3. Music: the early years.
One of the most significant developments in Obrecht studies over the last twenty years has been the discovery of new datings and termini ante quem for several of the composer’s works. This has involved some unexpected surprises, notably in the case of Missa ‘Fortuna desperata’. This work had always been thought to be among Obrecht’s latest works, and is indeed remarkable for the breathtaking novelty of its conception (see example). Watermark evidence reveals that this piece must have circulated in Germany as early as 1489–93, along with several other masses that are closely related to it in style: Rose playsante, Je ne demande and the anonymous N’aray-je jamais. These masses, and several others like them, represent the core of Obrecht’s mass oeuvre, and share a contrapuntal idiom that was identified as the ‘mature style’ by Wegman (1994). Watermark evidence confirms that this style must have been fully developed by the early 1490s, around the midpoint of Obrecht’s professional career. It does not appear to have undergone significant changes until the very last years of his life. There are no direct models for the style in the works of other composers, nor does it seem to be anticipated in those Obrecht masses that can be securely dated in the late 1480s (De Sancto Donatiano, De Sancto Martino and Salve diva parens). As far as the masses are concerned, it is the most distinctively Obrechtian style, and the one for which he became internationally famous in the 1490s. It can be seen in some of the motets as well, most clearly in Inter preclarissimas virtutes.
That Obrecht’s mature style should have developed, and been brought to perfection in masses like Fortuna desperata and Rose playsante, at such an early stage in his career is indeed a remarkable discovery. It is one of two recent developments which have prompted a major reassessment of Obrecht’s historical position vis-à-vis Josquin – the other being the discovery that Josquin’s career started much later than previously thought, in the late 1470s rather than the late 1450s. Several significant Josquin pieces that had been dated before about 1480 to accommodate the two decades he was believed to be active in Milan (1459–79) must now be assumed to be much later. With few exceptions, their copying dates and termini ante quem do not predate the mid-1490s, that is, at least half a decade after Obrecht’s mature masses were already circulating in eastern Germany. In view of this, the emergence of Obrecht’s mature style in these masses, which include such masterpieces as Fortuna desperata, Rose playsante, Malheur me bat and Libenter gloriabor, must be regarded as one of the most important developments in the music history of the 1480s and 1490s.
Quite how Obrecht arrived at his mature style is hard to determine, since so few of his remaining works can be dated on external grounds. It is possible to suggest datings based on internal, stylistic evidence, but these are inevitably open to the danger of circularity: although our perception of Obrecht’s compositional development should ideally be based on a secure chronology of his works, we may never be able to arrive at a chronology without some hypothetical idea of how he developed as a composer. Then there is the additional problem (which may affect the motets more than the masses) that Obrecht’s stylistic choices at any point may have been dictated by context and function rather than by purely compositional considerations. Despite these caveats, however, there are several works for which it can be plausibly suggested that they must be early – mainly because they rely on compositional conventions that were current in the 1470s and disappeared in the next decade. A good example is the Missa ‘Petrus apostolus’. Despite the late date of its main source, a German print of 1539, the style of this setting is a faithful imitation of Busnoys’ masses L’homme armé and O crux lignum triumphale (both of which began to circulate in the 1470s). Like these latter works, its contrapuntal idiom is exceedingly smooth and polished, yet has a quality of urgency and drive that derives from the persistent tendency (so typical of Busnoys) to create and resolve suspended dissonances between pairs of voices in quasi-cadential fashion. (This quality had been notably absent in Ockeghem’s masses from the 1460s and 1470s, such as De plus en plus or Ecce ancilla Domini, whose dense layers of sound typically moved at glacial pace.) Given the likelihood that Obrecht was personally acquainted with Busnoys by the late 1460s, it stands to reason that he would have modelled his first efforts after the masses for which the latter had become most famous. Of course, it cannot be ruled out that the Missa ‘Petrus apostolus’ might have been composed at a later date, though in that case it would have represented a consciously historicizing gesture, or at least an attempt to emulate an identifiable older style.
This latter possibility must be assumed in the case of another early mass, De Sancto Donatiano, which was written for a Bruges endowment in 1487. The style of this work is a faithful imitation of Ockeghem’s Missa ‘Ecce ancilla Domini’ (1470s) and in fact the music makes several explicit allusions to that work. Significantly, Obrecht made no effort to transform Ockeghem’s style or to assimilate it to his own idiom. The result is a setting that, had it survived anonymously, might well have been mistaken for a work by the older composer – in the same way that the Missa ‘Petrus apostolus’ is a stylistic twin of Busnoys’ Missa ‘O crux lignum’. It seems significant that Obrecht, at the beginning of his career, should have been concerned to pay musical tributes of this kind. In the case of the Missa de Sancto Donatiano, however, the gesture is likely to reflect not so much a sense of artistic loyalty arising from personal acquaintance (as was probably true in the case of Busnoys), but rather an awareness of the historical status of past masterpieces – a status that Obrecht’s emulation helped solidify. Another work that seems to pay tribute to Ockeghem is the Missa de Sancto Martino, written at Bruges in 1486: the first Kyrie quotes the head-motif of the latter’s Missa ‘Mi-mi’. However, one can still discern the influence of Busnoys as well: just as in the Missa ‘Petrus apostolus’ Obrecht tended to state and restate his cantus firmi in schematic fashion, occasionally by means of mensural transformation.
The clues provided by these three datable masses may allow us to suggest early dates for several other settings. The Missa ‘Sicut spina rosam’ makes even more sustained allusions to Ockeghem’s Missa ‘Mi-mi’ than De Sancto Martino: the head-motif of the older mass is once again quoted in the first Kyrie, and the bass of the Kyrie is quoted literally in the Agnus Dei of Obrecht’s setting. Sicut spina rosam has several other features in common with De Sancto Martino, most notably the tendency to incorporate extended literal quotations of the cantus firmus in the introductory duos of individual movements. This tendency can be observed already in the Missa ‘Petrus apostolus’, but it is expanded here to a degree unprecedented in Obrecht’s (or indeed any other composer’s) oeuvre. Similar examples can be found in the masses Beata viscera, O lumen ecclesie and Ave regina celorum, all of which are likely to date from the 1480s.
If any trend can be witnessed in these early works, it is one towards increasing expansiveness – the very opposite of the measured concision of the later, mature masses. The sense of urgency and drive that was characteristic of Busnoys’ idiom seems to have disappeared soon after the Missa ‘Petrus apostolus’, giving way to a sense of tranquillity and poise more typical of Ockeghem’s cantus-firmus masses. Some Busnoys-inspired devices still retain a token presence, particularly the literal imitation or restatement of cantus-firmus material in different voice-parts (migration is especially prominent in O lumen ecclesie and Sicut spina rosam), but Obrecht tended to expand the scale on which these are applied – to the point where the devices are more easily detected on paper than heard in performance. The extreme in this regard is the Missa ‘Sicut spina rosam’, a sombre, dense piece in the style of Ockeghem, organized by extended migrations and imitations of the cantus firmus on various hierarchical levels.
A similarly expansive composition, but one in which the influence of Busnoys’ contrapuntal idiom can be discerned much more clearly, is the six-part Salve regina, a work of awesome power and depth. One might well hesitate to date a setting for six voices in the mid-1480s, yet there is little else about this work to justify such hesitation. The stylistic trend in the late 1480s and 1490s (exemplified by Obrecht’s mature masses) was to be towards leaner, more lightly-textured polyphony. As if to make up for the loss of rich vocal sonority, composers increasingly invested their works with a purposeful compositional logic – witness, for instance, the more sensitive treatment of openings and endings, the increasing reliance on motivic imitation, and the careful positioning and handling of climactic points in the course of the musical argument. None of this can be observed as yet in the six-part Salve regina. By later standards this work seems almost self-indulgent in the degree to which it revels in slowly drifting layers of consonant sonority – ‘more of the keenest sweetness’, as Cortese was to put it, ‘than would have sufficed to please the ear’. More than any other work in Obrecht’s oeuvre, the Salve regina exemplifies an older aesthetic that might be called the ‘wall of sound’. (This aesthetic was not abandoned in England, as one can tell from the motets in the Eton Choirbook. On the continent, the predilection for unrelentingly dense counterpoint was to return again after the 1510s, especially in the works of Gombert and Willaert. Significantly, the German theorist Hermann Finck, writing in praise of Gombert in 1556, described Josquin’s music as ‘thinner’ (nudior) than modern taste approved, whereas Gombert ‘avoids pauses, and his work is rich with full harmonies and imitative counterpoint’.)
The change towards the newer aesthetic can be observed in several motets by Obrecht that are likely to date from the later 1480s. If one considers, for instance, Factor orbis or Salve crux, one is struck immediately by the degree to which Obrecht has endowed the extended passages in reduced scoring with significant compositional interest of their own. It is true that one can still hear those passages as preludes or interludes between the cantus-firmus based stretches in full scoring. Yet while the latter are admittedly magnificent examples of sonorous part-writing, and show Obrecht at his best, they are typically less expansive, and dissolve so smoothly into the passages in reduced scoring as to discourage the impression that they constitute the core of the musical argument. From here one can see the direct path to still later tenor motets such as Laudemus nunc Dominum, Mater patris and O preciosissime sanguis, none of which is likely to predate the 1490s.
By the late 1480s, when Italian musical sources had barely begun to register the presence of Josquin (aside from a handful of songs only his Ave Maria … virgo serena, Domine non secundum and the four-part Salve regina), Obrecht had a justifiable claim to being the most versatile and prolific composer in Europe. As far as the masses are concerned, the masterpiece of these years was Salve diva parens, a virtuoso display piece of breathtaking complexity and contrapuntal resourcefulness. This setting is the nearest Obrecht ever came to writing a freely-composed mass: although one can recognize passing resemblances between the tenors of the various movements, if these reflect a pre-existing melody it was clearly ornamented to such a degree as to obscure it beyond ready identification. The Missa ‘Salve diva parens’ seems to have found its way to Italian sources by 1487; its early transmission to the peninsula may do much to explain the invitation to the composer extended by Duke Ercole d’Este later that year. There is a string of other masses that can be or have been dated in the late 1480s with varying degrees of plausibility: Adieu mes amours, Ave regina celorum, De Sancto Johanne Baptista, Caput, L’homme armé, to mention only a few. One is not surprised to learn from the fabric accounts of St Donatian that the rate at which masses were copied in the choirbooks increased sharply after Obrecht’s appointment in 1485 and declined almost as sharply after his departure in 1491. It is true that the accounts seldom specify titles or composers, and hence not every mass was necessarily composed by Obrecht. Still, even if one allows for possible contributions by other composers, the sheer quantity of mass cycles copied in 1485–91, 22 (of which eight were specifically designated as ‘new’), suggests the likelihood that these years were among the most prolific in Obrecht’s career.
Several motets may be associated with this period as well. Mille quingentis, the musical prayer commemorating Willem Obrecht, is likely to date from 1489 or shortly thereafter, since it refers to the year of Willem’s death, 1488, in the past tense. It is a tenor motet in the old style, based on a threefold statement of the Introit for the Requiem mass, Requiem eternam, identically notated though rhythmically varied by means of mensuration changes. Just as in Josquin’s later Nymphes des bois (commemorating Ockeghem), the plainchant has been transposed down a step, to accommodate the plaintive Phrygian modality of the setting. The contrapuntal idiom of the Corpus Christi motet Discubuit Jesus is reminiscent of Mille quingentis (compare, for example, bars 15–16 of the former with bars 20–21 of the latter, the frequent octave leaps in the top part, as well as the almost mannered use of suspensions in dotted rhythm), though the treatment of the plainchant itself is quite different: it is freely elaborated in the various voices and, with the exception of the first 14 bars, there is no literal imitation or migration of cantus-firmus material anywhere in this piece. (Similar freedom of treatment is evident in the three-part settings of Salve regina and Alma redemptoris mater.) If Discubuit Jesus was written in the 1480s, as seems likely, its apparent stylistic relationship to Mille quingentis underlines an important point: given the variety of functions and occasions for which Obrecht wrote his motets, it is hard to generalize about his stylistic profile in these works. For that reason it may often be more useful to evaluate his motets in terms of their probable ritual or devotional function and context rather than their position in a hypothetical compositional development. Many motets might equally well have been written for Bergen op Zoom, Cambrai or Bruges, and undoubtedly entered the repertory in all these places during the 1480s: the three-part and four-part Salve regina settings, Ave regina celorum (one of several late 15th-century motets based on the famous setting by Walter Frye), and the four-part Marian prayer Cuius sacrata viscera. The three-part Salve regina is written in an unrelentingly exuberant style reminiscent of some of Obrecht’s songs (especially Tandernaken, with which it shares the opening bar).
There is a strong case, on the other hand, for suggesting that other motets originated specifically in Bruges. Omnis spiritus, a cento of various prayers and acclamations, includes a supplication ‘for our king’. For the Brabant towns of Antwerp and Bergen op Zoom this might have implied a date in the period 1486–93, when Maximilian I was King of the Romans, but it would seem to point more plausibly to Cambrai or Bruges, both of which were under French royal rule. The musical style is unambitious, yet it was undoubtedly dictated by the nature of a specific occasion, probably a public procession of thanksgiving. The contrapuntal idiom of the St Basil motet O beate Basili/O beate Pater frequently reminds one of Missa de Sancto Donatiano, with which it shares a plainchant melody O beate pater Basili (texted O beate pater Donatiane in the mass). The two inner voices of the first part elaborate this melody in strict canon (a procedure found already in the first section of the six-part Salve regina), whereas the outer voices carry the text of the Magnificat antiphon O beate Basili. Reinhard Strohm has convincingly associated this piece with the veneration of St Basil in Bruges; its style seems consistent with a date in the late 1480s. The Holy Blood motet O preciosissime sanguis must likewise originate from Bruges, where it would almost certainly have been written for the Basilica of the Holy Blood, or perhaps for the annual Holy Blood procession on 3 May. However, this is clearly a later work: although based on a plainchant cantus firmus (stated three times in long note-values in the tenor), the vigorous idiom characteristic of the mature style, the prominence of chordal, declamatory passages, as well as the mensural layout ( C throughout, with no opening section in perfect tempus), suggest a date in Obrecht’s second Bruges period, 1498–1500.
The overall picture, then, is one of stylistic variety. As choirmaster in Bruges and other towns in the southern Netherlands, Obrecht was a composer who responded sensitively to what the nature of the occasion required. For this reason, the style of his Middle-Dutch songs may point to a specific type of occasion as well. Most of them are lively, animated pieces in a style that is almost reminiscent of the later Parisian chanson: frequent homophonic declamatory passages, modest use of imitation, and a generally simple harmonic style with regular cadences apparently articulating the phrase structure of the text. Although few of these pieces survive with any text beyond the incipit (and several may well have been conceived for instruments), the lighthearted nature of the opening words confirms that we may be in the realm of popular urban entertainment: ‘When all the world lives in joy’, ‘The hail and the cold snow’, ‘I wear my cap awry’, ‘I heard the bells toll’, ‘Let yourself be pleased, dear John’, ‘Where are you, John? Who is calling us?’ and others. Such pieces could well have been written for the morality plays that the singers of St Donatian were permitted to stage every year. Other songs strike a more serious note. Lacen adieu (‘Alas, farewell, sweet company’) seems to have circulated in Germany by the late 1470s, and may well be the earliest surviving work by Obrecht. The varied repetition of bars 13–35 in bars 37–55 may reflect the structure of the original poem, which has not come down to us. Like Moet my lacen and probably Tmeiskin was jonck, it seems to reflect the more selfconsciously serious environment of the chambers of rhetoric which flourished in Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp and other towns in the southern Netherlands. Still other secular pieces may have been conceived as Spielmusik for city minstrels, as Strohm has suggested, though in many cases we cannot tell whether that conception would have been authorial or scribal. Several of Obrecht’s textless pieces could easily have been lifted from otherwise lost cantus-firmus Masses, where they might have originated as the Christe, Pleni, Benedictus, or second Agnus Dei. (The ‘Qui cum patre’ of the Missa ‘Salve diva parens’ circulated for decades as such a work.) No such explanation can be advanced for Nec michi nec tibi, however, which is the nearest in Obrecht’s oeuvre to a work that seems inherently instrumental in idiom.