Born for the Muses: The Life and Masses of Jacob Obrecht

Born for the Muses: The Life and Masses of Jacob Obrecht

Born for the Muses: The Life and Masses of Jacob Obrecht

Born for the Muses: The Life and Masses of Jacob Obrecht

Synopsis

Son of a town trumpeter, Jacob Obrecht became one of the most prominent composers in Europe in the late fifteenth century. In Born for the Muses, Rob Wegman enlarges our picture of the social and cultural conditions that framed his world, drawing on a wealth of new archival sources and a newly discovered dated portrait that sheds light on his development as a composer. Obrecht's greatest contribution lay in the field of mass composition. In a penetrating stylistic analysis, Wegman treats each of the thirty-odd surviving masses as a historical record, tracing influences and establishing a rich context for the development of Obrecht's musical language. This new assessment of his creative achievement and historical significance entirely changes the face of Obrecht studies and of late fifteenth-century music in general.

Excerpt

This book is a case-study in late fifteenth-century music history. Its underlying theme is part of a broader one, the transformation of the cyclic mass in the so-called Josquin period, roughly 1480-1520. in textbook terms this is the transition from 'cantus firmus' to 'parody' mass, yet the complex of changes was much broader, and affected a range of interconnected features: techniques of imitation, functional relationships between voices, the modal conception of counterpoint, relative ranges, mensural usage and theory, the matching of music and text, and, least tangible, that intersubjectively perceived quality which we call musical style. the transition, in short, amounted to a complete transformation of the received musical language.

Jacob Obrecht played a key role in the earlier stages of this process -- a role probably more important than he has been seen to have in comparison with his near-contemporary Josquin des Prez. Grounds for this suggestion emerge, paradoxically, from a comparison with Josquin. in Obrecht's mass œuvre we find conventional Busnoys- and Ockeghem-type cycles, settings that continue existing trends in modified form, as well as works that seem to break with received traditions altogether. Several of these masses have now been dated with confidence, and this allows us to document the break (if such it was) before the early 1490s. As it happens, this is just before the earliest surviving sources for Josquin's masses were copied, and well before the latter's masses begin to survive in any number. That may be coincidence -- even granted that the heavy Italian bias of the surviving manuscripts should have favoured Josquin (who was permanently active in Italy) at the expense of Obrecht (who was not). If so, it is probably not the only such coincidence. Before 1500 there are virtually no contemporary statements mentioning Josquin as a composer of any eminence, whereas we have plenty for Obrecht, going back as far as c.1480, and, as chance would have it, all but one from Italy.

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