Obrecht's works

It is only too easy to overwork the mass-as-symphony cliché, but when discussing Obrecht, such an orientation is essentially impossible to avoid. For one, Obrecht's masses have long been recognized as the center of his output. Further, the few decent recordings of his music focus on the masses. Even there, until recently, one could hardly name a good recording of a single mass, and most remain unrecorded today. This is doubly true for the motets, with most of Obrecht's (apparently) late motets unavailable on record. While one should not rely on recordings for assessment, the nature of music and our lives today makes such a reliance difficult to avoid. Works which have been heard in quality performance become that much easier to grasp and consider in greater detail. It becomes easier to assign real meaning, as there is always a danger of assigning deceptive meaning to something other than the real, audible result of notation. This limitation enforces a partial picture of Obrecht's masses and motets. To briefly summarize the remainder of his output, Obrecht seems to have had little interest in the courtly chanson genre, leaving mainly secular works of derivative nature or modest scope, many apparently instrumental in conception. While the latter are solid miniatures, they do not stand out from many similar works by contemporaries, and indeed would be unable to sustain a reputation on their own. They sometimes have the character of rollicking drinking songs, and so seem to underscore the carefree — or even irresponsible — nature already ascribed to the composer.

In discussing Obrecht's contrapuntal style, and his sense of texture & form, we must begin with his obvious indebtedness to Busnoys and Ockeghem. Obrecht conspicuously copied Busnoys' formal scheme in his Missa Petrus apostolus, and quoted Ockeghem extensively in both the Missa Sicut spina rosam & Missa De Sancto Donatiano. The latter can be specifically dated to 1487, and since it uses Ockeghem's style so literally, it is considered to date prior to Obrecht's own stylistic breakthrough. However, with the "mature style" now thought to be established only a couple of years later, there is little intervening time for what might otherwise be considered "transitional" masses. The resulting question is obvious: Are the masses which rely so directly on their models necessarily earlier, making the more original masses necessarily later? Whereas this has been a sensible chronological paradigm to some degree, it is also the case that we have no specific reason to believe that it is valid. The Bruges endowment of 1487 might have asked Obrecht to pay specific homage to Ockeghem. One might even suggest that Obrecht merely felt lazy in the face of a deadline, or that his interest in mastering earlier styles came only after an initial outburst of originality (the "outsider" notion). I have used the word "apparent" many times with regard to suggested chronologies for Obrecht's "mature style," but such a suggestion might not be apparent at all. While it is accepted that Obrecht's motets differ wildly in intention, and consequently structure, the same may well be true of his masses. The idea that he might have written such mind-bogglingly original works as Missa Malheur me bat & Missa Fortuna desperata without any particular progression is certainly an exciting one. Likewise, the notion that what seem to us to be the more sophisticated masses in Josquin's oeuvre are his latest has also been called into question. Of course, without this "progress" paradigm, we are left with no chronological paradigm.

Aside from obvious structural debts to Busnoys (in the areas of tenor planning & sequential construction) and Ockeghem (in the areas of sonority & contrapuntal momentum), Obrecht was not restrictive in his choice of borrowed material. He used melodies by those composers, and in his masses alone, on top of various plainchant melodies, borrowed lines from: Agricola, Barbingant, Barbireau, Binchois or Dufay, Compère, Frye, Hayne, Josquin, Malcort, as well as several more obscure or anonymous figures. Obrecht's borrowing was largely restricted to the cantus firmus, which he sometimes quotes literally and at unprecedented length, but it would be incorrect to cite Busnoys & Ockeghem as his only structural influences. In his Missa Caput, he follows the plan of the English anonymous, and one might also seek parallels with the style of Regis in the massive sound of many of Obrecht's presumed early cycles. What Obrecht did not do is engage in real parody, nor did he forego a cantus firmus more than a few times (and never in his masses). Given his trend-setting methods in some areas, it is somewhat surprising that he did not take up these trends used already by Ockeghem et al. While Obrecht's body of motets includes five examples in five parts, and even one in six (a Salve regina, which is not considered stylistically to be among his later works), his masses include only the Missa Sub tuum presidium, progressing from three to seven parts. Two or three are in three parts (and are considered among the "mature" works), uncharacteristic for his generation, as are three of his motets. In keeping with questions on chronology, one might perceive these as part of a deliberate historicizing trend to Obrecht's work, in sharp distinction to the current progress-oriented view of his career.

Returning to that "progress"-oriented framework, Obrecht's development was primarily with the cantus firmus mass, and in that, he continued specific structural trends, especially those established by Busnoys. The methodical way in which Obrecht laid out his cantus firmuses echoes Busnoys, as does his reliance on scalar figures and syncopation within the modern C mensuration. However, Obrecht continued to find his own ways to extend lines, and to emphasize results-based development. In Busnoys' music, audible form carries momentum, whereas in Obrecht's mature style, works develop their own momentum without a reliance on the preexisting cantus firmus progression. Obrecht's masses have a much higher degree of continuity & seeming "naturalness" in that sense. I have suggested that Obrecht asks us to perceive the effort underlying the construction, yet at the same time, he wants to make it sound effortless. The speed at which Obrecht was said to be able to compose a mass (in one night) could have contributed to this sense of continuity, but it also seems to owe a debt to Ockeghem. However, while Ockeghem's music can be said to simply run out of steam after a while, and therefore ends, Obrecht's enjoys a sort of consummation in which the procedures of the work find a sense of closure. As much as that, what separates Obrecht's (for the sake of argument) later works from his earlier works is the way in which he uses reduced scoring passages. They melt seamlessly into and out of fully scored passages, without a sense that one or the other is more important in any particular way. Duos had been important to Dufay, who used them as a form of tension to extend lines, but Obrecht uses duos as another type of argument integrated with the whole. He finds other ways to extend lines, something which he eventually did to an unprecedented degree in his Missa Maria zart.

Again, I will continue this discussion directly next week.

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Todd M. McComb