Jacob Obrecht

This is a striking portrait of the “outsider genius” Jacob Obrecht:

Obrecht, ~1457–1505, was an important composer in the third generation of the Franco-Flemish school. While he was overshadowed by the superstar Josquin, I’m currently finding him more interesting—mainly on the basis of one long piece called Missa Maria zart.

Obrecht was very bold and experimental in his younger years. He would do wild stuff like play themes backwards, or take the notes in a melody, rearrange them in order of how long they were played, and use that as a new melody. Paraphrasing Wikipedia:

Combining modern and archaic elements, Obrecht’s style is multi-dimensional. Perhaps more than those of the mature Josquin, the masses of Obrecht display a profound debt to the music of Johannes Ockeghem in the wide-arching melodies and long musical phrases that typify the latter’s music. Obrecht’s style is an example of the contrapuntal extravagance of the late 15th century. He often used a cantus firmus technique for his masses: sometimes he divided his source material up into short phrases; at other times he used retrograde (backwards) versions of complete melodies or melodic fragments. He once even extracted the component notes and ordered them by note value, long to short, constructing new melodic material from the reordered sequences of notes. Clearly to Obrecht there could not be too much variety, particularly during the musically exploratory period of his early twenties. He began to break free from conformity to formes fixes (standard forms) especially in his chansons (songs). However, he much preferred composing Masses, where he found greater freedom. Furthermore, his motets reveal a wide variety of moods and techniques.

But I haven’t heard any of these far-out pieces yet. Instead, I’ve been wallowing in his masterpiece: Missa Maria zart, an hour-long mass he wrote one year before he died of the bubonic plague. Here is the
Tallis Scholars version, with a score:

It’s harmonically sweet: it seems to avoid the pungent leading-tones that Dufay or even Ockeghem lean on. It’s highly non-repetitive: while the same themes get reused in endless variations, there’s little if any exact repetition of anything that came before. And it’s very homogeneous: nothing stands out very dramatically. So it’s a bit like a beautiful large stone with all its rough edges smoothed down by water, that’s hard to get a handle on. And I’m the sort of guy who finds this irresistibly attractive. After about a dozen listens, it reveals itself.

The booklet in the Tallis Scholars version, written by Peter Phillips, explains it better:

To describe Obrecht’s Missa Maria zart (‘Mass for gentle Mary’) as a ‘great work’ is true in two respects. It is a masterpiece of sustained and largely abstract musical thought; and it is possibly the longest polyphonic setting of the Mass Ordinary ever written, over twice the length of the more standard examples by Palestrina and Josquin. How it was possible for Obrecht to conceive something so completely outside the normal experience of his time is one of the most fascinating riddles in Renaissance music.

Jacob Obrecht (1457/8–1505) was born in Ghent and died in Ferrara. If the place of death suggests that he was yet another Franco-Flemish composer who received his training in the Low Countries and made his living in Italy, this is inaccurate. For although Obrecht was probably the most admired living composer alongside Josquin des Prés, he consistently failed to find employment in the Italian Renaissance courts. The reason for this may have been that he could not sing well enough: musicians at that time were primarily required to perform, to which composing took second place. Instead he was engaged by churches in his native land—in Utrecht, Bergen op Zoom, Cambrai, Bruges and Antwerp—before he finally decided in 1504 to take the risk and go to the d’Este court in Ferrara. Within a few months of arriving there he had contracted the plague. He died as the leading representative of Northern polyphonic style, an idiom which his Missa Maria zart explores to the full.

This Mass has inevitably attracted a fair amount of attention. The most recent writer on the subject is Rob Wegman (Born for the Muses: The Life and Masses of Jacob Obrecht by Rob C Wegman (Oxford 1994) pp.322–330. Wegman, Op.cit., p.284, is referring to H Besseler’s article ‘Von Dufay bis Josquin, ein Literaturbericht’, Zeitschrift für Musikwissenschaft, 11 (1928/9), p.18): ‘Maria zart is the sphinx among Obrecht’s Masses. It is vast. Even the sections in reduced scoring … are unusually extended. Two successive duos in the Gloria comprise over 100 bars, two successive trios in the Credo close to 120; the Benedictus alone stretches over more than 100 bars’; ‘Maria zart has to be experienced as the whole, one-hour-long sound event that it is, and it will no doubt evoke different responses in each listener … one might say that the composer retreated into a sound world all his own’; ‘Maria zart is perhaps the only Mass that truly conforms to Besseler’s description of Obrecht as the outsider genius of the Josquin period.’

The special sound world of Maria zart was not in fact created by anything unusual in its choice of voices. Many four-part Masses of the later fifteenth century were written for a similar grouping: low soprano, as here, or high alto as the top part; two roughly equal tenor lines, one of them normally carrying the chant when it is quoted in long notes; and bass. The unusual element is to a certain extent the range of the voices—they are all required to sing at extremes of their registers and to make very wide leaps—but more importantly the actual detail of the writing: the protracted sequences against the long chant notes, the instrumental-like repetitions and imitations.

It is this detail which explains the sheer length of this Mass. At thirty-two bars the melody of Maria zart is already quite long as a paraphrase model (the Western Wind melody, for example, is twenty-two bars long) and it duly becomes longer when it is stated in very protracted note-lengths. This happens repeatedly in all the movements, the most substantial augmentation being times twelve (for example, ‘Benedicimus te’ and ‘suscipe deprecationem nostram’ in the Gloria; ‘visibilium’ and ‘Et ascendit’ in the Credo). But what ultimately makes the setting so extremely elaborate is Obrecht’s technique of tirelessly playing with the many short phrases of this melody, quoting snippets of it in different voices against each other, constantly varying the extent of the augmentation even within a single statement, taking motifs from it which can then be turned into other melodies and sequences, stating the phrases in antiphony between different voices. By making a kaleidoscope of the melody in these ways he literally saturated all the voice-parts in all the sections with references to it. To identify them all would be a near impossible task. The only time that Maria zart is quoted in full from beginning to end without interruption, fittingly, is at the conclusion of the Mass, in the soprano part of the third Agnus Dei (though even here Obrecht several times introduced unscheduled octave leaps).

At the same time as constantly quoting from the Maria zart melody Obrecht developed some idiosyncratic ways of adorning it. Perhaps the first thing to strike the ear is that the texture of the music is remarkably homogeneous. There are none of the quick bursts of vocal virtuosity one may find in Ockeghem, or the equally quick bursts of triple-time metre in duple beloved of Dufay and others. The calmer, more consistent world of Josquin is suggested (though it is worth remembering that Josquin may well have learnt this technique in the first place from Obrecht). This sound is partly achieved by use of motifs, often derived from the tune, which keep the rhythmic stability of the original but go on to acquire a life of their own. Most famously these motifs become sequences—an Obrecht special—some of them with a dazzling number of repetitions (nine at ‘miserere’ in the middle of Agnus Dei I; six of the much more substantial phrase at ‘qui ex Patre’ in the Credo; nine in the soprano part alone at ‘Benedicimus te’ in the Gloria. This number is greatly increased by imitation in the other non-chant parts). Perhaps this method is at its most beautiful at the beginning of the Sanctus. In addition the motifs are used in imitation between the voices, sometimes so presented that the singers have to describe leaps of anything up to a twelfth to take their place in the scheme (as in the passage beginning ‘Benedicimus te’ in the Gloria mentioned above). It is the impression which Obrecht gives of having had an inexhaustible supply of these motifs and melodic ideas, free or derived, that gives this piece so much of its vitality. The mesmerizing effect of these musical snippets unceasingly passing back and forth around the long notes of the central melody is at the heart of the particular sound world of this great work.

When Obrecht wrote his Missa Maria zart is not certain. Wegman concludes that it is a late work—possibly his last surviving Mass setting—on the suggestion that Obrecht was in Innsbruck, on his way to Italy, at about the time that some other settings of the Maria zart melody are known to have been written. These, by Ludwig Senfl and others, appeared between 1500 and 1504–6; the melody itself, a devotional monophonic song, was probably written in the Tyrol in the late fifteenth century. The idea that this Mass, stylistically at odds with much of Obrecht’s other known late works and anyway set apart from all his other compositions, was something of a swansong is particularly appealing. We shall never know exactly what Obrecht was hoping to prove in it, but by going to the extremes he did he set his contemporaries a challenge in a certain kind of technique which they proved unable or unwilling to rival.

This Gramophone review of the Tallis Scholars performance, by David Fallows, is also helpful:

This is a bizarre and fascinating piece: and the disc is long-awaited, because The Tallis Scholars have been planning it for some years. It may be the greatest challenge they have faced so far. Normally a Renaissance Mass cycle lasts from 20 to 30 minutes; in the present performance, this one lasts 69 minutes. No ‘liturgical reconstruction’ with chants or anything to flesh out the disc: just solid polyphony the whole way. It seems, in fact, to be the longest known Renaissance Mass.

It is a work that has long held the attention of musicologists: Marcus van Crevel’s famous edition was preceded by 160 pages of introduction discussing its design and numerology. And nobody has ever explained why it survives in only a single source—a funny print by a publisher who produced no other known music book. However, most critics agree that this is one of Obrecht’s last and most glorious works, even if it leaves them tongue-tied. Rob C. Wegman’s recent masterly study of Obrecht’s Masses put it in a nutshell: “Forget the imitation, it seems to tell us, be still, and listen”.

There is room for wondering whether all of it needs to be quite so slow: an earlier record, by the Prague Madrigal Singers (Supraphon, 6/72 – nla), got through it in far less time. Moreover, Obrecht is in any case a very strange composer, treating his dissonances far more freely than most of his contemporaries, sometimes running sequential patterns beyond their limit, making extraordinary demands of the singers in terms of range and phrase-length. That is, there may be ways of making the music run a little more fluidly, so that the irrational dissonances do not come across as clearly as they do here. But in most ways it is hard to fault Peter Phillips’s reading of this massive work.

With only eight singers on the four voices, he takes every detail seriously. And they sing with such conviction and skill that there is hardly a moment when the ear is inclined to wander. As we have come to expect, The Tallis Scholars are technically flawless and constantly alive. Briefly, the disc is a triumph. But, more than that, it is a major contribution to the catalogue, unflinchingly presenting both the beauties and the apparent flaws of this extraordinary work. Phew!

My ear must be too jaded by modern music to notice the dissonances.

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