Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
While biographical details of his life are sparse, he seems to have had a succession of short appointments, many of which ended in less than ideal circumstances. At least twice he was in trouble for financial irregularities, more likely from careless bookkeeping than anything else, and there is one interesting record of his covering a shortfall in his accounts by a donation of his compositions to his employer. Throughout the period, though as an employee he may have been undesirable, he was held in the highest respect both by his patrons and by the composers who were his peers. Tinctoris, who was writing in Naples, singles him out in a short list of the master composers of the day--all the more significant because he was only 25 at the time Tinctoris made his list, and on the other side of Europe.
While most of Obrecht's appointments were in Flanders or the Netherlands, he made at least two trips to Italy, once in 1487 at the invitation of Duke Ercole I d'Este of Ferrara, and again in 1505. Duke Ercole had heard Obrecht's music, which is known to have circulated in Italy between 1484 and 1487, and said that he appreciated it above the music of all other contemporary composers; consequently he invited Obrecht to Ferrara for six months in 1487.
In 1504 Obrecht once again went to Ferrara, but on the death of the Duke at the beginning of the next year he became unemployed. In what capacity he stayed in Ferrara is unknown, but he died in the outbreak of plague there in August 1505.
Stylistically, Obrecht is a fascinating example of the contrapuntal extravagance of the late 15th century. He usually uses a cantus firmus technique for his masses, but uses a staggering variety of constructive devices in transforming simple source material into multi-movement mass compositions. Sometimes he takes his source material and divides it up into short phrases; sometimes he uses retrograded versions of complete melodies, or melodic bits; in one case he even extracts the component notes and orders them by note value, long to short, constructing new melodic material from the reordered sequences of notes. He prefers episodic structures,where each section of a work uses different motivic material: clearly to Obrecht there could not be too much variety. His procedures show a startling contrast to the work of the next generation, for example Josquin, who favored unity and simplicity of approach.
For his source material he clearly preferred the popular chansons of the day. While it may seem strange to a modern listener that a composer would build a sacred composition around bits of secular, even profane popular songs, this procedure was neither considered improper nor even particularly irreverent at the time (for example, there is a mass by Mouton—Missa faulte d'argent ["the problem with money"]—based on Josquin's chanson of the same name in which a man wakes up in bed with a prostitute, realizing painfully that he does not have enough money to pay her).
Though he was renowned in his time, Obrecht had little influence on subsequent generations: most likely he simply went out of fashion. The superabundant inventiveness seen in his works is an interesting analogue to the contemporary style of painting, shown most famously by Hieronymus Bosch (also born in 1450).
Sources and further reading
- Article "Jacob Obrecht," in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie. 20 vol. London, Macmillan Publishers Ltd., 1980. ISBN 1561591742
- Gustave Reese, Music in the Renaissance. New York, W.W. Norton & Co., 1954. ISBN 0393095304
- The Concise Edition of Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, 8th ed. Revised by Nicolas Slonimsky. New York, Schirmer Books, 1993. ISBN 002872416X
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