Oakeley, Sir Herbert (Stanley)

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Obraztsova, Yelena (Vasil'yevna)

(b Leningrad [now St Petersburg], 7 July 1937). Russian mezzo-soprano. While still a student at the Leningrad Conservatory, she appeared with success at the Bol'shoy as Marina; in 1964 she became a soloist there. Her voice, of beautiful, full timbre, was controlled with unusual flexibility and lightness; she was an effective and spontaneous actress, notably in such roles as Marfa (Khovanshchina), Konchakovna (Prince Igor), Amneris, Eboli, Carmen and Lyubasha (The Tsar’s Bride). She was also successful in contemporary opera, particularly as Hélène (War and Peace) and Oberon (Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream). Her international appearances included those at San Francisco, the Metropolitan (during the Bol'shoy company’s visit in 1975) and La Scala (as Massenet’s Charlotte in 1976). She sang Azucena at Covent Garden in 1985, and made her début as a producer in the Bol'shoy’s 1986–7 season with Werther. In 1973 she was made a National Artist of the RSFSR, and in 1976 was awarded the Lenin Prize.


Obrecht [Hobrecht], Jacob

(b Ghent, 1457/8; d Ferrara, shortly before 1 Aug 1505). South Netherlandish composer. In the 1480s and 1490s he was Europe’s leading composer of cyclic masses, of which he wrote nearly three dozen. In addition he left a sizeable oeuvre of motets and songs, many of which continued to circulate widely, along with his most famous masses, during the first half of the 16th century. In the last years of his life Obrecht was frequently mentioned in one breath with Josquin des Prez. The latter was to outlive him by 16 years, however, and has come to be seen as the more significant representative of his generation.

1. Life and early reputation.

2. The modern image.

3. Music: the early years.

4. Music: the mature style.

5. Later compositions.

6. Conclusion.




Obrecht, Jacob

1. Life and early reputation.

The text of Obrecht’s motet Mille quingentis reveals that he was the son of a Guillermus Hobrecht who died on St Cecilia’s Day (22 November) 1488. The father has been identified as the trumpeter Willem Obrecht who was permanently employed by the city of Ghent from 1452 until his death in 1488, and whose intermittent service in Burgundian court circles can be documented from 1454 to 1470. The composer appears to have been the only child of Willem’s first marriage. His mother Lijsbette Gheeraerts died around the age of 20 in July 1460; his stepmother, by 1464, was Beatrijse Jacops. Obrecht’s portrait gives his age as 38 in 1496, suggesting a date of birth in 1457/8.

Nothing is known about the composer’s education, although it must have been suitable to prepare him for the priesthood. He is mentioned with the academic title of master – a degree normally obtained at or above the age of 20 – by 1480. (The Jacob Obrecht who was enrolled at Leuven University in 1470 is not identifiable with the composer, since his father was a Jacob Obrecht, not Willem.) There is no direct information about Obrecht’s musical education, although it is likely that he was initially trained to become a professional trumpeter like his father. This would have involved a thorough grounding in the practice of contrapuntal improvisation over memorized tunes. Willem Obrecht’s connections with the Burgundian court may well have brought Jacob in early contact with Antoine Busnoys, who had worked in the ducal chapel since 1467. Busnoys’ influence may be apparent not only in Obrecht’s selection of mass cantus firmi (most famously from such songs as Je ne demande and – if it is by Busnoys – Fortuna desperata), but also in the style of what may well be his earliest mass, Petrus apostolus.

There is no documentary support for the assumption that Obrecht worked at Utrecht in the late 1470s. (This was suggested by 19th-century music historians on the basis of Glarean’s credible report that Obrecht had been the teacher of Erasmus, and Beatus Rhenanus’s claim that Erasmus had served as a choirboy at ‘Trajectum’, probably Utrecht or Maastricht.) However, the composer was active as choirmaster at the St Gertrudiskerk in Bergen op Zoom in 1480–84, as documented by the annual accounts of the Guild of Our Lady based in that church. An unnamed mass by Obrecht, composed probably during these years, is known to have reached the court of Duke Ercole d’Este of Ferrara by 1484. During the same years, Tinctoris apparently mentioned Obrecht in his Complexus effectuum musices among the most renowned musicians of the century: ‘For who has not heard of Johannes Dunstaple, Guillelmus Dufay … Johannes Okeghem, Anthonius Busnois … Jacobus Obrechts?’ (Some scholars have wondered whether Obrecht’s name might have been inserted by a later scribe, especially since the only surviving source for this passage was copied in the composer’s birthplace in 1504.)

In September 1484 Obrecht accepted a position as master of the choirboys at Cambrai Cathedral. Within several months after his arrival there, however, he sought to obtain the succentorship at the collegiate church of St Donatian in Bruges. Once the latter position had been secured, he postponed his departure for several months, meanwhile discharging his responsibilities at Cambrai to the evident dissatisfaction of the cathedral chapter (in July 1485 he was formally reprimanded by the canons for an outbreak of scabies amongst the choirboys). Obrecht was finally installed at Bruges on 13 October 1485, and summarily dismissed at Cambrai upon his return there. An audit of his account books revealed a deficit that could not be accounted for. The chapter agreed to settle by purchasing music manuscripts copied by the composer, at a price reduced by the sum he owed the cathedral.

During his early years in Bruges, Obrecht is known to have composed the masses De Sancto Martino and De Sancto Donatiano (for endowments that took effect in 1486 and 1487 respectively), and very probably the MissaSalve diva parens’, whose earliest surviving source has been dated 1487. In August 1487, the chapter of St Donatian granted the composer six months’ leave of absence to travel to Ferrara at the invitation of Duke Ercole d’Este. He must have overstayed his leave considerably, for ten months later, in June 1488, we find him passing through Bergen op Zoom on his return from Italy. Obrecht did not come back to Bruges until 15 August of the same year. This was approximately three months before the death of his father.

After a summary decision to dismiss him in May 1490 (whose direct reasons are unclear, and which does not appear to have been implemented), Obrecht was finally granted remission from his post in January 1491. By June 1492 he was active as choirmaster at the church of Our Lady at Antwerp, filling the vacancy left after Jacobus Barbireau’s death in the previous year. Obrecht returned to Bergen op Zoom in June or July 1497, possibly attracted by the increasingly generous musical patronage in that city. However, 18 months later, in December 1498, he took up his old post of succentor at St Donatian, Bruges. He continued to occupy this position until serious illness forced him to submit his resignation in September 1500. The chapter granted his request, but shortly afterwards rewarded him with three benefices in acknowledgement not only of his valuable services to the church but also of his fame as a composer.

By June 1501 Obrecht was back again at Antwerp, where he served as a choirmaster at the church of Our Lady until June 1503. A payment recorded by the treasury of the Emperor Maximilian I reveals that he was in Innsbruck in October 1503. Apart from this isolated record, however, nothing is known of the composer’s whereabouts between his departure from Antwerp in June 1503 and his final appointment as maestro di cappella at Ferrara in September 1504. At Ferrara he served Duke Ercole d’Este, one of his most enthusiastic admirers, until the latter’s death in January 1505 left him once again without a position. After an unsuccessful attempt to obtain a post at Mantua, Obrecht died of the plague at Ferrara in late June or July 1505.

20th-century historians have often commented on the restlessness of Obrecht’s musical career. The composer appears to have been perpetually in pursuit of a position commensurate with his artistic talents and international reputation. The erratic pattern of his career movements may not be unrelated to the lack of professional responsibility he could exhibit (at Cambrai, for instance) when tempted by new career prospects. Although Obrecht was hardly the only musician of his time to be neglectful of routine duties or to treat his employers badly, there is no other 15th-century composer of comparable stature whose career seems to have been so persistently dogged by problems like these.

Any assessment of Obrecht’s personality ought to take into account his relationship with his father, which appears to have been of special significance. Mille quingentis, the musical prayer of commemoration for Willem Obrecht, is an extraordinary gesture – even for a period when all Christians, following the fifth commandment, were expected to pray for their deceased parents. The ‘public’ nature of the motet, as well as its ambitious literary and musical style, suggest a concern to immortalize Willem’s name, and thereby perhaps to redeem an emotional debt of some kind. The work may well repay closer analysis in the light of the composer’s biography. Another aspect that deserves mention is the apparent speed at which Obrecht composed, and his readiness to part from works immediately after finishing them. He was alleged to have written a mass in one night, a feat ‘at which learned men were astonished’. Glarean, on whose testimony we rely for this report, contrasted this with the creative habits of Josquin, who was said to keep polishing and revising his compositions for years before allowing them to circulate publicly. This comparison may underline an element of generosity in Obrecht’s musicianship, and in any case suggests an impressive confidence in his artistic abilities. Whereas Josquin has often been perceived, even by his contemporaries, in terms of the personality-type of the ‘melancholic’, obsessively preoccupied with his art, the more outgoing, ‘sanguine’ temperament of Obrecht seems to be reflected in the musical vigour and exuberance of his best-known masses, and is expressed in his own comment (in the motet Inter preclarissimas virtutes) that ‘[I am] jubilating always in my songs’. Modern psychology does not endorse the humoral personality-types that were current in Obrecht’s time, but such categorization played an important part in shaping the early images of composers, if only by determining what contemporaries chose to remember (or fabricate) about them and what they chose to neglect. The point here is that Obrecht and Josquin were seen, from an early date onwards, to have fundamentally different creative temperaments.

There were other perceived differences between the two composers as well. Towards the end of Obrecht’s life, critical reflection on music became increasingly preoccupied with issues of excess versus moderation, to a degree unknown before the 1480s. These issues played a major part in early comparisons between Josquin and Obrecht. It was high praise indeed when Tinctoris, in the early 1480s, ranked Obrecht among the masters ‘whose compositions, distributed throughout the whole world, fill God’s churches, the palaces of kings, and the houses of private individuals, with the utmost sweetness’. This comment is typical of mid-15th-century attitudes, for which there could seldom be enough ‘sweetness’ in musical composition and performance. Scarcely 30 years later, however, ‘the utmost’ in sweetness could easily be felt to be too much – as it evidently was for the humanist writer Paolo Cortese, who noted in 1510 that Obrecht ‘has sown more of the keenest sweetness in music, with skilful harmony, than would have sufficed to please the ear’. A comment like this implies a responsibility on the part of composers to avoid excessive use of musical ingredients which are pleasing and beneficial only when used in moderation – just as listeners (including the most powerful princes) could at this time be publicly taken to task for excessive and decadent indulgence in music. Against this light, Glarean surely meant to pay Obrecht a compliment when he commented, in 1542, that ‘all the works this man has left have a certain wondrous grandeur and an intrinsic quality of moderation’. The Swiss theorist once again implied a contrast with Josquin, to whom he ascribed excessive and ostentatious pursuit of raritates – an eccentric taste for the unusual, the farfetched, and the bizarre. (For Cortese, on the other hand, it was Josquin who had put more doctrina in his music than any other composer.) Glarean held up Obrecht as ‘one who displayed his talent, but without pretence, as if he preferred to await the judgement of the listener rather than to preen himself’.

As these quotations indicate, it may well have been through comparisons with Josquin that Obrecht’s early image (and to some extent Josquin’s in turn) acquired its distinctive profile. It is worth adding that such comparisons were not always decided in Josquin’s favour. Contemporaries praised Obrecht as ‘nulli secundus’ almost as habitually as modern historians have ranked him ‘second only to Josquin’. Not in every case can we dismiss such early testimony as mere commonplace. A good example is provided by the Bruges singer Jean Cordier, who declared to the chapter of St Donatian in 1487 that Duke Ercole I of Ferrara ‘takes much delight in the art of music, and favours the musical composition of [Obrecht] above other compositions’. It is hard to assume that Cordier, who had just returned from northern Italy, would have knowingly testified to a falsehood, or that Ercole was completely unaware of Josquin’s music at this time. Ercole was to hire Josquin as the highest-paid musician in the history of his chapel, in 1503, but allowed him to go within twelve months (even though it was at his discretion to decide otherwise, and to have the composer seized if he left without his permission), only to appoint Obrecht in the same position five months later. There is no record of any meeting between Obrecht and Josquin, though it is clear that they responded to each other’s music (as in their respective masses on Fortuna desperata and Malheur me bat, or in the openings of Inviolata and Salve sancta facies/Homo quidam). However, even such apparent gestures of respect cannot conceal the fact that the two composers were seen to have little in common. It may be no coincidence that none of Obrecht’s compositions is found with a misattribution to Josquin in any surviving source.

Obrecht, Jacob

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