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8.553210 - OBRECHT: Missa Caput / Salve Regina
Jacob Obrecht (1457/8 - 1505)
Among the extraordinarily gifted composers who changed the musical world in late fifteenth-century Europe, Obrecht will always be seen to have a special position He is distinguished from his contemporaries for the serenity of his musical vision, his unmatched ear for sonority, and not least the astonishingly affective range of his writing which encompasses the playful, the jubilant, and the rapturous. Obrecht's music is more than a window into late-medieval society, it has the power to move, inspire, and console us even today.
Jacob Obrecht was born in Ghent (in what is now Belgium) in 1457/8. His father, Willem Obrecht, was a city trumpeter with a fairly active professional life, together with five colleagues he regularly travelled away from Ghent to work in the service of powerful magnates in the orbit of the Burgundian court. Obrecht was to commemorate his father's death in November 1488 with the motet Mille quingentis. His mother, Lijsbette Gheeraerts, was the daughter of a northern Flemish trader; she died in July 1460 when Jacob was only two years old.
Obrecht must have been extraordinarily precocious. He was appointed to his first known musical post in the Dutch town of Bergen op Zoom at the age of 22. This was the position of choirmaster at the church of St Gertrude, which he held from 1480-84 Around the same time the influential Johannes Tinctoris, writing in Naples, singled him out as one of ten major composers 'whose music, distributed throughout the whole world, fills God's churches, the palaces of kings, and the houses of private individuals, with the utmost sweetness'. Indeed there are reports from as early as 1484 that Obrecht's Mass settings were circulating in Italy. Hardly three years later, in 1487, Duke Ercole d'Este of Ferrara was reported to favour Obrecht's music over that of other composers, and he invited him to be his guest at the Ferrarese court for six months.
Despite these and other signs of international recognition, Obrecht does not seem to have had a particularly prosperous career. Throughout the period 1485-1503 he kept moving back and forth between musical positions at Antwerp, Bruges, and Bergen op Zoom, cities in the south-western Low Countries comprising an area with a radius of about forty miles. His typical musical duties normally included housing, nourishing, and educating between six and eight choirboys, and taking charge of the daily, weekly, yearly round of liturgical celebrations. Somehow, within this never-ending burden of onerous responsibilities, Obrecht found it within himself to produce such music as we hear on this recording. Only towards the end of his life, in 1504, did international recognition open the way to less burdensome and more lucrative musical positions. In September of 1504 he accepted the prestigious post of maestro di cappella at the court of Ferrara, only to lose it upon the death of his patron, Duke Ercole, in the following January. After several months without permanent employment, or none that we know of, Obrecht died of the plague in August 1505.
Missa Caput survives uniquely in a manuscript copied at the court of Ferrara, but it may have been compiled in Bruges in the late 1480s. The setting is best described as the fifteenth-century equivalent of a 'remake', the formal layout of the structural voicepart (the so-called cantus firmus) was adopted wholesale from an older mass setting, the anonymous English Missa Caput. This work, probably written in the 1440s, was extraordinarily famous in continental Europe, having sparked off at least one previous 'remake', by Johannes Ockeghem in the 1450s. The provenance of the melody used as a cantus firmus (labelled 'caput') eluded scholars for a long time, until in 1950 Manfred Bukofzer discovered that it was the final melisma of the plainchant antiphon Venit ad Petrum, sung on Maurldy Thursday to commemorate the washing of the feet. This antiphon is heard on this recording with the final 'caput' melisma highlighted. In Obrecht's Missa Caput this melody, whose rhythmicization and layout remained identical to that in the English Missa Caput, is stated by a different voice-part in each movement.
Both of the Salve Regina settings are also based on a plainchant melody, but they generally treat the pre- existent melody with much greater flexibility than in the Missa Caput. They are both alternation settings, in other words the music alternates between a polyphonic 'harmonization' of the plainchant and the unadorned plainchant itself. Beyond this principle the musical writing is entirely rhapsodic, a freeplay of musical imagination. In the fifteenth century, settings such as the Salve Regina would often have been sung on a daily basis in a type of Marian service known as the Salve, of which Obrecht must have directed thousands in the course of his career. With singers often congregating around a statue or painting of the Virgin Mary, in apparent imitation of the angelic host singing her praise in heaven, worshippers were free to be absorbed in private devotion, their thoughts and prayers drifting quietly with the flow of musical images passing by in motets such as these. This meditative singing might make one understand the fifteenth-century expression that music was capable of lifting one's soul to a contemplation of heavenly things
Rob C. Wegman
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