Jacob Obrecht was one of the Franco-Flemish composers of the Renaissance era who earned great fame across Europe in his lifetime. However, soon after his death, his fame was somewhat eclipsed by Josquin des Prez, one of his contemporaries. The body of Obrecht’s work includes a number of 30 settings of the mass, and also motets for 3 and 4 vocal parts. His style of composition incorporated a frequent use of vertical chords. His work was quite distinct from Josquin’s, in the sense that it hardly maintained a single motivic pattern throughout a section and thus his counterpoint didn’t have a long-range function. One of the prominent characteristics of his work is that it has full and sonorous writing, parallel 10ths between outer voices, and an adept use of canon while keeping focus on root-position chords. Obrecht spent most of his career in Flemish cities. He was appointed as a composer in Italy by the duke and though, after the duke’s demise, he became unemployed, he continued to stay there until he succumbed to plague.
Childhood & Early Life
Whatever is known about Jacob Obrecht comes from his motet Mille quingentis, a lamenting piece written for his father’s death, which suggests that he was born on St. Cecilia's Day, 1450, in either Bergen op Zoom or Sicily. Some records lead to the fact that Obrecht stayed in the Netherlands for most of his childhood and this is where he seems to have received his education. However, very little can be stated with certainty his about his education. Some evidences suggest that he probably received his initial lessons in music from his father, Willem Obrecht, who was a city trumpeter in Ghent. Though the facts about his education remain hazy, it is apparent that he attended a university, and he was a priest by 1480. His mother, Lijsbette Gheeraerts, died in 1460 at the age of 20, while his father passed away in 1488 in Ghent.
Not much is known about the initial phases of Obrecht’s career either. Some inconclusive evidence, however, suggest that around early 1474, he might have been in Florence and Ferrara. During the period from 1479 to 1480, Obrecht held some positions in Bergen op Zoom. Later, in 1484, he was appointed as the chapel master in Cambrai. In November 1485, Obrecht became the succentor at St-Donatien in Bruges. Two years later, in 1487, he was granted leave to visit the Duke of Ferrara, Ercole I d'Este, in Ferrara, Italy. Ercole tried to lure the composer, to stay in Ferrara, with a benefice but Obrecht turned down the offer. It is said that the Duke was a huge admirer of Obrecht and regarded his composition to be above all others. Highly admired in the Low Countries for most part of his career, Obrecht also started to gain recognition in Italy by 1480s. Obrecht then returned to Bruges and remained there until 1491. His name has been found enlisted in the accounts of the Church of Our Lady in Antwerp from 1494 to1496 and later, again from 1501 to 1503. He visited Bruges in 1491, 1498, and 1500. He also visited Bergen op Zoom in 1496 and 1498. In 1504, he went to Ferrara again to serve as composer in the D'Este chapel on invitation by the Duke Ercole I d'Este of Ferrara. But, by early next year, the Duke passed away and Obrecht was left unemployed. However, Obrecht remained in Ferrara until his death in 1505, but his employment status remains obscure. Ottavio Petrucci of Venice printed several of Obrecht’s works during his lifetime. Along with printing a collection of his secular works and motets, Ottavio Petrucci also printed a book of five Masses by Obrecht in 1503.
Death and Legacy
Obrecht died of plague in Ferrara in 1505. After a decade of his demise, Obrecht came to be regarded as one of the "ancients" (antichi) and among those who first made music. This perhaps happened on account of the several significant changes that were made in musical styles in the first decades of the 16th century.
- Missa Sub tuum presidium
- Missa Maria zart
- Mille quingentis