More on Obrecht's works & relevance

In many ways, a confusing picture of Obrecht's works emerges. More clarity is bound to result from more exposure, but at present only one mass possesses more than one credible interpretation on disc, the Missa Malheur me bat. Apparently dating to 1497, in it we can perceive the significant features of Obrecht's "mature" style. The cantus firmus is arrayed in his typical segmented style, but appearing primarily in the top part. Sequences are important, as is scalar passagework in general. Formal sections are clearly delineated, to create a beginning, middle, and end. There is a trend toward expansiveness, and more than that, there is a sense that the acoustic space of the work is carefully mapped, with the final notes of the cantus firmus sections establishing modal regions. The result is a feeling of completeness about the work which is not perceptible (at least in the same way) in earlier music. One might compare the way in which Obrecht used his material to "span" acoustic space to the way in which Muthuswamy Dikshitar carefully illuminated all facets of a Carnatic raga. One can also compare this development to Western painting in the decades around 1500, as a "flat" sense of space with many background figures gave way to a more open design with renewed emphasis on perspective (and then eventually to a nearly complete emphasis on portrait & the main subject, paralleling melody-oriented musical trends as consummated by Monteverdi). Architectural analogies of scale & span are open to continued exploitation when discussing Obrecht's works.

If the Missa Malheur me bat most clearly brings Obrecht's "mature style" to perfection — and it is certainly the work in which we can hear it most easily as I write — the Missa Fortuna desperata (available only in dated renditions on LP) may have initiated it. Likewise striking for its sense of space and formal unity, it was apparently circulating in Germany as early as 1489, a fact which provides the principal reason for reevaluating the entire sequence of developments during the Josquin era. Wegman names several other masses as representing the "mature style," of which only Missa Pfauenschwanz is recorded, this time in a credible interpretation. There we do not hear the same sense of musical space which can be so striking in Obrecht's music, but rather an immensely detailed "dance suite" which is evocative of Agricola's style. Along with the two previous masses above, Wegman names Missa Rose playsante & Missa Libenter gloriabor as particular masterpieces of the mature style, but neither has been recorded. Among supposed early masses, the characteristic Missa O lumen ecclesiæ has appeared on CD to good effect, while the more derivative Missa Caput & Missa L'homme armé have appeared with mixed results. Obrecht's hypothetically post-mature masses have fared much better, as among those named by Wegman, only Missa Cela sans plus has not appeared on CD. The comparable Missa Si dedero continues Obrecht's efforts to frame space via a characteristic segmented tenor technique, but also with the use of near-parody based on significant quotations in other parts. The result is an even more strongly "tonal" scheme, with a more highly choreographed sense of form, and more ascetic texture. The remaining two masses, Missa Sub tuum presidium & Missa Maria zart are more difficult to relate to Obrecht's style in general. The former (available only in two forgettable recordings from the 1960s) is Obrecht's most vertically complex, while the latter (also recorded on LP already in the 1960s, but available in a more up-to-date interpretation) takes his predilection for sequential writing & expansiveness to new lengths. It seems to have more to do with creating an extended polyphonic work out of a single melody than with formal design or acoustic space.

The relevance of Obrecht's works is found first in their inspirational character. Few composers have been able to write such compellingly sunny music, without a hint of triteness or self-consciousness (only Byrd springs to mind). Josquin's output certainly features a melancholy thread, in sharp contrast to Obrecht's exuberance. Moreover, from this perspective, Obrecht's style really shows no "breakthrough" at all, even if we accept the progress-oriented chronology. His works in an earlier style are quite direct & inspirational, with the later works being more severe, if anything. Of course, even that linear severity is framed by textures which can only be called more light than dark. While there was apparently restlessness in Obrecht's life, the energy in his music is more jubilant than unsettling. There is always something remarkably coherent about Obrecht's works, with his reliance on structure serving to open new vista after new vista. At least in the mature style, there is little in the way of episodic writing; everything builds on what went before. In this way, it seems as though text can only interfere with the breathless course of Obrecht's lines, and indeed many of his presumed later works have the most text underlay problems. The latter leads us to wonder again whether the chronology might be rather backward, once more evoking the "outsider" idea. Either Obrecht worked counter to the prevailing trend of text determining musical form, or he wrote his most original works first. Or maybe he simply did not care; the intensity in his music shows such passion, that the only issue may have been finding a vehicle by which to express it.

Besides the direct emotional enjoyment easily obtained from Obrecht's music, it is precisely this dissolution of duality between spontaneity & planning which makes his music so compelling. His masses almost have the character of giant improvisations, which use their cantus firmus structure as a "key" (or raga) upon which to elaborate. The complexity of the underlying scheme, together with the feeling of freedom elsewhere in the music, suggests the direct facility of Obrecht's musical imagination, the transcendent capacity of his mind. In some ways, too much detailed attention can serve to cloud the immediacy of such a vision, just as many early investigators seem to have been blinded by Obrecht's tenor schemes. What they map out is a space for imagination, and no composer of the period does a better job of creating that space. The uplifting character of the music consequently makes its relevance rather easy to assess, especially given the nod to rationality which Obrecht was willing to provide. While the development of his style is currently a thorny problem for scholars, the music itself presents no such dilemmas. It opens itself immediately, and refreshes the mind.

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Todd M. McComb