Jacob Obrecht was a Flemish composer who was born in Ghent in 1457/1458 and died in Ferrara, Italy, juli/augustus 1506. He was the only child of Willem Obrecht (1430/35 - 1488), a trumpet player for Gent, and Lysbette Gheeraerts (1438/42 - 1460). Biographical details about Jacob Obrecht are often scarce and vague. His work life appears to have been a chain of short lived positions.
Biographical details about Jacob Obrecht are often scarce and vague. His work life appears to have been a chain of short lived positions.
Obrecht studied theology and, shortly after becoming a priest, left for Bergen op Zoom. In 1484 Obrecht became a teacher for the singing school attached to the Cathedral of Cambrai, and in 1485 he was named “songmaster” at the Saint Donaas church (now cathedral) in Bruges. Following a first trip to Ferrara at the behest of Duke Ercole I d’Este he gained an appointment as choirmaster and later kapellmeister to the Onze-Lieve-Vrouw church (now cathedral) of Antwerp. In 1504 Obrecht returned to Ferrara and succeeded Josquin Des Prez as kapellmeister. When Ercole I passed away on January 25th 1505 his son, Alfonso I d’Este, promptly fired Obrecht. After fruitlessly attempting to find work in Mantua, Obrecht returned to Ferrara as a priest. In 1506 he succumbed to the plague in Ferrara.
Obrecht mostly wrote church music: masses and motets. In addition to this, about 40 profane pieces are attributed to Obrecht and are known. He consistently uses the cantus firmus technique in his masses and motets. This technique takes a generally already existing melody and interweaves it with other other voices in a polyphonic manner. Two parody masses of his are known as well.
The first parody masses
From the 16th century onward the parody mass is the most important type of mass composition. Jacob Obrecht’s parody masses were ahead of their time. The term “parody mass” is misleading. The parody mass had nothing to do with humor in the modern sense of the term. The parody mass doesn’t originate from the unisono melody or model (cantus firmus) that serves as the foundations for polyphonic composition. A parody mass starts from a polyphonic example that is transplanted into a mass vertically - meaning multiple parts simultaneously. The model is usually shorter than an elaborate five-parted mass. The borrowed fragments are interchanged with newly composed passages. The model doesn’t need to be an original piece by the composer, it can also originate from predecessors and contemporaries. These were often admired examples or teachers. To be plagiarized was to be honored. Although in some cases ambiguous, profane songs were used in the composition of masses, non-liturgical church music such as motets were more prevalent as the base for parody masses. Below mentioned parody masses by Jacob Obrecht (1457/8 – 1505) betray nothing of the tumultuous spirit of their time, despite both being based on models that referred to suffering and misery.
- Missa Fortuna Desperata, based on Fortuna desperata van Antoine Busnois (c. 1430-1492), the most well known composer in Europe alongside Guillaume Dufay and Johannes Ockeghem.
- Missa Maria zart, von edler Art, based on the similarly named spiritual song Maria zart, von edler Art, ein Rose ohn allen Dornen, du hast aus Macht her widerbracht daß vor lang war verloren.
Vocal works (selection)
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