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Jacob Obrecht.

Jacob Obrecht (1457/1458 – late July, 1505) was a Franco-Flemish composer of the Renaissance. He was the most famous composer of masses in Europe in the late 15th century, being eclipsed by only Josquin des Prez after his death.[1]



What little is known of Obrecht's origins and early childhood comes mostly from his motet Mille quingentis.[2] He was born in 1451,[3], the only son[4] of Ghent city trumpeter Willem Obrecht and Lijsbette Gheeraerts.[5] His mother died in 1460 at the age of 20,[6] and his father, in 1488 in Ghent.[7] His portrait, painted in 1496, gives his age as 38, establishing his birthdate.[8]

Details of his early education are sparse,[9] but he likely learned to play the trumpet, like his father, and in so doing learned the art of counterpoint and improvisation over a cantus firmus.[10] There is a good chance he knew Antoine Busnois at the Burgundian court; at any rate he certainly knew his music, since his earliest mass shows close stylistic parallels with the elder composer.[11]

Scholar,composer and clergyman,[12] Obrecht seems to have had a succession of short appointments, two of which ended in less than ideal circumstances.[13] There is one interesting record of his compensating a shortfall in his accounts by donating choirbooks he had copied.[14] Throughout the period he was held in the highest respect both by his patrons and by the composers who were his peers.[15] Tinctoris, who was writing in Naples, singles him out in a short list of the master composers of the day[16]—all the more significant because he was only 25 at the time Tinctoris made his list, and on the other side of Europe.[17] Erasmus, interestingly enough, served as one of Obrecht's choirboys around the year 1476.[18]

While most of Obrecht's appointments were in Flanders in the Netherlands, he made at least two trips to Italy, once in 1487 at the invitation of Duke Ercole d'Este I of Ferrara,[19] and again in 1504.[20] Duke Ercole had heard Obrecht's music, which is known to have circulated in Italy between 1484 and 1487,[21] and said that he appreciated it above the music of all other contemporary composers;[22] consequently he invited Obrecht to Ferrara for six months in 1487.[23] In 1504 Obrecht once again went to Ferrara,[24] but on the death of the Duke at the beginning of the next year he became unemployed.[25] In what capacity he stayed in Ferrara is unknown, but he died in the outbreak of plague there just before August 1, 1505.[26]


Obrecht wrote mainly sacred music: masses and motets.[27] His repertoire, though, did include some chansons.[28]

Combining elements of modern and archaic, Obrecht's style is multi-dimensional.[29] The presence of fluid melodies and stable harmonies characterize the Italian influence over his style; the fluidity, however, is sometimes deteriorated by over-repetition.[30] His methodical, mathematical approach to rhythm is complex, resulting in a sense of rigidity.[31] Obrecht's style is, indeed, a fascinating example of the contrapuntal extravagance of the late 15th century.[32] He usually used a cantus firmus technique for his masses:[33] sometimes he took his source material and divided it up into short phrases;[34] other times he used retrograde versions of complete melodies, or melodic fragments.[35] In one case he even extracted the component notes and ordered them by note value, long to short, constructing new melodic material from the reordered sequences of notes.[36] Clearly to Obrecht there could not be too much variety,[37] particularly true regarding the musically exploratory period of his early twenties.[38] He began to break free from conformity to formes fixes, especially in his chansons. Of the formes fixes, the rondeau retained its popularity longest.[39] However, he much preferred composing in the Mass genre where he possessed greater freedom.[40]

In his Missa Sub presidium tuum, the number of voice parts in the six movements increases from three in the Kyrie, to four in the Gloria, and so on, until there are seven voice parts in the Agnus Dei.[41] The title chant is clearly heard in the top voice throughout the work, and five additional Marian chants are found in movements other than the Kyrie.[42] His late four-voice mass, Missa Maria zart, tentatively dated to around 1504, is based on a devotional song popular in Tyrol, which he probably heard as he went through the region around 1503 to 1504.[43] Requiring more than an hour to perform, it is one of the longest polyphonic settings of the mass Ordinary ever written.[44]

Despite being contemporaries, Obrecht and Johannes Ockeghem differ significantly in musical style.[45] Obrecht does not share Ockeghem's fanciful treatment of the cantus firmus but chooses to quote it verbatim.[46] While the phrases in Ockeghem's music are ambiguously defined, those of Obrecht's music can be easily distinguished.[47] Furthermore, Obrecht splices the cantus firmus melody with the intent of audibly reorganizing the motives; Ockeghem, on the other hand, exercises this treatment to a far lesser extent.[48]

Obrecht's procedures show a startling contrast to the works of the next generation as well, exemplified by Josquin, who favored unity and simplicity of approach.[49] Though he was renowned in his time, Obrecht had little influence on subsequent generations: most likely he simply went out of fashion.[50]


Fors seulement
From Jacob Obrecht, Chansons, Songs, Motets, performed by Capilla Flamenca


  • Flemish Masters, Virginia Arts Recordings, VA-04413, performed by Zephyrus. Includes the Obrecht Missa Sub tuum presidium, as well as motets by Willaert, Clemens non Papa, Ockeghem, Des Prez, Mouton, and Gombert.
  • Missa Maria zart, Gimell CDGIM 032, performed by the Tallis Scholars, directed by Peter Phillips.
  • Jacob Obrecht. Chansons, Songs, Motets, Capilla Flamenca and Piffaro, 2005 (Eufoda 1361)

See also


  • Atlas, Allan W. 1998. Renaissance Music. New York: W.W. Norton.
  • Reese, Gustav, 1959. Music in the Renaissance. New York: W.W. Norton.
  • Sparks, Edgar H. 1975. Cantus Firmus in Mass and Motet: 1420-1520. New York: Da Capo Press.
  • (Sparks, Edgar H. “Obrecht, Jacob” in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 1980 ed.)
  • Sternfeld, F.W. 1973. Music from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. New York: Preager Publishers.
  • Wegman, Rob C. 1994. Born for the Muses: The Life and Masses of Jacob Obrecht. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Wegman, Rob C. “Obrecht, Jacob,” in New Grove Music Online Dictionary, accessed 20 November 2007.


External links


Simple English

Jacob Obrecht (born Ghent, 1457 or 1458; died late July, 1505) was a composer from the south Netherlands. He was one of the greatest composers of his time. He is best known for his church music, including many masses as well as motets and songs.

His life

Obrecht’s father was a trumpeter. His mother died when he was about 2 years old and his father remarried. We know nothing about Obrecht’s musical education. He may have learned to play the trumpet like his father, who worked for the Burgundian court. Perhaps his father introduced him to people at the court, such as the famous composer Antoine Busnois. He certainly must have known Busnois’ music.

From 1480-1484 he was a choirmaster at Bergen-op-Zoom. Then he got a very good job as choirmaster at Cambrai Cathedral. However, a year later he took another job in Bruges. He wrote a lot of church music during his years in Bruges. He travelled to Italy and went to the town of Ferrara where a lot of famous musicians worked. He stayed there for several months. This may have been the reason why he then lost his job in Bruges. His next job was in Antwerp where he worked from 1492 to 1498. He then got his old job back in Bruges. From 1501 to 1503 he once again worked at Antwerp where he was choirmaster at the church of Our Lady. In 1504 he got the job of maestro di cappella at Ferrara, but the following year he died of the plague.

His reputation

Obrecht composed extremely quickly. He is supposed to have written one of his masses in one night. This was different to Josquin des Prez who spent a long time composing his pieces and making changes to them before he let anyone have copies. Obrecht was influenced by the music of Busnois and Ockeghem. Obrecht himself was a big influence on Josquin, even though Josquin was older than Obrecht.

In recent years musicologists have studied Obrecht’s music a lot and made many discoveries, including the correct dates for many of his works.



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