Jacob Obrecht

picture of Jacob_Obrecht painted by Hans Memling 1496
Jacob Obrecht painted by Hans Memling 1496

Jacob Obrecht (* 1457 or 1458 in Ghent/Belgium; † shortly before 1 August 1505 in Ferrara/Italy) was a Franco-Flemish composer, singer and cleric of the Renaissance. He was the only child of the Ghent city trumpeter Willem (Guillermus) Hobrecht (1430/35 – 22 November 1488).

The approximate date of birth of Obrecht is derived from his portrait, which was discovered only in 1987 and is of particularly high quality. It was painted by Hans Memling († 1494) and his scholar, dated 1496, and in which Obrecht’s age is indicated as 38. He seems to have had a very close relationship with his father, which, on the occasion of his father’s death, is evident from the unusual personal testimony of the mourning motet “Mille quingentis”, whose text mentions the father.

Jacob Obrecht studied at the Master’s degree course in Berg-op-Zoom and from 1470 at the University of Louvain. 1480 he entered the order and celebrated his first mass. 1480 he successively took over the offices of the children’s master at the cathedral of Cambrai (1484-1485), the successor of the chapter of St. Donator in Bruges (1485-1491) and the choirmaster at the cathedral of Antwerp (1491-1496). In 1487 he stayed at the court of Ferrara, where he might have been cantor already in 1475. From 1496 he was seriously ill and lived in a semi-retirement.

1503 the Venetian publisher Ottaviano Petrucci published a whole book, dedicated to Obrecht, including five of his masses.

In 1504 he went to Ferrara, although the plague had broken out there in July 1503, which even led to the departure of the Court from the city; there, after Josquin Desprez had given up the post and also left the city, he became its successor as Court Kapellmeister.

At the end of June or in July 1505, Obrecht died of the plague in the Plague Hospital of Ferrara. It is not known where he was buried.

Obrecht was unanimously considered one of the great masters by the music theorists of his time. His superior mastery of musical techniques, his productivity, his sense of balance and clarity and his ” subtilitas ” were unanimously praised.

Manuscrit enluminé de la Missa Virgo parens Christi de Jacobus Barbireau
Manuscrit enluminé de la Missa Virgo parens Christi de Jacobus Barbireau

Among the more important composers of his time, he was the only one whose mother tongue was Flemish; accordingly, only Flemish songs played a more important role for him. His works are equal to Josquin’s works in stylistic variety and aesthetic rank. He was above all a composer of masses: with his 30 secured works and six others quite convincingly attributed to him, he was one of the most prolific masters of his epoch alongside Heinrich Isaac and Pierre de la Rue.

Despite their undisputed originality, his compositions show a clear affinity with Johannes Ockeghem and the late Guillaume Dufay in comparison with Josquin; they are therefore rather conservative in their basic attitude. Italian influences play a much less important role than elements of Flemish and German folk songs and a distinctly contrapuntal style of writing. Obrecht is thus in contrast to his somewhat more Italian-oriented compatriots Josquin Desprez, Gaspar van Weerbeke and Loyset Compère. His compositions demonstrate a rational order and a sense of musical architecture.

Obrecht’s secular works, mainly his Flemish songs, show a rather modern looking, extremely simple movement. It is full-voiced and chordal, with trenchant and often dance-like rhythms, as well as simple line melody that wanders through the voices, with alternating duets with and without imitation, combined with a harmony that is as simple as it is effective, as it were “tonal”.

Flemish songs with dubious authorship
– “Rompeltier” in four voices, song or dance melody, spread in Flemish and German sources of the 15th and 16th century with different texts, attribution in 1501

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