Obrecht as artist

One factor which immediately affects my ability to discuss Obrecht is that Rob Wegman has already done such a good job of it, not only discussing Obrecht's relationship to his contemporaries and the developments of the Franco-Flemish style, but also the changing images of Obrecht over the years. For the most part, my editorial ideas and discussions are my own, or at least concurrent, rather than taken from others, and so I must note this reliance as a special case. My discussion here is directly indebted to Wegman, except when it comes to relating foundations & intellectual orientation toward Obrecht's work. Moreover, what Wegman has done is to advocate for Obrecht as a significant figure, rather than accept a received lesser stature. This is, frankly, what all the composers of this era should have, on an individual basis, in order to give us the opportunity to reconsider received notions of stature & quality. If, as Wegman suggests, Obrecht was the primary developer of the so-called "mature style" by around 1490, and it was only subsequently taken up by Josquin, then the relative statures of the two composers must be affected — at least as mediated by influence. We are still left with, of course, the question of whether Obrecht's music is indeed of any quality, whether it has meaning.

A variety of meaning has already been attributed to Obrecht's music, so in the most basic sense, that question is easy to answer. However, there are also contradictions. There is Obrecht the mystical successor to Ockeghem. There is Obrecht the rationalist, obsessed with large-scale formal planning. There is Obrecht the exuberant, even care-free composer. There is Obrecht the musical outsider, innovative by default. To some extent, all of these traits can be identified in his music. In the development of his "mature style," Obrecht was apparently the first to, identifiably and in rational form, organize large-scale works as a whole. While retaining the previous generation's concerns with forward momentum, his works begin to show a planned series of cadences and motivic transformations, suggesting a unified conception for large-scale works. As one summation, the music becomes less about sonority and momentum, and more about the path one takes from beginning to end, with the ending itself taking on a new emphasis. One should not overstate this development, however, as it is unlikely that earlier composers did not consider future musical consequences when constructing the earlier portions of a piece. Obrecht's music earns labels such as "rational" (i.e. planned) and "architectural" because he did so clearly, and with differentiated formal sections. So while Ockeghem's music might be characterized by such phrases as "effortless momentum," Obrecht's can ask us to consider the underlying effort. Sections might not make sense outside of context.

We should ask critically what "make sense" means above. In his overall planning, Obrecht defines what it means to make sense, and this realization can now be viewed as the decisive development of his generation. Moreover, the scale of his works continues to be consistent with the scale of Western music at least through Beethoven, effectively establishing the symphonic paradigm. Whereas the formal designs of Obrecht's masses, and especially the cantus firmus manipulations for which he has been famed, are amenable to direct study, the sound and excitement of his masses themselves serves to render structural manipulation almost irrelevant. Indeed, when discussing my melody-determining-form paradigm, I casually named Obrecht as an icon of this type. While, literally speaking, his formal constructions are a particular apotheosis of tenor-to-form generation, this assignment can be misleading. Obrecht's use of form in this sense is often distinct from the abstract argument which arises more forcefully from motivic interplay in other voices. It is in the resulting jubilation that the most direct assessment of Obrecht can be made, and it is there that a "mystical" connection to Ockeghem seems fully audible, despite seemingly opposite means. What continues to shock us about Obrecht is the ecstatic sense which he is able to convey in the most rigorous formal schemes, almost in spite of them.

While rational-irrational duality is probably the most critical conflict involved in synthesizing a coherent image of Obrecht, it leaves other aspects of his received image untouched. For one, whereas Dufay & Ockeghem had been community pillars of unimpeachable integrity, Obrecht was apparently a restless fellow, always looking for a better job, and apparently not above embezzling from his employer. Although these issues have served to dampen enthusiasm for Obrecht the person, we may also perceive in them the origin of the modern composer-artist. Artists today are not expected to be savvy businessmen who can manage a cathedral choir and keep their account books in order. They are expected (for better or worse) to be flighty and unreliable. We can start to observe something of this trend in one of Obrecht's most important early influences, Busnoys. While he seems not to have been reprimanded for incompetence, he rarely had a job in keeping with his stature (by which I do not mean only our perception of his musical stature today, but also the way that fellow musicians flocked to wherever he was; Busnoys had professional respect, but he was apparently difficult). We can see in Busnoys the beginning of the composer-as-artist per se, and perceive that outline consummated in Obrecht, whom he would have met at an early age. Moreover, the elaborate seriousness of Obrecht's motet upon his father's death (Mille quingentis) suggests compensation for failing his father — for irresponsibility — during life. We can perceive in Obrecht the image of an artist who lives life to the fullest, and often cares about little else. Such a carefree nature could have contributed to the "outsider" image, which is otherwise difficult to qualify.

In searching for a personality behind the music, it is only too easy to make more than is warranted of the tiny scraps of information which we possess. In many ways, Obrecht was simply a man of his times, continuing the abstract musical priorities of the medieval era, even if he did so with different formal concerns. Indeed, it can be difficult to fit text to music in some of his most otherwise impressive masses. They were vehicles for him, just as his career appointments seem to have been vehicles to sustain his compositional activity. Whether he even worked as a singer (as so many composers of this era did; even Isaac, who preferred the title "composer," was employed as a singer) is unknown. Of course, Obrecht did not escape notice, either. His music was distributed widely in his twenties, making admirers for him in e.g. Italy. He seems to have had no difficulty finding another job after being fired, or perhaps even before leaving. He was hailed early and often, and his music can still make a very direct impression on us today. Finally, in keeping with his apparent dedication to artistic innovation, his style continued to develop even after his breakthrough, marking his premature death as a certain loss for musical posterity.

I will continue directly next week, with a discussion of Obrecht's works.

To TMM Editorial index.

Todd M. McComb