not then he definitely knew Busnois’s music, as style of his earliest compositions on musical masses shows close resemblance with that of Busnois. Although details of his early life and career are sparse, some evidences suggest that Obrecht was probably serving as a priest by 1480.

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Obrecht, the composer, scholar and clergyman, probably had a series of brief appointments, a couple of which however ended in not so ideal circumstances. According to a record, Obrecht once compensated for a deficit in his accounts by donating choir books he had copied.

The first known appointment of Obrecht was that of an instructor of choirboys at Cambrai cathedral. He held the position in 1484, however was criticized for not taking proper care of the boys. The following year, he was inducted as assistant choirmaster of the cathedral at Brugge. According to Swiss music theorist, poet and humanist Henricus Glareanus, Desiderius Erasmus, who went on to become a noted philosopher and Catholic theologian and emerged as one of the greatest scholars of the northern Renaissance, served as one of the choirboys at one of Obrecht’s positions.

Although, Obrecht held most of his positions in Flanders in the Low Countries, he travelled to Italy at least twice. Ercole I d'Este, the Duke of Ferrara, who was a famous patron of the arts, was fascinated by the music of Obrecht, which probably circulated in Italy between 1484 and 1487. The Duke expressed that he appreciated the music of Obrecht above that of other contemporary composers and thus invited Obrecht to come to Ferrara for six months in 1487. Obrecht accepted the invitation and upon his arrival, the Duke installed him in Ferrara. The Duke attempted to provide a benefice and sought a papal appointment for Obrecht, however as it was not forthcoming. Obrecht went back to Brugge in 1488 and remained there till 1491. According to sources, he was in Brugge again sometime in 1498 and in 1500; in Bergen op Zoom in 1496 and sometime in 1498; and is listed in the accounts of the Church of Our Lady in Antwerp from 1494 to 1496 and thereafter from 1501 to 1503. Obrecht travelled to Ferrara again in 1504, however after the Duke died on January 25, 1505, Obrecht became unemployed. It is not known as to what capacity he stayed in Ferrara, but the virtuoso succumbed to plague there in late July 1505. His works were published in Venice during his lifetime by Italian printer Ottavio Petrucci. The latter printed a collection of secular works and motets of Obrecht as also a book containing five Masses by the composer in 1503.

Rich oeuvre of Obrecht consists of mostly church music including masses and motets besides some chansons and of these 27 masses, 19 motets, and 31 secular pieces are still extant. The multi-dimensional compositional style of Obrecht that include modern as well as archaic elements is noted for its pleasant and graceful melodies and clear harmonies. He liked using the popular chansons of his time for his source material for composing sacred music and it was not that unusual at that time nor considered improper to use materials from secular and propane popular songs for such purpose.

Masses of Obrecht are mostly for four voices. These are characterised by wide-arching melodies and long musical phrases which showcase his great appreciation for and typify the music of famous composer Johannes Ockeghem of the Franco-Flemish School. Nevertheless musical styles of the two composers differ considerably, for instance the phrases in Obrecht's music can be easily distinguished while that of Ockeghem were more ambiguously defined.

Obrecht employed the technique of cantus firmus (fixed melody) in most of his masses taking the pre-existing melodies from plainsong or from a secular song. He also used the technique of parody in some of his late masses and used all voices of a pre-existing motet or chanson instead of a single melody. In one of his masses titled Missa Sub tuum presidium, the number of voice parts increases in each movement that is from three in the Kyrie, to four in the Gloria, five in the Credo, six in the Sanctus and seven in the Agnus Dei. All through the performance, the title chant remains clearly audible, sung in the top voice, and five additional Marian chants are heard in the last three movements.

One of the finest works of Obrecht was his four-voice mass titled Missa Maria zart (Mass for the tender Virgin Mary) which is performed for over an hour and is counted among the longest polyphonic settings of the Mass Ordinary ever written. Though not definite, the masterpiece was dated to around 1504, and is based on a devotional song popular in the Tyrol which Obrecht possibly heard while he was going through the region around 1503 to 1504.

Obrecht was one of the significant composers of Renaissance motets and his compositions showcased a great variety of moods and techniques. Most of his motets like Salve Regina and Alma Redemptoris Mater were written in honour of the Virgin Mary and were characterised by use of the cantus firmus melody found in the tenor in long notes. Obrecht also used the more old-fashioned polytextual style in some of his motets.

Reputation & Legacy

Obrecht thrived in carving his niche as one of the greatest composers of his time and was held in the highest esteem by his patrons as well as his fellow composers. Renaissance music theorist and composer Johannes Tinctoris, regarded as one of the most significant European writers on music, while writing in Naples, singled Obrecht out in a shortlist of contemporary master composers. It was even more noteworthy as he was just twenty-five years old when Tinctoris made the list. Obrecht however seem to have had little influence on subsequent generation of composers, possibly because he went out of fashion. His working methods were also strikingly different from those of the next generation who preferred more simplicity of approach.

Within decades following his death, the virtuoso was counted among the ancients (antichi) and those who first made music. This probably occurred after several significant changes took place in musical styles during the first decades of the 16th century.

Over the last few years, some musicologists have extensively studied his music resulting in many discoveries which include correct dates for several of his works.

See the events in life of Jacob Obrecht in Chronological Order

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