Oakeley, Sir Herbert (Stanley)




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2. The modern image.


In the modern period a new image of Jacob Obrecht has emerged, albeit one that has undergone significant changes over the past 125 years or so. To some extent these changes may reflect the shifting intellectual preoccupations of Renaissance musicology during that period. Yet this cannot explain everything: after all, there has been a deep underlying continuity in the modern images of such composers as Ockeghem or Josquin. Obviously the stability of any image depends on the degree of coherence it can provide when the evidence itself is contradictory, ambiguous, or incomplete. In Obrecht’s case, apparently, no image has succeeded in doing this; it is important to understand why this should have been the case.

Like many Netherlandish masters, Obrecht first emerged as a distinctive musical personality from the pages of Ambros’s Geschichte der Musik (iii, 182–7). Ambros, as is well known, adopted the language and values of Romantic music criticism in his discussion of Renaissance music history. Most revealing in this regard (certainly in comparison with later histories of music) was his tendency to typify composers and works in terms of their perceived individualistic qualities. Ambros sought to develop an intimate personal understanding of each composer and his music, even when concrete historical evidence to support such understanding was lacking. He communicated his perceptions in richly evocative poetic language, thereby shaping the image of masters and masterpieces for decades to come.

Interestingly, Ambros characterized Obrecht in terms similar to those he used for Ockeghem. Obrecht, in his judgement, was ‘a great, profound, serious and manly master, whose works show, almost throughout, a strain of stern loftiness’. The works on which he based this opinion were the ones he found in prints issued by Petrucci and various German publishers – a small but probably representative sample of the oeuvre available to 16th-century audiences. In these pieces he discerned a musical sensibility that encompassed, amongst others, the ‘deeply serious, somewhat dark’ but ‘on the whole magnificent’ writing of the Missa ‘Grecorum’, the ‘uncommonly intimate’ expression of the Missa ‘Salve diva parens’ (a work that sounded to him as if it breathed ‘a gentle melancholy’), and the ‘powerful grandeur’ and ‘robust joy’ of the Missa ‘Fortuna desperata’. The overriding impression, for Ambros, was one of majestic grandeur. This perception may well have been influenced by Glarean’s judgment that the works of Obrecht ‘have a certain wondrous grandeur and an intrinsic quality of moderation’. Curiously, however, what Ambros passed on to the 20th century was, above all, his impression of Obrecht’s spiritual depth. Reference books and music histories noted this as a prominent quality in his music up to and even beyond the Second World War.

Yet the image of Obrecht as a Renaissance Tondichter, as a Romantic musical poet avant la lettre, was short-lived. The Ockeghem-like qualities that Ambros and others ascribed to him were to give way, in the postwar decades, to a perception of Obrecht as primarily a musical architect, as a formalist who was to be admired more for his abstract musical thinking than for significant depth of feeling. It is hard to establish how and why this change should have taken place. Quite possibly, however, the publication of the complete works under the editorship of Johannes Wolf in 1908–21 played an important part. This made Obrecht, by some margin, the first 15th-century composer whose oeuvre could be studied as a unified corpus. Apart from anything else, the Werken provided a scholarly basis for questioning Romantic perceptions based merely on samples of pieces, thus allowing scholars to revise Ambros’s image at a comparatively early date. It did not take long for such a revision to appear. In his Leipzig dissertation of 1925, Otto Gombosi adopted a notably more objectivist, scholarly tone than previous commentators had done. His remarkable study offered penetrating insights into selected pieces by Obrecht and his contemporaries, but it did so at the expense of the individualism perceived by Ambros. Gombosi’s new insights did not blend into a distinctive, coherent image of the composer – certainly not one that possessed the poetic qualities so admired in the 19th century.

The impression of spiritual profundity was in any case hard to reconcile with the discovery, published by André Pirro in 1927, that Obrecht had been neglectful of routine duties at Cambrai Cathedral, and in fact had embezzled money from the cathedral. History books have told and retold this episode many times (which has often been thought to reflect a character flaw), with the inevitable effect, certainly in the long run, of calling into question the sincerity of Obrecht’s musical expression. It became less easy now to infer the composer’s personality simply from the aesthetic qualities of his music in the way Ambros had done, and as historians would continue to do until the present day in the cases of Ockeghem and Josquin. One way to vindicate Obrecht as a composer, however, was to give new emphasis to his accomplishments on the ‘purely musical’ level. It may be no coincidence that scholars in the postwar decades began to draw attention to aspects of Obrecht’s music that had previously attracted little notice: the element of calculation and clever contrivance in his cantus-firmus layouts, for example, or the apparent facility and (at times) almost naïve simplicity of his part-writing. Neither of these aspects is conspicuous in all or even most of Obrecht’s compositions, and several of his most significant works (e.g. the Missa ‘Sicut spina rosam’ or the six-voice Salve regina) do not attest them at all. Even so, a new image of Obrecht began to take shape: that of a cold constructivist and Vielschreiber, whose prominence in music history owes more to the clever ingenuity of his tenor manipulations and to the sheer bulk of his output than to genuinely inspired or truly innovative masterpieces. This would now set him apart from the other composers of his generation. Obrecht came to be seen as the loner of the Josquin generation, as a curiously single-minded individual who doggedly stuck to old-fashioned practices, to the point of having little or no influence on subsequent composers. (As early as 1929, Heinrich Besseler had characterized him as the ‘genialer Außenseiter’ of the Renaissance; to some extent that is what he has remained ever since.)

Not surprisingly, perhaps, the postwar decades have left a substantial body of research on the formal layouts and cantus-firmus procedures in Obrecht’s masses and motets. This research seems to have been motivated, at least in part, by perceived parallels between the Kanonkünste of the Franco-Flemish composers and the avantgarde serialism of the 1950s. It may also have been promoted by the rigorously empiricist orientation of Anglo-American musicology during the Cold War decades, an orientation which typically privileged aspects that are susceptible to empirical verification. On these latter terms a composer like Ockeghem was bound to remain an elusive figure – and this, if anything, intensified the romanticized image of a ‘mystic’ already conferred on him by pre-war musicologists. Obrecht’s works, on the other hand (at least those of his works that scholars chose to study), seemed to give all their secrets away in rational designs of one kind or another – ingenious tenor manipulations, symmetrical formal layouts, tonal structures and numerological schemes. Postwar musicology found its methodological preoccupations richly rewarded in Obrecht’s music, and repaid him by canonizing the new image of the composer, one in which his music seemed to offer little else of historical (or even musical) interest besides the much-analysed rational designs. Significantly, the Obrecht mass that has been most often recorded since the 1950s is Sub tuum presidium, the very model of a complex mathematical design in 15th-century music.

All this is not to deny that Obrecht’s music was still appreciated, especially for the flair and direct appeal of his melodic invention. Yet in most cases such appreciation was expressed merely as a qualification of the predominant image. In his Music of the Renaissance, for instance, Gustave Reese concluded his discussion of the composer with the afterthought: ‘in addition to the technical proficiency shown in his music, its sheer loveliness makes him one of the greatest figures in a great generation’. And it is perhaps significant that the only attempt to analyse Obrecht’s contrapuntal writing in any detail, Manfred Bukofzer’s brilliant study of the Missa Caput, did not inspire similar attempts in other pieces so much as helped to solidify the postwar image of the composer. Bukofzer compared Obrecht’s setting with the Caput masses of the English anonymous (then thought to be Du Fay) and Ockeghem. For obvious reasons he was concerned especially to bring out the stylistic differences between the three works. Given this objective, the deep kinship between Obrecht and Ockeghem once perceived by Ambros was bound to give way to a stark polarity – between the perceived inwardness and spirituality of Ockeghem, and the outward show and flamboyance of Obrecht. Bukofzer’s impression of ‘boundless exuberance and inexhaustible vigor’, ‘lusty virility’, ‘ceaseless rhythmic drive’, and much else, has found its way into numerous postwar accounts of Renaissance music history, usually in connection with the composer’s perceived facility (and rarely without reference to Glarean’s ‘mass in one night’ anecdote).

The image that has remained, fairly or unfairly, is that of a man with a curiously singleminded tendency to play with outmoded ideas, whose music may show a great contrapuntal facility, but lacks the spiritual depth of an Ockeghem, let alone the innovative vision of a Josquin. The 1980 Grove article on Obrecht, written by Edgar Sparks, could be viewed in this light. The article presented virtually the opposite of the image sketched by Ambros more than a century previously. In some respects it was a reworking of the chapter on Obrecht in the author’s magisterial study Cantus Firmus in Mass and Motet, 1420–1520. The composer is portrayed as a man whose significance to the history of music lies chiefly in the realm of tenor manipulation, and whose historical position must be assessed largely on those terms. Just as in the case of Reese, the acknowledgement of the aesthetic value of Obrecht’s music appears as an afterthought, qualifying the image rather than defining it.

Much has happened in the twenty years since: the appearance of the third complete works edition, under the editorship of Chris Maas (published in 1981–99), the availability of more and more of his music in recorded performances, fresh archival research in all the major musical centres in which Obrecht is known to have worked, new datings for several of his works (on the basis of both archival and manuscript evidence), and research into the local chant traditions from which the composer may have selected his cantus firmi. If anything, the trend in Obrecht studies has been to contextualize our knowledge of the composer and his music – to deepen our understanding of the surroundings in which he lived and worked, and to ground new interpretations of his music more firmly in a knowledge of medieval liturgy, devotional practices, preaching and exegesis, social history, scholastic and humanist learning, biographical evidence, and much more. A wealth of historical material has been brought to bear on Obrecht’s music, prompting fresh readings and interpretations of such works as the masses Sub tuum presidium, Sicut spina rosam, De Sancto Donatiano and De Sancto Martino, and such motets as Mille quingentis, Factor orbis, Salve crux, Inter preclarissimas virtutes, Beata es Maria and others. As a result of all this, Obrecht has begun to shed the one-dimensional image of a rigid constructivist and has come to be seen rather as a man of his time, a thoroughly medieval mind whose music embodies and articulates the values of the society in which he lived. In many ways, it is the fundamental ‘otherness’ of the medieval experience to which his works are now seen to offer uniquely revealing windows. (In this regard, the trend in Obrecht studies seems to parallel a similar trend in Du Fay research.) This contextualized image of Obrecht may as yet lack the coherence of previous images, yet a compelling visual counterpart has become available with the breathtaking portrait of the composer, which emerged unexpectedly in 1991.

The revival of many of Obrecht’s compositions on sound recordings, especially by English a cappella ensembles in the 1990s, has opened up yet other dimensions to the composer’s musicianship. When his works are heard in performance, the technically superlative part-writing reveals, in addition, an unparalleled ear for sonority and vocal timbre. Motets such as the five-part Salve crux and especially the six-part Salve regina have emerged as awesome edifices of sound, and may do much to explain Ambros’s perception of Obrecht as ‘a great, profound, serious and manly master, whose works show, almost throughout, a strain of stern loftiness’. Even the four-part music, including many of the cantus-firmus masses, turns out to be far more effective in performance than its often unassuming appearance on paper might suggest. In sound, Obrecht’s use of the musical idiom of his time seems so inexhaustibly imaginative and inspired as to reduce the notorious tenor manipulations to virtual aesthetic irrelevance. The effect of all this on the modern image of Obrecht cannot be calculated as yet.



Over the past century, the music history of Obrecht’s generation has usually tended to be construed in terms of the lives and oeuvres of the most important masters, or of the major genres and styles current at the time. However, one could with equal justification conceive that history as the complex of mentalities, sensibilities and attitudes towards music that prevailed in European society, and which conditioned the reception of composers’ works. The trend in recent Obrecht research has been to incorporate more and more of the latter within the framework of the former – to the point where the very privileging of such categories as ‘author’, ‘work’, ‘style’ and ‘genre’ has begun to seem problematic in light of what we know about musical experience in the period itself. To contextualize Obrecht and his works is inevitably to acknowledge that musical meaning and value may have been context-dependent rather than immanent in the artwork itself. To give an example, if the four-voice Salve regina is a prayer to the Virgin, Quis numerare queat a sermon, Mille quingentis an epitaph and Inter preclarissimas virtutes a ‘letter of application’, then obviously it is problematic to appraise one work as intrinsically better or more successful than another without regard to its purpose or function. Each of these motets was conceived for a different audience – the Virgin, a congregation, posterity, an unknown music patron – and these differences are likely to have borne on Obrecht’s choices of musical style and construction. As this example illustrates, then, evaluative comparisons – not only between works but also between composers such as Obrecht and Josquin – must take into account such qualifying distinctions as between, say, urban and courtly, humanist and scholastic, private and public, votive and communal, sacred and secular, Flemish and Italian, 1490s and 1510s. The trend in Renaissance music research over the last decade or so has been to do exactly this. Ultimately that trend may cause the dissolution of the received images for Obrecht and Josquin. But for now the potential gains in historical understanding seem to outweigh the losses.

Obrecht, Jacob
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